Since 1995, the Child Welfare Project of the Office of the Public Advocate has provided assistance to parents, young people and others who needed help resolving problems with the city’s Administration for Children’s Services. But this past Friday was the last day for the Child Welfare Project’s director of five years, Hank Orenstein. Now the Public Advocate’s office is moving the work of the project into its ombudsman’s office, which handles complaints about all city government agencies. While Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum is still seeking funding, the Child Welfare Project–known as C-PLAN when it was founded by Gotbaum’s predecessor, Mark Green–no longer exists.
“‘Streamline’ is the best way to put it,” said Julia Bator, executive director of the Fund for Public Advocacy, which raises private dollars for special projects affiliated with Gotbaum’s agency. “We’ve put the operations into the office of the Public Advocate, offering continuous services with a reduced staff.” Bator says it’s not certain how many of the project’s three other staff will remain.
“It makes me very sad,” said Jane Golden, who ran C-PLAN until 1999 and is now director of adoption and foster care for the Children’s Aid Society. “It’s problematic not to have a third-party, neutral outside observer.” Project staff made referrals to legal and social services, conducted independent investigations of abuse and neglect allegations, even accompanied families to court. The project also issued policy reports about such issues as the pay of lawyers representing parents, and it pressed government to be more responsive to families’ needs.
But the shutdown of the Child Welfare Project is also a sign of how much has improved at ACS–gains the project can take some credit for. There are about 23,000 children in foster care, down from more than 40,000 in the late 1990s, and ACS has made extensive pledges (some realized more successfully than others) to work cooperatively with families. ACS “is a very different organization than when I first started funding C-PLAN,” says David Tobis, executive director of the Child Welfare Fund and a supporter of the Public Advocate’s work from the beginning. Last year, the fund gave its first-ever grant to New Yorkers for Children, the nonprofit ACS set up during the Giuliani years to fund special initiatives. New Yorkers for Children’s project will get families involved in neighborhood efforts of their own design, as a way to better connect them to ACS’ local family-support networks. “Over time, ACS’ focus has changed more to preserving families than to removing children, and we’re therefore working more with them,” said Tobis.
The Child Welfare Fund is also backing Partners in Prevention, a project Orenstein started and now will be expanding into an independent nonprofit teaching parents to be confident and supportive. But according to Bator, the Public Advocate’s efforts to raise funds elsewhere to continue assisting families “have been completely unsuccessful.”
Electoral politics are also to blame. The Child Welfare Project had to stop fundraising in 2001, when Green was term-limited and running for mayor. “We couldn’t tell funders what would happen with the project,” said Orenstein. “Mark put us on payroll that whole time.” When Gotbaum arrived, they had to start raising money from scratch. The work, Orenstein maintains, is needed as much as ever: “Families told us they were treated very differently once we showed up.”