Tuesday, December 12, 2017

NYC child welfare chief takes credit for past commissioners’ success – even as he undermines that success

ACS Commissioner David Hansell
A New York Daily News story today is filled with lavish praise for the city’s child welfare agency, the Administration for Children’s Services.   Of course, all the praise comes from the Administration for Children’s Services itself – specifically, ACS Commissioner David Hansell.

Though the numbers he cites aren’t wrong (which is refreshing), the problem is the numbers that are left out.  Also left out: The fact that all the good news reflects the work of Hansell’s predecessors – not Hansell.

Hansell is, in effect, claiming credit for some genuine, long term success.  The time periods he cites vary but they all end on June 30, 2017.  Hansell wasn’t even named to the job until March, 2017.  So while the number of children trapped in foster care on any given day has indeed plummeted – over the course of 25 years – and that is a major success story, Hansell had nothing to do with it. It’s the work of better commissioners who used to run ACS and the efforts of family advocacy groups and family defenders. 

The numbers Hansell didn’t talk about

One number in particular is conspicuously absent. That number represents the glaring failing of Hansell’s own leadership – the foster-care panic that has led to a sharp increase in the number of children taken from their parents over the course of a year.  In FY2017, entries increased by 13 percent – the first increase in children removed from their homes since 2009.

This actually understates the impact of the panic, because the time period in question, July 1, 2016 through June 30, 2017 – includes about three months before the tragic death of Zymere Perkins, which set off the panic.

That number, how many children a child welfare agency takes away over the course of a year - known as “entries into care” - is the real measure of whether an agency is committed to the better, more humane and safer option for the overwhelming majority of children – keeping families together.

Hansell didn’t start the foster-care panic. Zymere Perkins died toward the end of the tenure of his predecessor, Gladys Carrion (or, rather, it brought her tenure to an end), undermining significant progress made under her leadership.  But Hansell was, and is, in the best position to stop it.  He hasn’t.

The Daily News story also leaves out something important in this paragraph:

The number of children re-entering foster care after being reunified with family or placed with kin has also decreased, from 9.1% in fiscal 2015 to 6.3% in 2017.

What the story leaves out is fiscal 2016. That year, this figure was 7.8 percent. In other words, during Carrion’s tenure, there was a slow, steady improvement in this safety outcome, even as entries into care were decreasing.

The other key safety measure is ignored entirely: reabuse of children known to the system. That number declined during most of Carrion’s tenure – but it went up in FY17, even as the number of children taken from their homes increased.

Compounding the problem: For months ACS wouldn’t even give straight answers about the entry-into-care numbers. Recall all the dissembling and conflicting stories from ACS about the increase in entries, including Hansell’s erroneous claim that there was no increase.

 A cascade of other problems

The panic that has been, at a minimum, tolerated by Hansell also has caused a cascade of other problems such as a huge increase in court supervision cases. 

As the Center for New York City Affairs explains in this report, this clogs up the entire child welfare system. 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.  That, rather than the excuse Hansell gave the Daily News, is the more likely reason for a sharp decline in reunifications in FY 2017.

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

The bottom line is this: Even as Hansell brags about past success, his own approach to child welfare is undermining that success.

If he ever stops the foster care panic, then David Hansell will have something to brag about.