Cityview: To Overcome the Flood

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It has been almost two years since Mayor Giuliani appointed Nicholas Scoppetta to take control of New York City’s failing child welfare system. As a former foster child himself, Commissioner Scoppetta promised to fashion a new agency that would more vigilantly protect children and speed the adoption of youngsters left to languish for years in foster care. He has since accomplished some of these goals.

Soon after taking office, however, Commissioner Scoppetta also proposed to reform the child welfare system in a more fundamental way by decentralizing and reorienting services so they are rooted more solidly in their communities. He proposed–with much advocate support–that children removed from their parents should be placed in foster homes in the same neighborhood; that preventive, protective and foster care services should be more closely integrated with community institutions such as schools, nonprofit social services, health centers and churches; and that the nonprofit agencies which run much of the system should have offices in the neighborhoods where their clients live.

These promised reforms have been much delayed. But in late November, the Administration for Children’s Services released a preliminary plan for putting them in place. Such changes are essential, if only for the simple fact that 80 percent of the children removed from their families eventually return home. As the latest Child Welfare Watch report–published by the Center for an Urban Future and the New York Forum–makes clear, keeping parents and their children near one another speeds the process of moving young people out of foster care and helps families become stable and strong.

This plan represents an improvement over the current system. Yet it also echoes previously unheeded advice.

The history of the last several decades includes a long series of aborted attempts to respond to the social and economic needs of children and families in this city. It is a history of studies and more studies made at the request of mayors concerned about “the child welfare system.” I recall the study by Lauren Hyde written while I was Commissioner of the Department of Welfare, a predecessor to the Human Resources Administration. It too called for redesigning the system around community-based services. That was in 1962.

Much later, I co-chaired the task force that produced another report, “Redirecting Foster Care: A Report to the Mayor of the City of New York” in June 1980. We urged that “agencies should maintain field operations in the neighborhoods and the community districts they serve, and any new program developments should be coordinated with community-based organizations and, wherever possible, be performed by those organizations.” The report suggested that all foster care and child welfare services, except adoptions, be offered within neighborhood borders, and that the Human Resources Administration should “be decentralized, refocused and reformed according to recent City Charter revisions, creating 59 community districts in New York City.”

These suggestions made 17 years ago have been repeated, in substance, by all subsequent government-sponsored child welfare studies–including Commissioner Scoppetta’s own 1996 master plan for reform.

All of this leads me to recall the statement of Dr. Johnetta Cole, former president of Spellman College, when she quoted a Southern Baptist minister who exhorted his flock: “It’s time to stop predicting the flood, and start building the ark we need.”

Why are we today still repeating ourselves? I submit that these recommendations have not become public policy because there has not been the political will to adopt them as policy.

First, government has failed to direct the allocation of the necessary fiscal resources to support these reforms both in government-operated programs and in government-supported agencies that provide services to children and families.

And second, in order to create such a system, community residents would have to be actively involved in the new power structure–a threatening thought for some of those who run city agencies and nonprofits. There would have to be genuine community involvement in all advisory groups, planning committees, and nonprofit boards of directors; in decision-making about the relocation of services; and in assessing agency accountability. That would be politically audacious.

Fortunately, this is a unique time for child welfare reform. Commissioner Scoppetta’s proposal for reinstituting community focus into child welfare is now out for public comment. While Commissioner Scoppetta has been criticized for not moving fast enough to reform ACS, the fact remains that he has a close friendship with the mayor and, as a result, this is the best chance New York has seen to garner the funding and commitment to make reform a reality.

We can continue to dialogue among ourselves and meet next year, and the next year, and once again define our commitment to the concept of neighborhood-based comprehensive service networks, or we can seize this moment and seek to permanently change the system.

Certainly we should critique the commissioner’s plan and urge that changes we believe can be supported are made. But Commissioner Scoppetta’s proposal may remain “just a plan” unless we build on it, engage in meaningful public debate and generate the political will required to achieve a more responsive, more effective, more humane–and yes, a more inclusive, community-involved child welfare system.

It’s time to stop predicting the flood. Let’s start building the ark we need for the protection and healthy growth of vulnerable children and families in New York City.

James R. Dumpson, a former commissioner of New York City’s Department of Welfare and administrator of the Human Resources Administration, is now a senior consultant with the New York Community Trust.

This essay is adapted from closing remarks offered at the Child Welfare Watch forum held November 25th. For a copy of the report issued that day, call Neil Kleiman at (212) 479-3353.