Exclusive Interview: New Child-Welfare Chief Eyes Change

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New Administration for Children’s Services Commissioner Gladys Carrión met with City Limits in late March to discuss her vision for the agency and the legacy she inherited. In a spacious Financial District office decorated with framed posters of Eleanor Roosevelt and pioneering Puerto Rican activist Antonia Pantoja– and flanked by Deputy Commissioner Felipe Franco and press representative Chris McKniff – Carrion took questions about her plans for the multi-billion-dollar agency.

Q: : One hundred days into the de Blasio administration, what are your priorities for ACS?

A: It’s been an interesting and challenging first 100 days. We have the opportunity to deepen the work we started at state [where Carrion served as the commissioner of New York’s Office of Children’s and Family Services]. I knew the agency well in my oversight role, but it’s never the same until you get here. It’s a very hectic place. There’s a lot of competing interests and challenges, but it’s good work. There are lots of challenges, particularly the child fatalities. Obviously, those tragedies are incredibly difficult, for someone walking in [to the leadership] and for the agency. It’s always challenging to deal with those very difficult situations so early on.

Q: Have you identified any particular short-term goals?

A: Absolutely. I think my vision really speaks to looking at our work through a different lens – the lens of child well-being.

Q: But wasn’t that the mission of ACS prior to your leadership?

A: It’s not that it wasn’t. But it’s a totally different lens. Our priority always has been safety and permanency. And what we measure, particularly because of funding requirements from the feds, requires measuring system goals – but we’re not measuring how the children are doing. Are they going to school? Are they reading at grade level? Are they going to high school, are they taking algebra? All those really important decision points that assure a pathway to success.

Q: Metrics around student achievement have been available for a long time. Have they not previously been a priority for ACS?

A: It’s not a metric that we capture as an agency; it’s difficult to look at what we are doing to improve outcomes for children. We’ve done well reducing the number of children coming into [foster] care, and we’ve spent a lot of time around keeping children safe. Those are important pillars of child well being. But really asking, how are children doing? – it’s our responsibility to create the conditions that improve those outcomes. My goal, across all our clinical components, is to understand the impact of trauma in the lives of these children and their families. What are the right interventions; how do we mitigate their impact? Gaining a better understanding of brain development, all so we can create a trauma-informed systems

Q: Have you moved from the abstract to the practical? Are you talking with providers about what trauma-informed care looks and feels like?

A: It’s not abstract at all. We’ve instructed agencies to use a trauma-informed assessment tools. We’ve begun training in the juvenile justice system. I’m trying to make sure that as a system, we and our partners understand trauma, that we have the tools to do the assessment, and that everyone has a model grounded in evidence and science. I want to make sure our system is grounded in the science of what works.

Q: How does ACS maintain and assure the quality and integrity of ACS work out in the field?

A: That’s an everyday focus and challenge. We have dedicated staff whose responsibility is oversight. We have a scorecard; we sample cases and review them. People go out and observe.

Q: But when something terrible happens, it’s the nonprofit subcontractor and the caseworkers who are held accountable – not ACS.

A: ACS is always responsible. There’s always a system response. There are times when workers might not be doing the best work – but if you take a deep look, system challenges contribute to that. And then, you have situations where the workers have all the tools and still, bad things happen.

Q: We’ve read that an algorithm for foster care placement is scheduled to go live in 2014.

A: We’re still working on that; it’s not been finalized at all. It will help us capture the number of beds available, where they are, what their capacity is. It will do better and faster matching of children and young people [with beds in foster care].

Q: Why is a computer going to be more effective than a human being?

A: We don’t know that it will be better; we’ll see, we’ll see. But we see inefficiencies now. At any point in time, we don’t have a total picture of where the beds are. You have to be calling round: "Who has the beds?," asking the agencies, "Do you have a bed? What kind of bed do you have?"

We need better tools. We need better data- and case-management systems. Most of our work is not automated, we need to be able to have that.

Q: Some time ago, I was surprised to learn that caseworkers’ software systems don’t communicate easily across city and state networks. The networks don’t talk to each other. Is that still true?

A: Yes. A huge, huge amount of work needs to be done there, much to my surprise. If you ask me what surprised me about coming in here, it’s the lack of technology and tools. I wonder, how could you do your job? Could you imagine, trying to do the work? When I need information, people have to manually retrieve it. Really? At this age and state of what we know? That’s huge. We need an infrastructure that supports, promotes, and facilitates the work.

Q: ACS is in a unique position in Family Court, as both advocates and adversaries, depending on the particulars of the case.

