The Changing Face Of Foster Care In NYC

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The new issue of Child Welfare Watch, “Homes Away from Home: Foster Parents for a New Generation,” examines trends underway at the city’s Administration for Children’s Services toward the creation of a more organic, interlaced network of programs for foster families and the institutions that guide and support them. Here’s an introduction to some of the key issues, followed by an article focusing on foster parents’ realities today.

Since Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s second year in office, New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) has steadily picked up speed in its turn away from institutionalized care for foster children, reflecting a growing consensus in favor of family-based care. Today this shift has the potential to become permanent. Men and women who work with teenagers in foster care are making headway figuring out how to help create stable family homes for young people who once would have spent years in group homes and residential treatment centers. Officials are creating funding streams and enacting policies to support this work.

As a result, a higher percentage of the city’s foster children now live with foster families and relatives than just a few years ago. In June 2004, there were 3,908 New York City foster children living in congregate care. That number dropped to 2,595 by March 2008—a 34 percent reduction. Over the same period, the total number of children in foster care declined by 19 percent. The city has been closing residential treatment centers and group homes and shifting resources to family foster homes. Recently, ACS announced its intention of eliminating 1,200 more group care beds.

Our reporters explore the city’s move away from institutional care. What happens when foster parents struggle to care for teenagers? How successful are the city’s new efforts to help agencies and foster families care for kids? What can practitioners learn from one nonprofit foster care agency’s careful effort to move teenaged boys from institutional care to family life? And how are teens dealing with these changes?

Nonprofit foster care agencies are demanding more government resources for flexible support services to help hold foster families together. They are also calling for restraint in closing institutions.

Nonetheless, more than 1,000 children who, if they had entered foster care in 2004, might well have been placed in group homes or treatment centers are instead finding temporary homes with families in the city’s neighborhoods. The biggest shift has been among young teens—those 12 and 13 years old, according to city and state data. But even 14- and 15-year-old boys and girls are more likely to be placed with families today than they were in the past. The change is far less marked among older teens. Today, 16- and 17-year-olds entering foster care are just as likely to be placed in congregate care as they were four years ago, according to city data.

Social work practitioners have long advanced the theory that teenagers in institutional foster care programs would stand a better chance adjusting to society and achieving long-term success if they were in family care. A study released in 2003 by the Seattle-based foundation Casey Family Programs demonstrated that, with ample support, teens placed in stable foster family settings achieved a higher level of education than their peers in group care.

City child welfare officials agree. “We have too many kids spending too long without that permanent family,” ACS Commissioner John Mattingly told participants at a December 2007 public forum at The New School. “Too many kids [are] being bumped up into residential treatment because we haven’t had the resources focused on good foster families to care for troubled kids.”

Julie Farber, director of policy for Children’s Rights, a national legal action group, cites studies showing 60 percent of children adopted from foster care are adopted by their foster parents, while those in group care often lack adoption plans. “Too often, the child welfare system looks at a group facility as a permanent placement and efforts to find that child a family just stop,” she says.

And while residential treatment centers and other institutional programs are supposed to provide children with services they might not receive in a family setting, “there is very limited evidence of [their] effectiveness for a child’s mental health,” notes Farber.

“Life in society is best defined by the experience of the family,” adds Jeremy Kohomban, president and CEO of The Children’s village, a foster care agency once known primarily for its institutional care programs. “We can stabilize them and bring them from the precipice,” he says. “But it’s only in the family that you learn to be a father, brother and citizen.”

Greater Expectations
Foster parents confront new needs—and new demands.

By Kendra Hurley

Lourdes Alvarez was proud of the fact that in nearly two decades of being a foster parent she had turned away only three children. Those three had been acting up so much, she remembers—stealing, fighting, getting suspended from school—Alvarez felt they were causing the other kids in her home to suffer, and after a few months she asked the agency that supervises her home to place them elsewhere.

But recently, Alvarez says, the job of being a foster parent has gotten even more difficult. In the last six months, she turned away one teen because he constantly argued with her about house rules, and requested to have another boy moved as well, although she has since decided to try again with that boy. Like many foster parents, Alvarez finds teens especially challenging. But she also believes the younger kids she looks after today have more emotional and behavioral problems than those she cared for in the past.

“I think the kids now are wilder and they respect a lot less, and these teens are off the hook,” says Alvarez, who leads the Downtown Brooklyn chapter of Circle of Support, a support group for foster parents. “I see it with me and I see it with other foster parents.”

Today, not only are foster parents taking care of children who in the past may have lived in group homes or residential treatment centers; they are also expected to devote more time to this work, say directors of some of the 36 nonprofit agencies that run the foster care system under contract with the city’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS). Changes over the last few years have significantly increased the demands placed on foster parents, altering the very nature of what it means to take in children whose parents have been accused of abuse and neglect.

