The names of minors in the city's care have been changed in this article.
It is dusk on a recent Monday and 16-year-old Caryn sits perched atop a pay phone in front of a deli at the corner of Hegeman and Schenck avenues in East New York. Dressed in a white T-shirt and denim shorts, the petite teenager dangles a cigarette from her right hand as she jokes with some neighborhood men.
Caryn, quick-tongued and extroverted, spends much of her time smoking weed on this corner, directly across the street from her room at the city's Hegeman Transitional Center, a group residence for 24 teenage girls who have not found permanent homes.
“I can't live with my mother,” Caryn says. As a result, she has bounced between her mother's and grandmother's houses, with side trips to aunts in Alabama and Arizona. When she was 14, she gave birth to a son, who now lives with the Arizona aunt.
Over the last year and a half, she has ricocheted between a series of group homes run by the Administration for Children's Services (ACS), from Hegeman to homes in Queens, Staten Island, the Bronx and back to Hegeman again. Each time, she was forced to move on after getting into fights or shouting matches with the management. Sitting out on the street corner tonight, however, she looks too small to do any harm to anybody.
Hegeman is a “transitional” safe haven for girls ages 15 to 18. Many are waiting for other group home assignments. Some, like Caryn, have nowhere else to go.
But Hegeman, like many of the other group homes run by the city's huge child welfare agency, is neither safe nor a haven.
Since Caryn has been here her clothes–even her underwear–have been stolen. Another resident, 15-year-old Shannon, says that before she showers, she always has to find someone to hold her cash and beeper. “Everybody in here eats, drinks, sleeps and bathes with their jewelry,” Caryn says.
Many of the girls at the home use drugs, drink and sneak out for sex with neighborhood men. “This place is called 'Hegeman Ho House,'” Caryn says, adding that there is “a little bit of truth” in the name.
She says that when she first came to the house in February 1997, she was approached and offered work by another girl who was acting on behalf of a pimp. The recruiter offered to hook her up with a “friend” looking to hire.
She turned them down.
There's not much to do inside the house, so Caryn and the other girls spend most of their time outside, curfew or not, hanging out with whomever walks by.
The possibilities aren't lost on some local men. “I come here to associate with chicks,” admits one.
“Right now,” Caryn says, “I'm trying to get the hell out of Hegeman.”
Last year, some 4,500 children in the care of the Administration for Children's Services were placed in group settings, including transitional facilities and residences for kids with mental or medical needs. Most of them went to homes run by private agencies that contract with ACS, but, according to agency officials, about 1,300 passed through the 30 group facilities run directly by ACS.
The kids that end up in group homes tend to be veterans of the foster care system, older teens who have bounced from placement to placement. They are among the most emotionally fragile children in the city's care. Many have been abused or neglected; some have been kicked out by their parents for being impossible to control. This is their shelter of last resort: Kids are to be sent to a group home only if the court can find no other responsible relative to take care of them.
The group homes are supposed to be places where hectic lives are made more calm and kids are given a broad range of psychological and educational services.
But lawyers, law enforcement officials and the kids themselves say some of the homes are little more than poorly run homeless shelters. And none are worse than those operated by ACS itself, such as Hegeman. Thefts and assaults are commonplace. Teenagers are allowed to roam the streets at night to take drugs or wander off with strangers to have sex. On the inside, there is little structure, supervision, meaningful educational programs or guidance, critics charge.
The problem attracted public attention in June when newspapers reported that a Family Court judge in Brooklyn held ACS in contempt after a 14-year-old boy disappeared from a group home last November. A worker had given him a few dollars and told him to go catch a movie.
“In absolute terms, ACS's group homes are terrible. Uniformly terrible,” says Craig Levine, an attorney with Children's Rights, Inc., a national nonprofit advocacy group. Three years ago, Levine's organization and the Lawyers for Children filed a high-profile lawsuit against the city and state, charging that ACS has failed so completely, the federal government should put it into receivership and let a federal judge determine who would run the city's child welfare system.
Local cops have less lofty aspirations for Hegeman. They just want the girls to get off the streets, stop getting high and quit running away. “[Hegeman] has been a chronic problem location,” says a high-ranking police official. “There's a serious, serious lack of supervision. What's happening is that the girls are allowed to come and go as they please….The staff would call and report four or five of them at a time as missing persons. It was a strictly cover-your-ass situation to the people in charge.”
