It’s the kind of horror story that makes headlines–and causes heads to roll. Last May, three-month-old Colesvintong Florestal was found starved and beaten to death at Hamilton Place, a Harlem homeless shelter. A fellow resident had reportedly heard him “screaming for two days straight.”
Politicians were quick to express outrage and lay blame. Apart from the boy’s parents, who were charged with murder, the most obvious scapegoats were the two city agencies involved in the family’s life. The Department of Homeless Services (DHS), which held the contract for the shelter, didn’t know that Florestal’s family had been investigated nine times by the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS), the city’s child welfare department. And ACS didn’t realize the family had entered a shelter.
“This institutional ignorance is sickening and inexcusable,” railed Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum at a July hearing. In 2004, 12 children who were known to ACS died in city homeless shelters.
The agencies pledged to boost communication and tighten safeguards. “While not every tragedy is preventable, opportunities exist to strengthen cross-agency work in the name of protecting children at risk of abuse and neglect,” said DHS Commissioner Linda Gibbs in a press release issued after an inquiry into Florestal’s death.
It wasn’t an empty claim. Now, roughly six months later, a partnership between ACS and DHS is in full swing. First, DHS began to review all families entering the shelter system for active ACS cases, and to train shelter staff to recognize signs of abuse. In November, it went a step further, stationing an ACS “Family Services Team” at its new intake center, granting its staff full access to both open and closed child welfare cases, going back 10 years.
It’s not unusual for public officials to rush into action after a tragic incident like a child’s death. It is rare, however, for agencies to use intensive collaboration as an everyday part of the process of keeping troubled families safe and whole–ACS’ prime directive. But that, too, is starting to blossom throughout New York’s child welfare system. And nowhere is the need for different government and private agencies to work together more critical than in the delicate process of reunifying children with their families after they’ve been placed in foster care.
Just ask Leslie Grant. Grant lost her four children to foster care nearly a decade ago, while fighting an addiction to crack that left her on dialysis. Now clean and sober, she’s desperate to get her son, Darnell, 17, out of foster care.
Darnell has spent the past three years at Leake and Watts, a residential treatment center in Yonkers. Even though he’s almost grown, Grant considers reunification an important goal–for both of them. “He’s still very angry at me, but he forgives me,” she says. “He knows I had a problem I couldn’t control.”
Grant’s done everything ACS asked of her: She kicked her habit, got counseling and found a job as a market researcher. But she can’t move Darnell into her apartment, which she shares with a roommate. Grant still needs a place to live that she can afford. She applied for Section 8 rental assistance and public housing two years ago and hasn’t heard a thing.
Here’s where the city comes in. Charged with helping parents like Grant find apartments, ACS and DHS are instituting a new housing subsidy program that could break through bureaucratic walls that have lingered for years. In the past, computer systems weren’t compatible. Neither were funding streams. Sometimes staff was short, and typically they were chiefly concerned about their own programs and jobs. Isolation, not partnership, defined work between different departments.
A new interagency effort is changing that paradigm, and while there are still kinks to be worked out, it seems to be paying off. At press time, 11 families were set to get vouchers that would subsidize their rent and allow their children to live with them again.
Grant isn’t one of them. “I just want someone to say, ‘We have a nice apartment for you and your son,’” she says. “We’ve been waiting for a very long time.”
Child welfare is an obvious testing ground for collaboration between government agencies. A family that has lost its children to foster care is likely dealing with other issues, and with government agencies besides ACS. Welfare and disability benefits, Medicaid, and food stamps–all of which need to accompany children as they move back to live with their parents–come from the Human Resources Administration. If there’s domestic violence, courts and police are necessary partners. A great majority of parents who’ve lost children to foster care are substance abusers who must get off drugs; they get treatment from private agencies overseen by the state.
For a parent working to get a child home, finding housing is the most difficult piece of a complicated puzzle. “You’re talking about a person who’s already experienced a lot of trauma,” says Erik Pitchal, staff attorney at Children’s Rights, a legal advocacy group. “It’s just another thing added to the to-do list, and it’s often the hardest thing.”
There’s supposed to be help for them. State social services law acknowledges that it’s harmful for children to stay in foster care unnecessarily, and it directs government agencies to intervene: “The state’s first obligation is to help the family with services to prevent its breakup or reunite it if the child has already left home,” declares Section 384-b.
In a 1985 case, Cosentino v. Perales, a state appellate court found that children could not be taken from their parents, or kept in foster care, due to a lack of housing. If parents couldn’t find housing, the city now had a responsibility to help them.