“That shift is dramatic. It’s a huge commitment one must make to being a foster parent today,” says Richard Altman, CEO of Jewish Child Care Association (JCCA), which provides foster care for about 825 children. Many children in the system today, he adds, “are really suffering from behavioral and mental health issues that we’ve never seen before. Those of us on the provider end see, live and feel the difference.”

Helping these children adjust to family life has proven challenging for foster parents, says Stephen McCall, a foster parent who also provides support for more than 100 others as a consultant for several nonprofit agencies, including The Children’s Village. He says that many of the teens currently living with families were once in congregate programs.

“A lot of these kids have been institutionalized and they don’t know how to live with a family,” he says. “In residential care, everything is structured, and when they step down to a family they go wild because the structure is not there anymore.”

In 2005, the Council of Family and Child Caring Agencies, an association of the city’s privately-run foster care agencies, assessed the behavioral and emotional challenges of 213 adolescents at six agencies who were sent to live with foster families. During the three-month study, they found that 44 percent of the teens had previously lived in foster care, 26 percent had mental health issues, 33 percent had problems with truancy and 16 percent had exhibited violent behavior.

“Foster care is no longer the idealized vision of taking the infant in the home and becoming a mother to that kid,” says Altman. “It’s now an angry, turned-off adolescent who has been abused for years until someone made an intervention.”

The numbers systemwide don’t entirely confirm Altman’s grim picture, as nearly two- thirds of the children placed in foster care in 2007 were 10 years old or younger. But even so, many leaders in the foster care field say they do see the system changing. It is much smaller than in years past, more targeted to helping children and families with extremely complicated issues in their lives—and intensely reliant on foster parents’ creativity, skillful parenting and commitment of time and goodwill.

One reason for these changes is the firm belief among ACS leadership that whenever possible, children should live with families rather than in institutions. As the city moves more rapidly away from institutional care, a growing percentage of foster children now live with foster families and relatives compared to even just a few years ago.

But that is not the only factor. Since early 2006, the city’s network of preventive family support services has been increasingly devoted to working with families referred directly from child protective services, in an intensifying effort to keep families together while making sure parents participate in programs that can help address problems ranging from poor housing to mental illness, domestic violence and substance abuse. The city has increased funding for these preventive services by more than $70 million since 2005.

At the same time, the Bloomberg administration has increased the use of court-ordered supervision, allowing city caseworkers to keep closer track of parents suspected of abuse and neglect, even as their children stay in the home.

Observers say this intensification of family support and oversight means those children who enter foster care today may represent a higher concentration of more complicated cases than in the past, as many are from families that have not responded well to services.

“Preventive services don’t operate at random,” explains Fred Wulczyn, research fellow at Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago, who has done extensive evaluation research on New York City’s child welfare system. “Preventive services are designed to target certain kids and families. If they have their intended effect, we should expect to see the caseloads of both preventive and foster care agencies begin to change.

“It’s a possibility that difficult kids make up a larger proportion of the kids coming into the foster care system because of what happens when you put in preventive services and those services work,” Wulczyn adds.

Over a plate of rice and chicken at Alvarez’ Downtown Brooklyn foster parent support group, one foster mom speaks matter-of-factly about a child in her home who molested another child. The moms swap tips for how to “cover your ass” when a teen goes missing. Alvarez herself laments that most fire insurance policies will not cover fires set by foster children. This worries her, as one child in her home has a penchant for playing with lighters. “You have to be more responsible for those kids than you are for your own, because all eyes are on you,” Alvarez advises.

The parents in the support group also discuss the delicate dance of managing relationships with their children’s birth parents. No longer is adoption considered a natural offshoot of foster care; in theory, at least, helping birth parents get their children back home is now part of a foster parent’s job description.

This is not a new idea. For more than a decade, ACS has encouraged its foster care agencies to prepare foster parents for this kind of supportive role. But as the number of children in foster care has declined, this role has become increasingly central.

“Before, foster parenting was seen as almost, ‘This child is going to come into your home and we want you to be a parent,’” explains Jeremy Kohomban, chief executive officer of The Children’s Village, which runs a residential campus and provides foster care and aftercare services. “Today we say, ‘This child is coming in to your home, and we want you to be a parent, but we also want you to be aggressively working with us to make sure this child remains connected to his family.’

“What I’m looking for is foster parents that see themselves as part of an intervention,” he adds. “That they buy into this notion that they are very temporary and that they’re part of the treatment, and that we’ll be working very, very hard together to give this child permanency, ideally with the biological family. We want foster parents to understand that if we do good work that they could have three children in one year, not one child for three years.”

