Monday, July 24, 2017

The New York Times on foster care as the new “Jane Crow” and some alarming data on New York’s foster care panic

A post to this blog on Wednesday discussed the foster-care panic in New York City and how David Hansell, the new commissioner of the EACS (Embattled Administration for Children’s Services), is making things worse.

On Friday The New York Times brilliantly brought to life the harm this kind of foster-care panic does to children, under the apt headline: “Foster Care as Punishment: The New Reality of ‘Jane Crow.’”

If you haven’t read it yet, please don’t keep reading this. Click the link instead and read the Times story.  You’ll thank me for the suggestion.  Then come back here for a discussion of the implications of the story and another report that came out this week. 


Welcome back – and you’re welcome.

The Times story shouldn’t overshadow some other good journalism about New York City child welfare published last week. On Thursday, the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School, which publishes Child Welfare Watch, issued a brief report that adds important additional context.

The report zeros-in on all the harm that a foster-care panic does over and above additional entries into care.

During the seven months after the death of Zymere Perkins, the number of investigations conducted by ACS increased by 20 percent.  But the number of families hauled into court skyrocketed by 64 percent.

Hauled into court is not always the same thing as placed in foster care. Rather it can be a way of coercing a family in a case where previously they would have been offered voluntary help. Or it can put the family under a microscope while requiring that they jump through a long list of hoops.

In the Times story, Hansell suggests that somehow this is a good thing, saying:

With increasing frequency over the past six months or so, the outcome of our involvement with family court has not been removal of children but court-ordered supervision, under which families are required to participate in services to address the risks that we’ve identified.

But as the Center for New York City Affairs report explains, this clogs up the entire child welfare system and sets off a cascade of other harms. Court hearings are delayed, and it takes longer to actually set up the hoops through which the families must jump. Where families really do need help, the help is delayed, so family problems can worsen.  The court delays, as well as new CYA bureaucratic procedures also are delaying when children are allowed to leave foster care and return home.

And, of course, caseloads for investigators are increasing, giving them less time to find children in real danger.

As Chris Gottlieb, co-director (with NCCPR’s president Martin Guggenheim) of the New York University School of Law Family Defense Clinic put it:

There appears to be a culture of fear driving decision-making … There’s every reason to think that flooding the system with new cases means you’re giving less attention to the ones who should be getting more attention.

The Sandusky Rule

The other problem, of course, is the increase in entries themselves – and this is the one place where the Center’s analysis is incomplete.

The Center’s analysis says entries into foster care have increased by 20 percent – the same rate as investigations. So of course, ACS will rush to say: “Panic, what panic? We’re just taking more children because we’re finding more abuse!” 

But there are several problems with this reasoning.

First, the 20 percent figure covers the seven months from October, 2016, the first month after the death of Zymere Perkins set off the foster-care panic, until May 2017. But the Times found that in the more recent part of this time period, things have gotten worse.

The Times reported that in the first quarter of 2017 requests to tear apart families jumped by 40 percent.  And ACS’ latest data show that in May 2017 the number of children consigned to foster care was more than double the number in May 2016.

Even a 20 percent increase in entries is a significant setback. Not only would that result in more children taken than in the city’s 2016 fiscal year, but more than FY 2015 as well and almost as many as in FY 2014.  It would reverse a steady, careful decline in entries that was accompanied by improvements in key measures of child safety. (Detailed stats are on Page 19 of our full report on New York City child welfare).

But even were it true that entries into care were increasing at “only” the same rate as investigations, that’s still a sign of big trouble. That’s because of what should be called the Sandusky Rule.

During a foster-care panic, there is a rise in the proportion of b------t reports.  That’s because anyone and everyone is constantly encouraged to report anything and everything, so they do just that.  And, of course, “mandated reporters,” such as school personnel, who can be punished for failing to report, are even more scared than usual, so they’re even more prone to report cases they know are ridiculous.

Therefore, during a foster-care panic, the percentage of investigations that lead to removal should decrease.  If that percentage isn’t going down, then it’s likely that an even greater proportion of removals than usual are unnecessary.

I call this the Sandusky Rule because of what happened in Pennsylvania, after the legislature in that state passed a wave of absurd laws encouraging more reporting in the wake of the sexual abuse conviction of former foster parent and group home operator (and former Penn State football coach) Jerry Sandusky.

As in New York, in Pennsylvania individual counties run child welfare systems.  Philadelphia responded as New York City is responding now: a surge in foster care placements and the “What do you expect? there are more reports” excuse.

In Allegheny County (Pittsburgh), on the other hand, the longtime director of the human services agency knew that a lot of the new cases would be absurd and demanded that his staff not panic. So there was no increase in foster care in Allegheny County.

So the next time ACS or another child protective services agency offers up the standard excuse about why foster care numbers are increasing during a foster-care panic, I hope someone will finally call b------t on it.