It is amazing what a city agency can do when given direct access to the mayor, $600 million in additional funding, and a new start free of former ties. Tragically, it took the beating death of six-year old Elisa Izquierdo in 1995 to bring about this attentiveness, but with these resources Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta has been able to turn around the city's child welfare agency, renamed the Administration for Children's Services (ACS) when he took the helm and separated from the Human Resources Administration.
Scoppetta raised salaries, increased staff training and education requirements, reduced caseloads, and appeased litigants that wanted the federal government to take over the agency. He agreed to have the agency monitored for two years from within by a panel of child welfare experts led by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Last year, in a report issued at the end of that surveillance, the agency won high praise at the "remarkable progress" it has made.
In early September, Scoppetta ordered the closing of one of the city's own foster care offices in Harlem because it placed rock bottom on an evaluation of 46 agencies that provide group homes for adolescents and children. Three private agencies that scored just above the Manhattan city-run office were put on probation and will be required to submit improvement plans.
Critics say Scoppetta did not act soon enough, that staff in the Harlem office had been complaining for years that caseloads were too high and supervision was not adequate. But according Jennifer Falk, spokesperson for ACS, "This summer was the first time we had the ability to do a comprehensive study. Prior to that, the information was just anecdotal."
Some fear that closing the office -- one of only four run by the city -- might lead to a dependence on private agencies for direct service foster care. This concern stems from the fact that the city entered into the foster care business in 1959 when hundreds of minority infants were being rejected by the religious agencies that controlled the foster care beds.
Scoppetta has acknowledged the need to keep the city in the business of direct foster care but with the requirement of quality and accountability.
Most observers credit Scoppetta with great strides. There are 30,000 children in foster care in New York City today, mostly adolescents, but that is down from 43,000 when Scoppetta took the job. The average caseworker's load has been reduced from 27 to 12, and over 1500 new ACS caseworkers have been employed with higher educational requirements.
In early September, however, the commissioner announced that he will not continue on in his post under the new mayor. Instead he plans to take to the road, speaking and writing about his experiences, in order to help other communities across the country whose child welfare systems are not as far along.
But is the city itself far enough along?
"You have to give the commissioner credit," said Gladys Carrion, executive director of Inwood House, one of the contract agencies for foster care that works with ACS. "He is the first one to admit that there's a lot of work undone. He's devised the structure and support, like a grid, but it is in the very beginning stages. The transformation of the agency has not yet taken place.
"How families interact with ACS hasn't changed," said Carrion. "There have been cultural changes at the top, but it still hasn't trickled down. How we view biological parents, and the changing role of foster parents to become mentors to biological parents, this is still at the beginning stages."
Carrion is optimistic that ACS can keep on track without Scoppetta and continue to better serve families and children. Her own wish list would include replicating what Scoppetta was able to bestow on city staff -- increased salaries, benefits and training -- for the contract agencies as well. "We have a serious problem with retention of staff," Carrion acknowledged.
Unfortunately, increased funding for child welfare is not a decision the commissioner himself makes. It comes from the state, with matching funds from the federal government. Scoppetta has consistently lobbied the state to provide more funding, according to the ACS press office.
Mayoral candidate Mark Green came out with a report from the Office of the Public Advocate that focused on shortcomings that still exist in the foster care system including:
- Abuse: one in forty children throughout the city is reportedly abused, and the number jumps to one in twenty for children in foster care
- Neglect: children in foster care often fail to receive basic medical care
- Failing with adolescents: a study of ten foster care agencies in 2000 found that 17 percent of the adolescents in those agencies were discharged to a homeless shelter
- Retention of staff: there is a 40 percent yearly turnover ratio among caseworkers.
Scoppetta and Mayor Giuliani addressed some of these issues in their next phase of reform for ACS, entitled A Renewed Plan of Action. The plan promised development and expansion of neighborhood-based services, strengthening the availability, affordability and quality of child-care services, improving the achievement of permanency (with family, with placements, or with adoption) for children, as well as continued efforts in services for child protection, medical care, and adolescents.
Scoppetta wishes his successor (yet to be announced) the support of the new mayor, and he acknowledged that predecessors have often been scapegoated at the first crisis (the average tenure for his post was one-and-a-half years) and not given the time or resources he has been given to bring about change.
Unfortunately, the new commissioner will not have the same funds to work with. Since the World Trade Center disaster, all city agencies have been asked by Mayor Giuliani to submit a plan to cut their budgets. ACS is presently working on that plan.
In addition, besides a mayoral shift, a new commissioner, and less funding, ACS may lose its autonomy unless voters in November support an amendment to the New York City charter that would permanently make the Administration for Children's Services a city agency.
Like many downtown social service agencies, ACS administrative staff, Youth Development staff, and Teen Congregate Care staff were displaced as a result of the terrorist attacks on September 11th. Provisions planned for possible mishaps at the millennium proved to be useful during this time, including a toll-free phone number and the immediate loading of web pages alerting staff and families about temporary relocation sites and services. Staff were able to return to their offices by September 25th. Counseling sessions have also been made available for ACS staff, contract agency staff, and the families and children they serve.