The ruling led to the creation of an ACS housing subsidy that provides $300 per month for three years. While not enough for an apartment, families trying to reunify also had priority for Section 8. Last year, ACS referred 590 parents and 696 teens leaving foster care to Section 8, but only 350 total received the subsidy.
Ultimately, Section 8 was frozen as the city used up its vouchers and the feds cut funding. To replace it, the city introduced Housing Stability Plus, a five-year subsidy that starts around $925 for a family of three. DHS, which runs the program, set aside a special chunk for “but-fors,” families that would reunify “but for” lack of housing. The city and advocates both estimate there are 200 “but-fors” at any given time.
“We are committed to ensuring that no family is prolonged in their separation because they have no home in which to reunify,” said ACS Commissioner John Mattingly when the plan was introduced. “Shelter is not the place to reunify children and parents.”
He was joined at the podium by DHS Commissioner Linda Gibbs, a former colleague. The two met in 1996, Mattingly recalls, when he was working at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which funds initiatives to improve child welfare services, and she was chief of staff at ACS. They later worked closely together on a plan to reform the agency. By all reports, they share a mutual respect and a deep desire to improve the way the city serves families.
They’ll need it. The “but-fors” program rests on their ability to communicate. First foster care agencies will identify families ready to reunify and report them to ACS. If the family is found eligible for housing help, ACS will request a voucher from DHS and then the agencies will work together to find the family an apartment.
Tina Rowley is skeptical. The 44-year-old AmeriCorps worker completed her drug treatment and parenting classes nearly five years ago, but her son, Chams, was just returned in January. All she needed was housing.
Her foster care caseworker at Lutheran Social Services sent her to DHS’ Emergency Assistance Unit (EAU), the sole city office where homeless families could obtain shelter. But the staff there sent her back to Lutheran. Her application for Section 8, filled out in 2000, was never mailed, she says. It was discovered years later sitting in her former caseworker’s desk drawer.
Now finally reunified with both her children, Rowley is still angry. She and Grant are both part of a lawsuit, in fact, charging that the city unnecessarily delayed their reunification. “I knew I needed housing,” she says. “I needed assistance and it wasn’t there.”
The motion, based on Cosentino, was brought by the Legal Aid Society, South Brooklyn Legal Services and the NYU Family Defense Clinic, to pressure the city to treat “but-fors” as emergency cases and offer them immediate housing–even if it’s just a homeless shelter.
Chris Gottlieb, adjunct professor at the Family Defense Clinic, admits that reunifying families in temporary housing is less than ideal. But if that’s the only option, she and her colleagues want the city to allow reunifying families to skip the city’s onerous screening process. While DHS has streamlined its procedures, homeless families still endure long waits in government offices followed by nights in scruffy hotels. “Permanent housing would be preferable,” Gottlieb says, but quick access to a shelter, in her opinion, is better than “having a child go into the EAU or PATH [the city’s new intake center] and not know where they’re going to sleep that night.”
Anne Williams-Isom, associate commissioner for community affairs for ACS, hopes to do better than that. She’s one of the people charged with making Housing Stability Plus work for families whose children are leaving foster care.
An energetic straight-shooter (and speed-talker), Williams-Isom doesn’t mind admitting when her own agency has missed the mark. She acknowledges, for instance, that private foster care contract agencies don’t always know about available housing resources. The agency’s own Foster Care Housing Subsidy served only 408 families last year, an 18 percent decline from the year before. Sometimes parents are reluctant to maintain a relationship with ACS after extricating their children from foster care, explains Williams-Isom. Sometimes they just don’t know the money is there.
ACS is holding a training session for foster care agencies to alert them to the collapse of Section 8 and make sure they know about the ACS subsidy and Housing Stability Plus. It’s one thing for top officials to declare a commitment to collaboration; the real test, she says, will come each day in the field. “I think it’s about all these people doing this job for a long time,” she says, referring to the civil servants working on the front lines with families. “They really want it to work.”
For reunifications to succeed, however, collaboration needs to go beyond ACS and DHS. Child welfare advocates say the Department of Education (DOE) and Human Resources Administration (HRA) also need to be part of the conversation.
Jose Rivera was thrilled when he regained custody of his 10-year-old son, Kevin. But when they moved from a shelter in the Bronx to one in Manhattan, it took weeks before Rivera could reenroll his son. “None of the schools wanted to take him because he was special ed,” Rivera explains. Because he didn’t have child care, Rivera was forced to miss work at his chemical bottling job, and he was eventually fired. He’s now looking for work and housing and dealing with his son’s emotional problems, all at the same time.
