In its most recent report, released March 10, a panel of national experts painted a grim picture of front line social work practice in New York City's foster care system, and warned that if the Administration for Children's Services does not raise its practice standards for field workers, impressive system reforms achieved under Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta will have "little lasting benefit."
The report is the work of the Special Child Welfare Advisory Panel, established as part of a settlement of the massive federal lawsuit against the child welfare agency, Marisol v. Giuliani, brought by Children's Rights, Inc.
Based on visits to ACS sites and private contract agencies, as well as case record reviews, interviews, and a survey of 61 private agencies, the panel confirmed what the system's harshest critics have repeatedly said:
- Many front line workers fail to form an adequate picture of a family's strengths and weaknesses, and "often need a good deal of guidance in understanding why people behave as they do."
- Parents, children and foster families regularly have to resort to outside resources such as children's law guardians to get information that should be forthcoming from caseworkers.
- Caseworkers mechanically refer families to unnecessary parenting classes and treatment programs, and fail to help them with needed services such as housing subsidies.
- Visits between foster children and their biological families are routinely restricted to the minimum required by law, that is, one hour every other week, for no reason other than a system-wide misunderstanding of state law.
"This is a critical moment in the history of New York City's child welfare system," noted Douglas Nelson, head of the special panel and president of the Annie E. Casey Foundation in Baltimore. "Unless ACS commits itself to a new phase of reform that is focused on practice, its accomplishments will have little lasting value."
The panel also delivered harsh criticism of the City's family courts, where all child welfare cases are adjudicated. Citing pervasive delays, overwhelming caseloads, and inadequate legal representation for biological parents, the report stated that the judicial system is "frighteningly close to abdicating the court's basic responsibility to protect the rights of children and families."
Farber Sounds Off:
The Special Child Welfare Advisory Panel report is a must-read for New York City residents who care about children. It is the frankest assessment the Special Advisory panel has released. It's also the most comprehensive, based on dozens of field visits, case record reviews, a survey of 61 agencies, interviews and several focus groups.
We've built a child welfare system in New York that, in effect, does one thing -- remove children from their families when there are signs of serious trouble. The unpleasant truth is that in the current system, it really makes no difference whether front line child welfare workers are any good at helping families because despite the rhetoric, it is not the goal. They're good enough at getting children out of one household and into another, and that's really all we ask of them.
It's not clear how much influence the report's authors wield. Under the terms of the settlement in Marisol v. Giuliani, the panelists are advisors only; their recommendations are just that -- recommendations. If at the end of this year the panelists conclude that ACS has not followed their recommendations in good faith, lawyers for foster children who brought the suit can resume litigation.
Scoppetta has shown real strength in initiating and implementing the ACS Reform Plan, which has revamped the way the system evaluates agencies and rewards contracts. However, unless this work is followed by a major effort to convince front line workers that their mission goes beyond removing children to treating whole families, the system will never see first rate casework practice.
For a copy of the full report, ready for download, go to the Annie E. Casey Foundation link below and follow the links to the New York Special Child Welfare Advisory Panel.Peggy J. Farber is freelance journalist specializing in children's issues. Her reporting on conditions of NYC children has appeared in City Limits Magazine as well as on National Public Radio.