It is difficult to get ACS's side of this story. Despite repeated attempts over a six-week period, agency officials refused to comment to City Limits about allegations of mismanagement and lack of supervision.
It may be small comfort to today's Hegeman residents, but problems there used to be worse. In the late 1980s, Hegeman was one of several homes used as “diagnostic centers” to assess children's needs for a few weeks before shipping them elsewhere. But then, as now, the most hard-to-place residents wound up staying for months.
In 1988, researcher Steve Lerner was hired by the Foundation for Childhood Development to examine group homes. The diagnostic centers, he wrote, “have become glorified shelters where foster teens are housed in a tense and frequently violent environment, with few programs to divert energies in more constructive directions.”
Lerner found an atmosphere where gangs of kids routinely roamed the halls to beat up their enemies, residents raided local drug dens, returning to the house with stolen cash and crack, and 12-year-old girls were lured into prostitution. Rapes were not uncommon. “Every three or four months one of our youngsters is raped,” a Hegeman house-parent told him. “Usually two or three of them go out in a car with some boys. Later, when they separate, one of them gets gang raped.”
The situation improved significantly after the Juvenile Rights Division of the Legal Aid Society sued city and state officials over the lack of safety and supervision at Hegeman and another diagnostic center located a few blocks away on Ashford Street. While the lawsuit was pending, the city changed its group home management team.
Even though residents often stayed for months, the new directors soon found that the old managers had eschewed an overhaul because the homes had a “transitional” designation. The new team decided it was time to face facts. “We needed to put in a program, because these girls were going to be in these homes for a while,” says Poul Jensen, who overhauled Hegeman and Ashford as a deputy commissioner during the Koch administration. “We began to focus on developing activities for the kids to do, so they wouldn't have so much free time.” Jensen also began reassigning ineffective staff, placing the best workers in positions where they had the most contact with the children. Conditions improved, and the lawsuit was eventually settled with a consent decree, placing both homes under court supervision for 30 months.
Since the court order expired in January 1994, however, Legal Aid lawyers say the homes have slowly but steadily deteriorated.
“I don't think any of the improvements really stuck,” says Kay McNally, one of the Legal Aid attorneys who brought the original Hegeman-Ashford suit. “As far as we can tell, the problems are increasing again.”
The brass at East New York's 75th Precinct have met with ACS officials in the hope of getting them to control the situation. “They made their promises,” says a police source, “but nothing has changed so far as I can see.”
Hegeman's woes represent the most extreme problems in ACS group homes, but they are symptomatic of serious flaws present throughout the system.
According to state law, ACS is responsible for children's basic needs, including clothing, food, shelter, education, medical attention and, in many instances, psychological help. But a 1997 court-ordered survey of 410 case files, done in connection with the Children's Rights lawsuit, found that many ACS kids aren't getting the care they are entitled to. The situation is especially bad for children placed in group homes and other congregate care residences, according to audits done by the United Way, the Washington-based Center for Social Policy and the state's Department of Social Services.
Auditors found that kinship foster care failed to meet childrens' fundamental medical, mental health and dental needs in 22 percent of the cases examined. Kids in group care residences fared much worse: 48 percent did not get the care they needed.
The findings aren't news to children's advocates, who say that ACS often fails to provide a coordinated care regimen for its kids. Legal Aid's McNally says this year her office is handling a number of cases involving children who were denied mental health treatment and other badly needed services for children with special needs.
In one case, a 14-year-old girl with a history of sexual abuse and acute mental problems was transferred by ACS directly from a psychiatric ward to a regular group home without any special arrangements. “The group home didn't have anyone taking care of her,” says McNally. “There were many times when she didn't even get medication. People over there kept saying, 'We're not medical professionals.'”
With nothing to control violent mood swings, the girl got into fights and disappeared on the streets for days at a time, McNally reports. “There were sexual involvements,” she says.
McNally blames ACS's failure to assign the girl an agency caseworker to guide her treatment. Staff at group homes are responsible for day-to-day supervision of the children, but caseworkers are assigned to visit children in the field and help ACS supervisors make decisions about what services and placements the children need. In most cases, they are required to meet with each child at least once a month.
