For Nicholas Scoppetta, it was a promise a long time in coming. Standing on stage at the Salvation Army's 14th Street headquarters last month, working a room jammed with skeptics, the city's child welfare commissioner said he would accomplish what none of his predecessors could. He intended to reform a system where 85 percent of the city's foster care children are removed from their parents and placed in distant communities, far from their family, friends, schools and everything they have known growing up. He would bring the child protection business back into the neighborhoods.
His plan–which has been on the drafting board at the Administration for Children's Services (ACS) for more than a year–would force a retooling of the entire child welfare system. The city would require that all services to families and children, including foster care, family counseling, mental health care and much more, be provided close to home whenever possible.
Scoppetta also proposed an added responsibility for foster parents. In an initiative dubbed “Family to Family,” foster parents would be required to work with a child's birth parents “before, during and after placement,” serving as mentors and dealing closely with ACS caseworkers to create a “community of care” for the child.
“I can't help but think that what we are setting out to do is of truly historical proportions,” Scoppetta told his audience of social service and foster care providers. “It is truly going to be a radical change.”
People who work in the field have long argued that the city's ultra-centralized child welfare system makes little sense. ACS caseworkers are often unfamiliar with the communities and lack vital contacts in places like schools, churches and block associations. Social service agencies contracted to help troubled families are frequently located in remote neighborhoods, invisible to overwhelmed parents who might voluntarily seek help. And when children are placed miles away from their homes, parents have trouble visiting them and working with counselors–drastically slowing the reunification process.
Few in the field are openly criticizing the philosophy behind Scoppetta's ambitious initiative. In fact many describe it as “visionary” and even “revolutionary.” But they do have concerns about the details. The draft plan Scoppetta released in late November does not delineate how the transition to his new system will be funded or implemented, how existing community resources will be used, or how ACS itself will recast its bureaucracy to play a role in a supposedly more collaborative, supportive and creative child welfare system.
And the multimillion dollar nonprofit foster care organizations with city contracts are not yet buying into the plan. The industry is suffering from sharp cuts in state funding imposed two years ago, explains Fred Brancato, executive director of the Council of Family and Child Caring Agencies (COFCCA), a foster care industry trade group. If there is no new money,” he says, “to try to respond to [Scoppetta's plan] seems to be beyond what an agency can do.”
Resistance to change from within the system–and a paucity of political willpower at City Hall–have repeatedly stymied similar reforms. As early as 1971, the Citizens' Committee for Children issued a report emphasizing that child welfare services should be stationed in neighborhoods where most of the affected families live. A half dozen mayoral commissions and studies since have made similar recommendations. None of them have generated significant reforms.
Given the historical context, it's easy to understand why some providers are cynical about Scoppetta's chances for success. “All of it sounds never-never land, like a fairy tale,” says Jane Barrowitz, spokesperson for the Jewish Child Care Association of New York.
But Mayor Rudolph Giuliani appointed Scoppetta in February 1996 with a mandate to rebuild the system and, as an old friend of the mayor, the commissioner has more political support than his predecessors.
Does that mean he can also muster financial resources for the restructuring? Insiders say a significant up-front investment will be needed to revamp agencies so they can better train foster parents and staff, open new neighborhood offices, recruit local boarding homes and build lasting networks with other community-based service providers. In the long run, they add, the new system should save money by shortening the length of time children stay in foster care. But this will take some time.
“We support innovation,” says COFCCA spokesperson Edith Holzer. “But we can't do it in a kneeling position. We don't see how you can attempt the reforms in the commissioner's plan without bringing the foster care system back up to adequate funding.” In 1995, Governor George Pataki signed block grant legislation reducing child welfare funding to the city by $131 million. The city's foster care agencies, group home providers and foster parents are all receiving lower reimbursements these days, Holzer says.
City Limits asked Scoppetta where the money for his plan would come from. “Costs will have to be addressed,” he said. He did not, however, offer any details.
Some of the more innovative child welfare nonprofits say this money crunch shouldn't undercut Scoppetta's reforms, however. “I feel that money could be much better spent than it is now,” says Sister Mary Paul Janchill, cofounder of the Center for Family Life, a Brooklyn agency providing a variety of services to the Sunset Park community. “We have a huge amount spent on foster care and child welfare, and neighborhood-based foster care is not more expensive.”
Smaller, community-based providers do have major concerns, though. They fear Scoppetta's plan will, paradoxically, favor the city's big, centralized foster care agencies at the expense of organizations deeply rooted in the neighborhoods.
Most of the larger organizations are based in religious institutions and have independent endowments. They can better afford to make the investment in additional services and training, notes John Sanchez, executive director of the East Side Settlement House, which provides family support services to parents in the Mott Haven section of the Bronx. Scoppetta's plan could encourage them to become heavyweight players in low-income neighborhoods where smaller, minority-run agencies are located.
To comply with Scoppetta's mandate, the big agencies may look to merge with neighborhood-based agencies or push them out of the picture, inheriting their valuable base of families. Stephen Chinlund, executive director of Episcopal Social Services, drew loud applause from the packed Salvation Army auditorium when he asked Scoppetta's deputy commissioners how agencies like his could be expected to compete. “The agencies that will suffer the most from this are those closest to what you are calling for.” None of the five ACS staffers responded.
“I do have a level of trust about where Scoppetta is coming from,” adds Sanchez. “But too often, these efforts are grafted onto these communities without any knowledge of what's going on.” The commissioner should build ground rules into the plan that will protect well-run, homegrown agencies, he says. Otherwise, ACS may well lose the important local connections these groups have cultivated over the years.
“This is first and foremost a business,” says one former city child welfare official who asked not to be identified. He predicts that in 10 to 15 years, the city's community-based network will consist of a few monolithic foster care agencies. “There are larger forces at play than good will and good intentions,” he warns.
Even setting aside power politics and money, there are also different sides to the argument that foster children should be placed close to home. As Scoppetta explains, 80 percent of children taken into the city's care ultimately return to their family. Therefore it behooves the city to maintain close connections between the child and his parents or relatives.
But there are times when children need distance. “If you take them out of the community, you don't have to worry about peer pressure and they can start to get help,” says Matthew Matgranow, a 21-year-old who spent 10 years in foster care living in a half-dozen different neighborhoods. “The whole issue, in the long run, is what's better for them.”
Ultimately, it is the rights–and the lives–of children and families that are at issue. Gail Nayowith, executive director of the Citizens' Committee for Children, emphasizes that Scoppetta is headed in the right direction. But she is calling for changes at ACS as well. Staff must be better trained, the agency must do more to educate parents about support programs and officials should set up a complaint bureau for children, parents and foster parents who feel mistreated, she says.
“The scope of change that is being proposed is huge and the stakes are high,” she says. “We have to proceed with the maximum amount of intelligence.”
As City Limits went to press, ACS officials were honing the final plan. The agency is expected to start seeking formal bids for new contracts this spring.
“If we wait for total agreement, we will never get the system to where it needs to be,” Scoppetta told his audience at the Salvation Army. Then he took a pause for emphasis: “It will be better,” he said, “than anything we've had in the past.”
Adam Fifield is a frequent contributor to City Limits.