Keeping children connected to their families and getting them back home faster generally means more appointments for foster parents to attend. Under state regulations, foster care agencies must plan and facilitate at least one visit between a child and his or her parents every two weeks, unless visiting is prohibited by court order. Agency directors say that some foster parents are expected to bring children to visit their birth parents once or twice a week.

“When you reduce the length of stay, it’s not an accident that it’s also a higher intensity of services, and so the demands on foster parents are pretty great,” says Kohomban. “It’s our job to facilitate as many visits as possible. If it’s every other day, so be it.”

These demands are expected to increase. An internal ACS evaluation obtained by Child Welfare Watch found that visitation goals are still not being achieved. Cases analyzed in the study reflected visitation with mothers taking place not even once a month, on average. Visits with fathers were even less frequent. Advocates and ACS are pressing agencies to increase visitation rates for children who are expected to return home.

The city is also fielding a highly regarded initiative that, so far, involves more than one-third of all foster children. It requires agencies to organize regular family team conferences that bring together foster parents, birth parents and caseworkers every three months.

Craig Longley, associate executive director of programs and support services at Catholic Guardian Society, finds these meetings help foster parents become more involved in planning for a child’s future, and give them a regular venue to ask for services and support they might not otherwise get.

But, he adds, the conferences also require much more time of foster parents. In the past, these types of meetings happened about twice a year. Now they’re quarterly, and each conference lasts at least two hours, often longer. An initial ACS evaluation of its recent Improved Outcomes for Children reforms found that during the first several months these conferences were put into place, between 30 and 60 percent had to be canceled and rescheduled. Sometimes cancellations happen at the last minute, forcing foster parents to rework their schedules and return once again at another date and time.

… Despite the system’s greater reliance on foster parents, the stipend they receive from the city to cover the cost of caring for each child has increased only slightly in recent years. This stipend starts at $17.52 per day and can sometimes range as high as $57.60 a day depending on a child’s age and level of need, though most children fall at the lower end of the spectrum. This money includes a child’s allowance—at Children’s Village this is about $40 a week for teens—as well as money to be spent on clothing, food and other necessities such as haircuts. For most foster parents it’s simply not enough to cover the cost of looking after a child, says Stephen McCall. “It’s ridiculous,” he adds. “They’re going into their own pockets, and then we’re asking them to take days off work for training refreshers and meetings and appointments.”

ACS Commissioner John Mattingly has often acknowledged that his vision for New York City’s child welfare system hinges on building a stronger, more sophisticated foster care base that can rise to the demands posed by recent reforms. But observers say this would be a difficult time for the city and state to raise the stipend to a level that would help agencies find and hold onto stronger foster homes. A $15-per-day increase for all foster parents would cost the government about $65 million annually.

“In these times, when things are getting tougher [economically], they’re going to say, ‘I’m sorry, we have better things to spend it on,’” says John Courtney, co-director of the Partnership for Family Supports and Justice at the Fund for Social Change.

Mattingly and his administration have, however, invested resources to help agencies better support their foster parents. In 2006, ACS slated $11.5 million for agencies to help recruit and support foster parents of children aged 10 and older. It renewed this funding in 2007. Some foster care agencies, including Harlem Dowling-West Side Center for Children and Family Services, used the money to reduce caseloads so each foster family could receive more attention. That agency also began offering optional training for all its foster parents on how to work with children with special needs—something that used to be available only to those families licensed as therapeutic foster homes.

Other agencies, including Little Flower Children and Family Services of New York, The Children’s Village, Edwin Gould Services for Children and Families and Forestdale, Inc., have used those funds to hire foster parent advocates who give foster families the support that caseworkers are often too busy to provide. The advocates also give foster parents a safe space to vent. “A lot of foster parents are afraid to tell what’s going on [to a caseworker] because they think the agency is going to look at them like they aren’t a good parent,” explains McCall.

In her nearly 20 years of foster parenting, Renee Francis, who herself lived in foster homes, has made a point to take in children with serious emotional and behavioral issues. “I’d rather take a ‘special needs,’ because they’re the ones who need us,” she says.

Francis has adopted seven children and takes vicarious pleasures in their successes, like the girl who overcame severe personality disorders and is now studying to be a teacher. Or the girl who arrived thinking she was “no good” and refused to speak, but who is now thriving in college.

“You study them and see what works with them,” says Francis. “I stayed in therapy with them and I found out that each child works different.” …

Child Welfare Watch is co-published by the Center for an Urban Future, which is City Limits’ sister policy institute.

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