But the girl's Legal Aid attorney had to file a contempt motion in Family Court before the city even assigned a caseworker. Later, the girl was transferred to a more appropriate state home.
The problem with caseworkers is one of the city's greatest shortcomings, according to the Children's Rights file survey. Systemwide, 20 percent of the 410 cases randomly selected for scrutiny couldn't even be assessed because the caseworkers or their supervisors had failed to file vital reports.
“Overall, state standards for the frequency of caseworker contacts were not met,” the report's authors noted. In nearly half of the cases that could be reviewed, children did not get mandated monthly visits from caseworkers, a situation that was worse for children cared for directly by ACS.
Legal Aid staffers say that ACS Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta, who is embarking on an ambitious overhaul of the agency's foster care system, has met with them and promised to examine these problems. “He's expressed a desire to do something about the quality of the group homes,” McNally says. “However, it needs to be translated into something getting done. So far, we've certainly not seen any more money or any effort to restructure the homes.”
The sad tales are not confined to facilities run by ACS directly. Melinda, who was in foster care most of her life, says she didn't attend school for the year and a half she stayed in a Bronx group home run on an ACS contract by the nonprofit St. Cabrini Home. Instead, she says she spent many of her days at the Underhill Avenue home watching television and knitting blankets with needles and yarn bought by the staff.
Like many group home residents, Melinda was in foster care from early childhood–her mother died when she was 7. By age 13, when she was sent to the St. Cabrini home, Melinda had miscarried her first pregnancy and been arrested several times for fighting. “I used to be young and stupid,” says Melinda, a heavyset 18-year-old who still has a Mickey Mouse poster in her bedroom.
Melinda and her Legal Aid lawyer say St. Cabrini didn't send her to school because of a case against her in Family Court. The agency expected the judge would refer her to a facility for juvenile delinquents at any minute. Instead, after months of delays, the judge eventually ordered the city to find Melinda a foster home, a process that took months.
Melinda never went to public school again. She finally left St. Cabrini for a foster home, but that placement didn't last long. In April 1995–a few months after a fire ripped through the Underhill Avenue house, killing three girls–she had a baby daughter and ran away to Buffalo. When she came back to New York, she went to a group home in Queens designed for teen mothers with children, took a few GED classes and aged out of the system.
For now, she and her 3-year-old daughter live with her former boyfriend's family. She plans to enroll in high school this fall and says that she wants to study to become a stenographer or paralegal.
“Our policy is to provide education services to group home residents via local schools or vocational programs,” maintains St. Cabrini spokesperson Tina Green in a written response to City Limits' questions about Melinda's case. “I have no information to indicate that any of our former residents have not received such services.”
Providing quality educational services is part of a group home's obligation, according to state law. At Hegeman, Caryn says she gets schooling–barely. The girls are awakened by staff at 6 a.m. Most head off to public school; Caryn and two others are held back to attend a program inside the house.
At Hegeman's school, the instruction revolves around a GED prep course. The day officially goes from 9 until 2, with a break at 10:30, and a noon lunch break. Caryn says she often leaves during the breaks: “They don't try to stop you.”
When school's over, even the girls who attend public school say there's not much to look forward to when they get home. “After 2, we do whatever the fuck we want to do,” says another resident, Shannon.
Officially, there is a schedule of daily activities posted in the house. When asked to name what was on the schedule, Caryn, hard-pressed, responded: “Bingo night, beauty care day, cooking class.” Beauty care day, she says, consisted of someone demonstrating how to use bottles of shampoo and hair gel.
In addition to keeping the kids busy, the city is supposed to provide “independent living” assistance to prepare them for life on their own when they age out of the system. But ACS is deficient in this area too, according to the case file review, which found that 45 percent of older teenagers systemwide weren't even given a mandated two-day independent living course. Only 37 percent were taught how to make personal budgets. Only 18 percent attended apartment-finding courses.
Occasionally, there are outings to ball games or to see a movie, but the girls say they mostly hang out by the house or watch TV.
The lack of education and meaningful activities is dangerous because it compels kids to seek amusement elsewhere or run away, says Carl Siciliano, director of SafeSpace, a local nonprofit that works with homeless young people. Many of the kids he deals with ran away from ACS placements because they were forced to “sit around doing nothing,” he says.
