Louise wise services, a highly rated foster care agency based in Harlem, is caught in the most contentious family separation in the group’s 90-year history: its own. Since the agency announced last October that it would shut down due to city funding cuts, it has staggered from one controversy to the next.
On February 26, the day before the agency’s official close, social workers about to lose their jobs gathered in protest outside the offices of the city’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS). The agency had not only shut down with scant warning, charges Michele Hart, a representative from the workers’ union, DC 1707, but management reportedly told staff they would receive only 75 percent of the severance pay agreed on in their contract. (The union ultimately won full severance for their workers.)
Rebecca Kurti, 33, a caseworker at the agency, also complained that she and the other staff only got their 60 days’ notice on Christmas Eve. “With the holiday, it meant we basically had six weeks,” Kurti fumes. “That was just not enough time for people to do what they needed for their cases or for themselves.”
Others question why the agency had to close at all. Louise Wise was consistently one of the top-rated child welfare agencies. Last year, the agency handled roughly 300 foster care cases, 120 family preservation cases and 30 adoptions, in addition to running a food pantry, counseling for teen fathers and after-school programs.
The foster care and preventive-program clients will be transferred to other agencies. In an attempt to ease the transition, the board at Louise Wise devised a plan last summer that would have kept the agency’s staff and clients together: merging with another local foster-care agency, Harlem Dowling.
But that merger deal collapsed in late December, because ACS would not agree to transfer Louise Wise’s entire caseload to Harlem Dowling. Anytime a foster-care provider closes, it is the agency’s policy to decide on a case-by-base basis who will manage each child, according to ACS spokesperson Maclean Guthrie. She did not say which agencies would receive Louise Wise’s clients or why Harlem Dowling was not selected.
But that’s not the only question in the air. Some former staffers want to know why an agency estimated to have assets between $5 and $10 million is crying poverty. Though city funding for foster care has been cut, Louise Wise collected more than $16 million from the sale of at least four pieces of real estate in Manhattan in the last three years.
Union sources charge that the organization violated state laws restricting nonprofits from simply selling off major capital assets. A spokesperson from the state attorney general’s office confirmed that they are reviewing a complaint.
Louise Wise management did not return repeated phone calls, but the organization has said it plans to use its remaining assets to start a Louise Wise foundation in Harlem that will support family and children’s services.
City Councilmember Bill Perkins, who helped Louise Wise purchase one of the four properties, isn’t satisfied with such vague assurances. “We welcomed [Louise Wise] to Harlem with open arms, and now they are disappearing with profits from a speculative land deal,” he says. “I call it a betrayal.”