Wednesday, January 17, 2024

NY foster care agencies are being sued by survivors of horrific abuse. Their response: Taxpayers should bail us out!

Agencies that have failed kids for more than 100 years say they’re too big to fail. 

And why did the CEO of the agency that runs the notorious Pleasantville Cottage School get nearly $700,000 in compensation in 2022? 

It's been nearly 50 years since the New York Daily News series "Big Money, Little Victims"
exposed the power and the greed of private "child welfare" agencies, and abuse in their foster homes
and institutions.  Now, those "Little Victims" are all grown up - and some of them are suing.

George Orwell had a term for the ability to simultaneously accept two conflicting beliefs as truth.  He called it “doublethink.”  Here’s a perfect example: 

Our private foster care agencies are so wonderful, so essential to the public good that we absolutely must get a taxpayer bailout – so we can pay damages to the huge numbers of children abused for decades in our foster homes and institutions! 

Private agencies in New York State are trying to sucker the State Legislature into believing just that.  Not content with sponging off taxpayers for decades, to the tune of, on average, 90% of their income, now they’re demanding even more, in order to avoid true accountability for decades of horrific abuse. 

It’s all come about because, like other states, New York extended the statute of limitations for victims of child abuse to sue their abusers.  The primary target was predator priests, but lo’ and behold, more than 1,500 suits have been brought against the private agencies that run the group homes and institutions and, especially in New York City, oversee private foster homes as well.  

Their power is diminished from their heyday when, with boards of directors drawn from deep in the city’s business, civic and religious elite, they could say “Jump!” and public officials were expected to say “How high?” (For an excellent description of that heyday see Nina Bernstein’s masterpiece The Lost Children of Wilder.) But in the city, these agencies still are the foster care system.  They have been that system for more than 160 years – at least since Charles Loring Brace founded the Children’s Aid Society in 1852. 

That so many lawsuits would be directed against these agencies should come as no surprise.  As I told the Albany Times Union, which first pointed this out in 2020, predators go where the prey is. 

New York is not alone.  After California passed similar legislation, the Los Angeles Times reported that in Los Angeles alone, 

County officials predicted that they may be forced to spend between $1.6 billion and $3 billion to resolve roughly 3,000 claims of sexual abuse that allegedly took place in the county’s foster homes, children shelters, and probation camps and halls dating to the 1950s. 

But instead of responding by promising to clean up their acts once and for all (an impossible promise to keep in any event for reasons discussed below) the New York agencies are demanding that they be insulated from true accountability.  They say they’re not just too big, but too pure too noble and just too all-around-wonderful to fail and terrible things will happen if the rest of us don’t bail them out.  

In other words: We’re in danger of going out of business because we were the site of decades of horrendous child abuse, but we’re so wonderful we should get a taxpayer bailout so we don’t go out of business after being the site of decades of horrendous child abuse.  Doublethink. 

The agencies are demanding special help to get insurance, and $200 million from state taxpayers to pay what insurance doesn’t cover. (The fund also would be available for public school districts.) Where, then, is the incentive for these agencies to finally put a halt, or at least curb, all that abuse of children in their care?  

The New York agencies aren’t alone. Indiana agencies sought a law giving them immunity from most lawsuits by abuse survivors – and they almost got it, until the Indianapolis Star revealed what they were up to. 

“An industry-wide problem” 

It’s not as if the people running these agencies can say that, after all, the abuses were all in the past and we’ve fixed everything now.  On the contrary, not a week goes by without an expose of horrific abuse at some group home or residential treatment center somewhere in America. 

The Senior Vice President and Chief Strategy Officer at the Devereux residential McTreatment chain accidentally gave away the game when speaking not decades ago but in 2020, after the Philadelphia Inquirer exposed rampant abuse in Devereux facilities.  Said Leah Yaw: 

“This is not an aberration that happens at Devereux because of some kind of lack of control or structure.  This is an industry-wide problem." 

And like any other industry, the foster care industrial complex needs to be held fully accountable when children are abused in its homes and institutions. 

Want a New York example? Take Pleasantville Cottage School – please. 

The Times-Union story begins with a 13-year-old boy who says he was sexually abused by a teacher there in the early 1980s.  The abuser “told me that he had the power of whether I go home to my mother or not,” the survivor said.  His is one of at least 10 lawsuits just against Pleasantville, involving abuse dating back as far as 1973. 

Then there was that time in the 1990s, when a 13-year-old at Pleasantville strangled another child to death. 