Poul Jensen, who is credited for turning Hegeman around in the late '80s, believes the failure to provide meaningful educational and recreational programs is the primary cause of violence, hypersexuality and drug use by group home kids.
“The kids who come into these programs are typically troubled, so when they become involved in some kind of trouble, it's easy to just blame them,” says Jensen, who is now executive director of Graham Windham Services, one of the private agencies which contracts with ACS. “But I believe that about 70 percent of the problem lies with the program environment, the policy, the practices and leadership styles.
“Merely blaming the kids allows the program people to avoid scrutinizing the programs themselves,” he says.
In fairness to the much-maligned ACS, many of the problems stem from a shortage of resources and a surplus of hard cases to handle.
For years, the city froze the minimum cost per child per day in an ACS home at $100, a rate that only recently was hiked to a still-modest $125 for Fiscal Year 1999. By contrast, kids who are assigned beds in unsecured group homes run by the city Department of Juvenile Justice get almost double that amount: $231 apiece.
The low ACS per diem means that group homes hire fewer–and often less qualified–staffers than DJJ, which houses juveniles awaiting trial or sentencing in Family Court. At DJJ, on-site guardians generally need to have at least four years of child care experience, according to agency spokesperson Sarina Roffe. State and city regulations governing ACS only require child care workers to have a high school diploma or a general equivalency degree. And even keeping less qualified people has always been a chore.
“It was a big problem getting and keeping staff,” says Claude Meyers, who served as interim commissioner of the Child Welfare Administration in 1994, a year before the agency was re-christened ACS. “The pay is very low and it's very stressful work. We would hope [new hires] would have high school diplomas, but that wasn't always the case.”
Although the state requires that there be at least two workers per ten residents, not all agencies can afford this level of staffing. “The state regulations are on the books, but not enforced,” says Edith Holzer, director of public affairs at the Council of Family and Child Caring Agencies, an organization that represents most of the private agencies that run ACS group homes.
At DJJ, by contrast, the resident-to-staff ratio is supposed to be eight-to-one, but to meet security demands some homes have even more staff.
Good Shepherd Services, which runs one group home through DJJ and four group homes through ACS, is able to staff its juvenile justice home with substantially more people, almost one-on-one supervision, according to Deputy Executive Director Ayel Ayed. “If you tell me you can have DJJ funding or ACS, I'll take DJJ every time,” Ayed says.
When it comes to keeping kids off the street, DJJ also has the concrete threat of confinement to hold over kids' heads. They can petition a judge to send a misbehaving child back to a secured facility. “If you have a kid who is screwing up badly, you can get him [locked up] rather quickly,” Good Shepherd's Hugh Wallace says.
In years past, child welfare officials have tried unsuccessfully to convince state lawmakers to allow them to lock their facilities. But lawyers for children argue that if programs and supervision in the group homes were at an acceptable level, children wouldn't run away in the first place. “If young people are offered services, they won't go AWOL,” says Craig Levine of Children's Rights, Inc.
In June, The New York Times reported that ACS was again lobbying for the right to build a locked facility–a claim that agency spokesperson Leonora Weiner denies. “There are no plans for a locked building,” she says.
One night at the end of August, Caryn, a few friends and a guy from the neighborhood are back outside Hegeman's front door, talking, drinking from a pint bottle, smoking a blunt. “I wanted to go to a group home so I could hang out,” says Maria, a 15-year-old who has been at Hegeman four months, and that's exactly what she's doing.
At around 10 p.m., a man driving a car pulls up on Schenck Avenue. Caryn runs over and jumps in the passenger seat and the pair speeds off. No one pays much attention. About 15 minutes later, the two of them wheel back around, and Caryn gets out, a fresh blunt in her hand.
The girls continue talking and laughing, and when the car circles back a few minutes later, another girl hops in the car. The car pulls away from the curb again.
More smoking, more drinking, more talking. A little while later, an ACS staffer leaving for the night notices a City Limits reporter and photographer talking with the girls. She swings back in the building. A few minutes later, the home's uniformed security guard comes out, and without a glance at the kids smoking a few feet away, demands that the press leave.
Wendy Davis was an attorney in the Legal Aid Society's Juvenile Rights Division from 1991 to 1997. She is currently the editor of the Manhattan Spirit.