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New York City’s child welfare system is struggling to restructure itself as a more effective interagency coalition to protect children, even after recent reforms in response to a child's death more than a year ago.

Nixzmary Brown, a 7-year-old Bedford-Stuyvesant girl, was beaten to death by her stepfather in Jan. 2006 after a city caseworker decided she was safe at home. “Nixzmary Brown’s death prompted a burst of attention to an issue that is always present, but lies dormant in the public consciousness until tragedy strikes,” said Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum, who is interested in the child welfare system's efficacy.

Panelists at a forum hosted by Gotbaum last week agreed that new programs and policies implemented by the city’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) go a long way toward improving the system and making children safer. But those reforms are just beginning to take root, and “the jury is still out” as to whether ACS has made all the right changes, said City Councilmember Bill DeBlasio, chairman of Council's General Welfare Committee.

ACS Commissioner John Mattingly acknowledged that the agency has been struggling over the past year or so, especially with retaining staff.

“We are by no means where we need to be in terms of having experienced people on the front lines,” Mattingly said.

But Brown’s death brought about positive changes at the agency as well, participants said. Mattingly added that new initiatives in the agency’s Action Plan for Child Safety have great promise for the future of child welfare in New York City. Those new programs include focusing more on early intervention, establishing partnerships with community organizations and working toward improved outcomes for children in foster care.

“On the one hand it’s been a horrific year for child welfare and yet, there’s a lot of good news too,” said Andrew White, editor of Child Welfare Watch and director of the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School (and a former City Limits editor). “This is a period when we can hope for some real creativity in terms of making positive changes in the system.”

Dr. Ilze Earner, director of the Immigrants and Child Welfare Project at the Hunter College School of Social Work – where the panel discussion took place – praised the “enormous systemic changes” at ACS. “Instead of being the family police, there has been a paradigm shift toward lending families a helping hand,” Earner said.

There are other segments of the system in desperate need of change. And nowhere is that need more pronounced than in the courts.

The city’s family courts are “overwhelmed” because there simply aren't enough judges and lawyers, Gotbaum said.

Panelist Susan Danoff, a judge who presides over child abuse and neglect cases in Brooklyn family court, said her caseload has quadrupled since Brown’s death.

Adding 20 to 25 new judges to the city’s family courts would “solve most of our problems” and cost less than $30 million, a drop in the bucket in the city’s $57 billion budget, DeBlasio said. But he said there seems to be a lack of political will to add more judges and lawyers to the family courts.

– Adam F. Hutton