Wednesday, July 19, 2017

An un-beleaguered commissioner un-reforms an un-embattled child welfare agency

The headline on a recent interview with David Hansell, Commissioner of New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services, says “New York Child Welfare Leader Looks to Reform the System.”

David Hansell
Unfortunately, the evidence so far suggests that Hansell is moving to un-reform a system that probably was as good as or better than any big-city child welfare system in the country.

For the third time in 21 years, New York City is almost certainly going through a foster-care panic – a sharp sudden increase in children torn from their homes in the wake of a high-profile tragedy.  The current panic seems to have worsened since Hansell arrived.

That doesn’t mean New York used to have a good system. “Best child welfare system” is a bit like saying “best view of Trenton, N.J.” But, according to key safety indicators and a recent analysis from Casey Family Programs, a year ago it was a relatively good system – and getting better.  It was not “embattled” as it would come to be described in almost every news story and the commissioner in 2016, Gladys Carrion, was not “beleaguered.”

Until last September, that is, when ACS was mugged by the city’s tabloid press, the governor, and an assortment of mayor wannabes who grabbed their 15 minutes of fame at the expense of the city’s most vulnerable children.  Mayor Bill de Blasio, while not exactly joining in the mugging, behaved like the bystander who runs away and doesn’t bother to call 911.

Of course this led to the Ritual Sacrifice of the Agency Chief. So Carrion was out and Hansell was in.

What the data tell us

Let’s start with the basics. New York City has a relative wealth of child welfare data, which my group compiled at the end of our report on the city’s child welfare system.  The recent Casey report added additional data.

The number of children in foster care on any given day in New York City dropped from 48,000 in 1993 to a little under 10,000 in 2016.  The number of children entering foster care over the course of a year has risen and fallen over that time, but after spiking during panics in the late 1990s and the late 2000s, it declined every year through fiscal year 2016.  

During that same period, the two key measures of child safety – reabuse of children and foster care recidivism (the proportion of children released from foster care who had to be placed again) both have remained about the same.  In the most recent years, including Carrion’s tenure, both improved. And both measures are better now than they were in 1997 – the year the city set a record for child removals, taking more than three times as many children as in 2016.

But what about fatalities?  As the Casey Family Programs report documents in this chart,

among children “known to the system” homicide deaths declined slightly. Even when you add in fatalities for which no cause of death could be determined, the death rate remained the same.  And, the Casey report notes, New York City has an unusually expansive definition of what it means for a child to be previously known to ACS.

Most important, as the Casey report confirms, though each is the worst imaginable form of tragedy, we should be grateful that the raw number of cases is low enough to make it impossible to “prove” anything based on these horror stories.  Or as the report puts it: “It is not advisable to assess performance of and draw conclusions about a system based on retrospective fatality review.” (That this appears to contradict the key recommendation of the so-called Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities – chaired by one of Casey’s own executive vice presidents, David Sanders, is a topic for another post.)

The more reliable measures make clear that, under the leadership of Gladys Carrion the not- particularly-embattled Administration for Children’s Services engaged in a model of “trauma-informed” practice: The agency significantly reduced the number of children traumatized by needless removal of their homes, with no compromise of child safety.

Or, as the Casey report puts it: “ACS’s response to allegations of maltreatment decreases the risk of recurrence over time.” The report characterizes ACS as “a system that continues to strengthen and improve outcomes for New York City’s children and families.”

How to embattle an agency

So how did ACS wind up embattled and Carrion wind up beleaguered? 

● First came the attack of the tabloids. That happened because every few years, usually in the wake of a particularly horrifying case (this time it was Zymere Perkins), New York City news media discover that A) the city has a child protective services agency and B) sometimes children known to that agency die.

But unlike the police, who are praised when they reduce crime even when they don’t entirely eliminate it, ACS is condemned because it merely made children safer but did not prevent every tragedy.  Once the media choose one tragedy to highlight, then every succeeding tragedy becomes front-page news, thereby making them a “series” or “spate” of deaths - until the media get bored and move on.

● Then the politicians pounced. A motley assortment of likely candidates in the next mayoral election
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo
issued “damning” and/or “blistering” reports that “blasted” the “embattled” agency and the “beleaguered” commissioner.

They were aided by Gov. Andrew Cuomo who is engaged in a bitter, personal feud with Mayor de Blasio.  And it’s all been compounded by a lawsuit from Marcia Lowry, who divorced the group she originally founded, Children’s Rights, and formed a new one, A Better Childhood. The lawsuit is so ill-conceived that the lawyers who represent children in child welfare proceedings joined the lawyers who represent parents in opposing it.

Hansell isn’t helping

This is the turmoil into which David Hansell walked. His initial moves are likely to make things worse.

● His fondness for the city’s Child-STAT system in which weekly meetings are held to pour over data and review cases shows no indication that he understands the crucial flaws in that system – such as allowing casework like this to go unchallenged.

● One of the consultants he’s brought in, Phillip Browning ran a system, Los Angeles County, that takes away children at a rate well over double that of New York City – with no evidence that L.A. kids are twice as safe as their New York City counterparts. 

● All of his consultants have a fondness for “predictive analytics” or as it should properly be called, computerized racial profiling. In contrast Gladys Carrion was one of the few child welfare leaders to suggest that the predictive analytics emperor might have no clothes.

The Casey report warns that

reactive and punitive action following high-profile tragedies contributes to fear-based decisions and an increased number of children removed and placed in foster care.  In addition, it overloads the system, and the staff, leading to poor staff morale and high turnover rates.

Although Casey didn’t say it, that also means workers have less time to investigate any case properly, increasing the risk to children.

Unfortunately, Casey’s report suggests, albeit in the same genteel language, that ACS is doing just what it warns against – stifling the system in a mass of what might best be called CYA  rules, regulations, reviews and reviews-of-the-reviews, none of which does anything to make children safer.  In some cases, Casey found, these new reviews are delaying provision of services to families.

But worst of all, Hansell has done nothing to stop the foster-care panic. It’s not his fault that in October, 2016, the first full month after Zymere Perkins died, ACS tore children from their families at a rate 75 percent above the same month a year earlier.  But he does bear primary responsibility for the fact that, in May of this year, the most recent month for which data are available, entries into care more than doubled over the same month the last year.

So congratulations Gov. Cuomo, Mayor de Blasio, assorted mayor-wannabees and Commissioner Hansell.  Soon ACS may well be off the hook. But now it’s the children who are beleaguered and the families who are embattled.