More than a year ago, Governor George Pataki gave abused and neglected young people a badly needed ally: He authorized a new independent commission, with a $500,000-a-year budget, to monitor the quality of care in group homes and institutions for foster children. Similar watchdog agencies already exist for prisons and mental health facilities in New York. They've helped expose mistreatment and mismanagement, including execrable conditions in adult homes housing the mentally ill.
But now the Pataki administration is refusing to deliver. The State Commission on the Quality of Foster Care was supposed to launch last September, with a full-time chair and four volunteer members. (All five are to be appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate, giving state Republicans full control.) It didn't. Last winter, the governor's office pulled the funding from the state's 2003 budget. Then the legislature put the money back in for fiscal year 2004, when it overrode Pataki to pass its own budget this past May.
Since then, says Elie Ward, executive director of the Albany group Statewide Youth Advocacy, nothing has happened. In mid-August, she says, the governor's office informed her it did not intend to release the funds for the forseeable future. “They told me it wasn't a priority,” says Ward. The governor's office did not return calls seeking comment.
It may now fall to legislators who passed the bill to make sure the commission gets established. Ward is urging the legislation's supporters, including Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno and Westchester Republican Nicholas Spano–whose county hosts numerous group facilities for kids–to pressure Pataki to release the funds.
Group homes could use a watchdog. Incidents like the February 2002 assault by girls on a counselor in Pleasantville are just the most sensational symptoms of deep trouble at many group homes, residential treatment centers, and other institutions where kids live. Chronic problems, say child welfare experts, include sexual assaults by kids on other kids, understaffing, insufficient supervision, and inadequate schooling. Some homes run by New York City's Administration for Children's Services are notorious for letting residents hang out on the streets, where some get mixed up in drugs and prostitution.
Agencies that run group facilities under license from the state Office of Children and Family Services say they can stand the scrutiny. “We're monitored by everyone under the sun,” says Luis Medina, executive director of St. Christopher's Inc., which runs group homes and residential treatment centers in Westchester County. But if the new commission's staff are experienced and “know something about how to run a facility,” says Medina, “that can only help.”
Inspired by the state model, the office of city Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum is now exploring setting up a copycat independent watchdog agency for New York City's child welfare services. Hank Orenstein, director of C-PLAN, the Public Advocate's resource center for families with children in foster care, envisions a city office able to monitor every aspect of care, from making sure parents can see their children to creating a hotline for foster kids to call if they need help.
“We've concluded that New York City's child welfare system needs something like an Inspector General, an independent entity with subpoena power–the power to walk into a group home, interview young people about how they're being cared for, and to go into visiting rooms and make sure parents have their visits,” says Orenstein. “If we had stronger powers, we might be taken more seriously.”