Then in 2002, a counselor was horrendously beaten and tortured for an hour, and, as Newsweek reported, “four boys tried to sodomize a fellow resident with a cucumber, two boys stole a school car and caused two accidents during their joyride, and another boy was charged with sexual misconduct.”  

And that was just in a single week. 

So, how have things been going lately? The online news site The City reports that 

“In 2019 … a young man on campus was paralyzed after being restrained by program staff and died a year later, according to Mount Pleasant Police Chief Paul Oliva. … Residents also regularly get into fights, break windows, assault staff and threaten to hurt themselves or someone else, police records show.” 

It's always someone else's fault

Of course, the people who run Pleasantville Cottage School have an excuse for all this – because remember, nothing that goes wrong at a residential treatment center is ever the fault of the residential treatment center.  No, it’s the kids' fault! 

Before I explain, please keep something in mind: Over and over again the excuse RTCs offer up for their existence is that they take the most difficult children – the ones who are so very, very difficult that no family could possibly handle them so they have to be institutionalized. 

This is not true. There is nothing an RTC does that can’t be done better and at lower cost with Wrapraround services brought directly into a child’s own home or a foster home.  But I mention this now because, confronted with the huge problems at Pleasantville Cottage School the director of the institution’s parent agency, a former head of New York City’s family police agency, Ron Richter, says, wait for it: The kids are too difficult!  

You see, they claim, it’s all because in 2014 former Gov. Andrew Cuomo cut back on inpatient state psychiatric beds, so these too-difficult-to-handle young people wound up at Pleasantville and similar institutions. 

Sadly, The City, usually a savvy news organization, believed Richter’s whole party line. -- even though the same institution made the same excuse in 2002 – twelve years before the cutbacks they blame now. 

In fact, the Times Union reports, the Pleasantville Cottage School counselor who made precisely that excuse to the equally credulous New York Times in 2002 has now been named as an alleged sex abuser in a Child Victims Act lawsuit! The survivor alleges that the counselor, whom she says is now dead, repeatedly raped her during the 1970s.  When she eventually worked up the courage to tell the then-CEO of Pleasantville Cottage School in the 1990s, she says, “he swept it under the rug.” 

But, if Pleasantville and all the other New York agencies are to be believed, they are the real victims, and they need a taxpayer bailout. 

Their argument boils down to: If we don’t get the extra money we’ll go out of business, all our wonderful services will end and all our employees will be out of work.  

Only the first part might be true.  

The rest is just a testament to their own arrogance: the bizarre assumption that no one else can run a foster care agency.  Obviously, someone is going to have to oversee the foster homes and, if we insist on having them, group homes and institutions – though, one hopes, this will be seen as an opportunity to phase the latter out, since they are demonstrably unnecessary. 

The reason abusive institutions can’t be fixed is that abuse is baked into the model. To understand why, imagine if we were starting from scratch.  Suppose somebody said: I have a great idea!  Let’s take a whole bunch of children who have been traumatized, either by what happened to them in their homes, or by being removed from their homes or both, all of them strangers to each other, and put them all together 24/7 right at the age when they are most vulnerable to peer pressure – and to predators.  What could possibly go wrong?  

Yet that’s what we’ve done.  But now we have a chance to do better.  The prospect of these old-line agencies going out of business is not something to be feared; it’s an opportunity to be seized and a cause to rejoice: It’s a chance to start over and build a system that is not dependent on institutionalizing children. 

If, as a result, the well-paid leaders of these agencies have to leave, (Richter alone pulled down more than half a million dollars in compensation in 2021 – and then got more than 30% more -- nearly $700,000, in 2022!) the message to them should be: Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.  

From ProPublica's Nonprofit Explorer

I’m not saying government actually will seize this opportunity.  I’m not saying they, or some new private entities would do it any better.  A large chunk of what Los Angeles may have to pay is thanks to that government-run hellhole MacLaren Hall, which closed in 2003. But it would be hard for anyone to do worse. 

And to the extent that there may be any visionaries willing to try, now’s a good chance. 

The harm done by New York’s big, old-line foster care agencies is nothing new.  In May 1975, the New York Daily News exposed them in a multi-part series.  It exposed not only the abuse but also how the agencies at that time were prolonging children’s time in foster care – because they were reimbursed for every day they held a child in their “care.”  I read that series a few months before starting Journalism school.  The stories started me on a nearly 50-year journey first as a reporter, now as an advocate. 

The series was called “Big Money, Little Victims.”  Today, some of the little victims are grown up.  Nothing can ever really compensate them for what they endured.  But they have a right to some of that big money.