A: We’re always advocates for kids. I would never say that we’re not. That advocacy can take different forms and be perceived differently, depending on what hat you wear. If I was a defense counsel or representing a parent, , I’d look at it from a different lens. But from an ACS lens, we are protecting children. We evaluate risk. If the child is not safe, we will remove that child. We are advocating for the best interest, preserving the safety and well-being, of that child.

Q: Early Learn is an ACS school-readiness program for very young children. How will it mesh with universal preK?

A: We need to do better. All I hear is complaints, unfortunately. But when you go and visit, you see these children, they’re incredible, they’re delicious. I know good things are happening on the ground. And we are thrilled about universal pre-KEarly Learn is still a very young program. I think there are challenges in the implementation. The philosophy, the framework is good, but the system was improperly resourced, and the implementation has been flawed. I’m taking a very close look at the entire Early Learn system to see what can improve in you years, when we can issue a new Request for Proposals.

Q: What about Close to Home, the program that keeps city youth in detention in or near their home borough? The previous administration and the governor said the new approach would be better for kids, better for the system, and save money.

A: We thought It would save money at the margins. That was never the motivation behind it; the motivation was, how do we provide better care and service to young people in their communities? There was some projection of savings. But given the level of need, we didn’t anticipate there would be major savings at all.This is one of the few projects that started from a good place that asks, what does the science say, how can we provide better services to young people? It really came from a perspective of saying, we think we can do better That was the impetus. The state worked very, very closely with the city to make this happen.Now, here I am, responsible for the implementation, having negotiated and helping to create the model!

Q: Early statistics documented an alarming number of AWOLs, as high as one in four youth held in non-secure detention.

A: I think that’s really unfortunate. That was due to a very aggressive timeline, that didn’t allow the providers the time to develop the capacity to meet the needs of the kids. The models were pretty immature. They hadn’t finished staffing and training. We [at OCFS] were incredibly concerned about that and worked with the city to provide training and support.

Q: Why was the timing so compressed, if the state knew the city wasn’t ready?

A: The city felt they were ready. They wanted to do this. We agreed to do it.

Q: What about the issue of students in Close to Home who are not permitted to return to school, at the discretion of the principal?

A: That should not be happening. There should be no challenge on the acceptance of these students or of their credits, but in experience, there’s some resistance on the part of principals, and we need to do a better job.

Q: If ACS wants only to protect children and strengthen families, why are people scared of ACS?

A: That’s another goal, to change that perception. The perception of a faceless organization that scoops up children, and you never see them again, that’s the perception we need to change.
The perception for a very long time was that we went in and ‘snatched’ children. I think we’ve tried very hard now to work with families to reach an understanding of what works best for the family and the child. That doesn’t mean that .the child always remains at home.

Families are part of the solution. The solution for too long was to write off these families and write off these communities and write off children who don’t have a voice. ACS needs to be their voice

One of the other things important to me, the mayor is going to establish a children’s cabinet. It cannot just be my responsibility alone to keep children safe and to really promote their well-being. This is a collective and shared responsibility. It’s a shared government responsibility, and a shared communal responsibility. As a society, it’s our responsibility to keep children safe.

I want a robust public campaign around the role we could all play in keeping kids safe – yes, “see something, say something,” but more important, I want you to be a mentor to my children. Be a tutor, volunteer in the library, coach little league. Help your neighbor who is overwhelmed taking care of these children. There are so many ways that we can make a difference. Many more of us need to step up. I can’t be the only one.

Q: How will you improve relations with ordinary New Yorkers? They don’t understand how terrible things can happen, especially to families already in the system. There’s a credibility issue – ACS is here to keep kids safe, yet another child meets a bad fate.

A: I agree with you. How do you engage communities to better understand the work that you’re doing? And to understand that, as hard as you try – your goal is to save every child – you can’t. There are no guarantees. We live in a democratic society; we’re not in every home, watching 24/7. There has to be a balance.

We have to learn how to really build families. Children grow up in families; it’s important to understand that we are supporting families. Issues of neglect are so often primarily issues of poverty, the ability to earn a living wage. Even when we remove children from their homes, as they age, they go back to those families. They really do. We might say, this family is not appropriate or suitable, but when that young person ages out at 18, 19, 20, or 21, they’re usually going to gravitate back to these families. So I think we have a responsibility to families, to help them. If we say we’re supporting young people, we have to support their families, too. From my perspective, I want to make sure my kids are involved, that they’re serving my kids. These are my kids – they should be our kids – and how are these great programs serving my kids? If they’re not serving them now, what’s the plan?

It’s hard work. It’s very, very hard work.

City Limits coverage of child welfare is supported by the Ira W. DeCamp Foundation.

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