Louise Wise Services, a highly rated foster care agency based in Harlem, is currently caught in the most contentious family separation in the group’s 90-year history: its own. Since the agency announced last October that it would shut down due to city funding cuts, it has staggered from one controversy to the next, facing charges of everything from callousness to financial mischief.
On Thursday, the day before the agency’s official close, a few of the Louise Wise social workers about to lose their jobs gathered in protest outside the offices of the city’s Administration for Children’s Services. The agency had not only shut down with too little warning, charged Michele Hart, a representative from the workers’ union, DC 1707, but management reportedly told staff that they could each expect to receive only 75 percent of the severance pay agreed on in their contract.
Rebecca Kurti, 33, a caseworker at the agency for three years, said she and the other staff got their 60 days’ notice on Christmas Eve. “With the holiday, it meant we basically had six weeks,” Kurti fumed. “That was just not enough time for people to do what they needed for their cases or for themselves.”
Others said the decision to close was particularly regrettable because ACS is putting fewer families in foster care and focusing more and more on the work Louise Wise was renowned for: preventive services to help families deal with their troubles. Of the 85 agencies that offer preventive services, Louise Wise was consistently one of the city’s top rated. “We are a solid program, and we are keeping families intact and out of foster care,” said senior social worker Amy Wilson.
Last year, the agency handled roughly 300 foster care cases, 120 family preservation cases and 30 adoptions, in addition to running a neighborhood food pantry, counseling for teen fathers and after-school programs.
The foster care and preventive program clients will be transferred to other agencies. Wilson noted that such a break inevitably take its toll: “It’s not so easy for people to open up with a new social worker.” In an attempt to ease the transition, the board at Louise Wise devised a plan last summer that would have kept the agency’s staff and clients together: merging with another local foster care agency, Harlem Dowling.
But that merger deal collapsed in late December because ACS would not agree to transfer Louise Wise’s entire caseload to Harlem Dowling. According to ACS spokesperson Maclean Guthrie, it is the agency’s policy, anytime a foster care provider closes, to decide on a case-by-base basis who will manage each child. She could not provide any more information on which agencies would receive Louise Wise’s clients or why Harlem Dowling was not selected.
Since the merger idea got nixed, the displaced staff and clients at Louise Wise have grown more resentful about the decision to close in the first place. Some are even questioning why an agency estimated to have assets between $5 and $10 million is crying poverty. While city funding for foster care has been cut, Louise Wise collected more than $16 million from the sale of at least four properties in Manhattan in the last three years.
Union sources now charge that the organization violated state laws restricting nonprofits from simply selling off their major capital assets. A spokesperson from the state attorney general’s office confirmed they are reviewing a complaint.
While Louise Wise management did not return repeated phone calls, the organization has said it plans to use its remaining assets to start a Louise Wise foundation in Harlem that will support family and children’s services.
City Councilmember Bill Perkins, who helped Louise Wise purchase one of the four properties, isn’t satisfied with such vague assurances. “We welcomed [Louise Wise] to Harlem with open arms, and now they are disappearing with profits from a speculative land deal,” said the Councilmember last week. “I call it a betrayal, and I want to know what they are going to do with that money.”