The agency whose job it is to keep the city's children safe, the Administration for Children's Services, is now a permanent agency, thanks to a charter proposal that the voters passed in November, after a six-year separation from the Human Resources Administration. But Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta, widely hailed as the mastermind behind the agency's reinvention, is stepping down and his replacement has yet to be announced. At the same time, as if to mock all their best intentions, tragically, at least six children under the age of seven have died recently, allegedly at the hands of their abusive parents.
The list is a heartbreaking reminder of the agency's grave responsibility: Inez Bennett, 7, found dead in her family's Bronx apartment with a smashed jaw and hot water burns, cuts and bruises covering her body; Signifagance Oliver, 4, drowned in the bathtub by her mother in an exorcism ritual; Sylena Herrnkind, 3, beaten to death by her mother in the Staten Island home she shared with four siblings; Sidney Achan, 2, who died from multiple skull fractures and brain injuries; and Kyron Hamilton, 15 months, beaten to death by his mother who said the baby was bothering her while she watched television. A Brooklyn man was charged with second-degree murder in the death of De Andrew Monroe, the 15-month-old son of his girlfriend. According to police, the baby was shaken to death because he would not stop crying.
If the Administration for Children's Services is now officially permanent, that might not mean too much. "I don't see anything magical or dramatic happening," said Gail Nayowith, executive director of the Citizen's Committee for Children, New York's oldest child advocacy organization. "The real struggle will be to hold on to the reforms."
These reforms were born out of the case of six-year-old Elisa Izquierdo, who died in November 1995 after she was held prisoner, beaten, sexually abused and starved by her crack-addicted mother, a woman allegedly so vicious that she used her child as a mop, cleaning the floor with her dark curly hair. The public outcry was so immense that Mayor Rudolph Giuliani immediately dismantled the old Child Welfare Agency, a branch of the Human Resources Administration, and replaced it with the Administration for Children's Services. Former prosecutor Nicholas Scoppetta, who grew up in foster care, was installed as director.
Commissioner Scoppetta, who took office in January 1996, has been the agency's architect and Teflon-coated commander-in-chief. During the mayoral campaign, Michael Bloomberg said he wanted to keep Scoppetta, but the commissioner was firm that he would reject any offers to stay.
"There are two Nick Scoppettas," said Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform in Alexandria, Va. "There is the 1996 to 1998 model, who came in, made all the wrong assumptions, and sent child welfare careening backwards for two years. He drove the numbers of kids taken away from home way up." During the commissioner's first years, that number jumped from 8,000 in 1995 to 12,000 in 1998.
At the same time Scoppetta stepped in, Marcia Robinson Lowry, a leading litigator for children, was preparing a broad class action lawsuit against the city intended to reform the child welfare system, Marisol v. Giuliani. The lawsuit was eventually settled with a special advisory panel who would oversee an overhaul of ACS, with an emphasis on keeping families together. A final report was issued last December where the panel praised the agency for making "remarkable progress."
"Scoppetta's changed to some extent," continued Wexler. "He looked at things a different way from 1999 to date. He was absolutely convinced that we have too many people in foster care. He changed the orientation of the agency to family preservation. The new-model Scoppetta would be a very good commissioner."
Scoppetta has been responsible for cutting the foster-care population to 29,800 from 43,000 in 1997. For the first time ever, the city is now providing more families with preventive services -- more than 30,000 -- than there are children placed in foster care. Other successes include raised caseworker training and salaries, and a record 21,000 adoptions in six years, a six percent increase over the previous six-year period.
The difficulty is in picking the right person to follow Scoppetta. Although no names have been released, child advocates believe that the nomination will come from inside the agency. Nevertheless, many believe important lessons can be learned from outside the five boroughs. The Alabama system of care is considered to be the single most successful child welfare reform in the country. The reforms are also the result of a lawsuit where the state was required to rebuild its entire system from the bottom up. Their foster care population is now down by 33 percent.
Then there is the turnaround in Pennsylvania. In the mid-1990s, foster care placements were soaring in Pittsburgh and surrounding Allegheny County. Leadership changed and by more than doubling the budget for preventive services and embracing innovations like adding housing counselors to child welfare offices, the foster care population has been cut by 20 percent. And since January, 1997, there has been only one child abuse fatality in any family previously known to the agency.
Even with the shocking November deaths of Sylena Herrnkind and Signifagance Oliver, the number of child abuse fatalities in New York City remains fairly stable at 23 to 30 per year. Last year there were 22 deaths of children whose parents had been investigated by ACS, in 1999 it was 23, and in 1998 it was 36. These numbers coincide with national figures, where there are about 2 deaths per 100,000 children. David Tobis, executive director of the Child Welfare Fund, a watchdog and advocacy organization, doesn't see the spate of recent deaths in the news as unusual. "I don't see these deaths as reflecting the system as deteriorating. These deaths are a constant," he said.
"While we can learn from child deaths, they're essentially a weak indicator of how well the system is functioning," said John Mattingly of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the private foundation that lead the Marisol v. Giuliani panel. "Deaths are public failures, but there are silent failures as well. A child who comes into the system who could have been kept at home with the right preventive services is a failure. There are thousands of those situations that are far better indicators of failure."
The Casey panel, along with a host of child advocates, say much more remains to be done before the Administration for Children Service's reforms are more broadly felt by the children and families who deal with the system every day. The panel has particularly noted that more needs to be done for the contract agencies, who handle 85 percent of the system's children. There has been speculation that Sylena Herrnkind's death may have been averted had the workers for the agency who placed the 3-year-old in a foster home, the Seaman's Society for Children and Families in Staten Island, had better training and closer contact with the ACS.
"The agency's success was that it improved the bureaucracy," said Tobis. "They improved training to staff, reduced staff turnover and, to their credit, there is now an accountability system. They have not done comparable work within the private agencies. The salaries, prestige and training is still too low." The Coalition for Child Protection Reform's Wexler also noted that the financial incentives for foster care providers needs review. "What they need to do is get away from the per-diem reimbursement. You're going to get what you pay for. If you change the financial incentive, the reward would be for returning children to birth parents or adoption."
Andrew White, director of the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School, has penned an advisory paper addressed to the new mayor and city council . "Everyone in the child welfare field knows that some parents abandon or severely maltreat their children," said White. "Most parents...do not fit this description, however, and are struggling with issues related to poverty, substance abuse, spousal abuse or illness." He advocated a broad expansion of neighborhood-based preventive services that would "help families steer clear of the kind of severe crises that can endanger their children." Unfortunately, he continued, "the nature of ACS policies are such that in most cases, families must be in the thick of a crisis before they obtain any assistance."