“There are tons of issues between ACS and the Department of Education,” admits Williams-Isom. “Transportation, special ed, tracking down records.” The agencies are communicating, she says, but not as well as they could be.
Meanwhile, getting welfare and related benefits restored is unnecessarily time-consuming and difficult, say families and their advocates. HRA has 30 days to update its payments to reflect a family’s increased size. Sometimes it makes the deadline; sometimes it doesn’t. Either way, for a parent who has jumped so many hurdles to get this far–cleaned up from drugs, found housing, reregistered kids for school, and started the painful process of rebuilding damaged relationships–not having money just makes things harder.
“It’s amazing,” said Mike Arsham, executive director of the Child Welfare Organizing Project (CWOP), an advocacy group. “Before the dust settles after your child’s removal, your benefits are cut off. But after you reunify, it can take months to get them back.” The lag time can be especially hard on former drug abusers, he says. “It’s like, ‘I don’t know this 2-year-old who was separated from me at birth.’ Or ‘This teenager is testing me to the limit.’ Add economic stress to that and it’s prime time for relapse.”
Mireya Molina, 36, went through a tough wait. She checked into a residential drug treatment center on ACS orders three years ago. Her 12-year-old son, Adam, went into foster care for 22 months, while her 4-year-old, Brandon, remained with her at Dreitzer Women and Children’s Center, a program run by the nonprofit Palladia. When she moved from Dreitzer to Stratford House, a supportive housing facility, with both her sons, it took more than a month for her welfare check to reflect her increased family size. “I had to do without so the kids could have what they needed,” she says. “I juggle. I do the best I can.”
Susan Kyle, administrative supervisor at Good Shepherd Services, watches her clients struggle with the delay. She considers it one of many catch-22s in the child welfare system. “You can’t take care of the children without the money,” she says, “and you can’t get the money without the children.”
Will Housing Stability Plus establish a new pro-family paradigm for relationships between city agencies? Not entirely. For one thing, it only serves a limited pool. While families in ACS’ preventive program were given high priority for Section 8, they aren’t even eligible for the new voucher. Similarly, families who aren’t on welfare don’t qualify.
Those who are eligible will be dealing with a far less generous subsidy. Unlike Section 8, Housing Stability Plus declines by 20 percent each year and ends after five. “Housing Stability is a humongous misnomer if I ever heard one,” says Jessica Marcus, staff attorney with South Brooklyn Legal Services. “We’ve been saying all along that families should be provided with real subsidies that cover the real market value of apartments so they can be reunified and be stable.”
Tracey Carter, a parent organizer at CWOP, is still waiting for that kind of stability. After five months in and out of the EAU with her husband and then children, she’s finally landed in a family shelter in the Highbridge section of the Bronx. It may not be perfect, she says, but it’s a private apartment with two bedrooms. And, unlike her first placement, it’s safe and clean. “My kids were like, ‘Mommy, we’re home,’ and I was like, ‘Yeah–finally.’”
Still, she doesn’t forget that it’s a shelter. She shakes her head thinking about all the time and anguish she would have saved if the city had let her enter a drug treatment program with her children or provided a housing subsidy so she wouldn’t lose her apartment. “If they can offer services,” she says, “they should do that first.”
In many ways, the city is trying to do just that. Both Mattingly and Gibbs have emphasized prevention as smart public policy; the number of children in foster care recently dipped below 20,000, a 20-year low. ACS now has more families in its preventive program than in foster care.
Williams-Isom hopes collaboration will enhance prevention, but she knows it won’t be easy. “A lot of these agencies have a different way of thinking about their issues,” she says. “There are legal mandates that stand in the way of what you think you’re able to do.” One agency might be reluctant to contact another, for example, if it means violating a client’s confidentiality.
There are also competing interests. “The Department of Education has 1.1 million kids,” notes Williams-Isom, by way of example. “Twenty thousand of them are in foster care. To the DOE, that’s just one of many, many populations vying for their attention.”
Meanwhile there are technical issues, which the city is starting to tackle, says Ester Fuchs, a special advisor to the mayor who handles interagency affairs. “There are 50 needs-based programs that do eligibility,” she notes. “And the information is not shared. It’s so inefficient.” But now, building on the success of the 311 information system, Fuchs explains, the city is creating a web-based system that will allow those networks to “talk to each other.”
Their human counterparts are doing the same. The Coordinated Children’s Services Initiative, a statewide program, brings together city and state agencies to help children with behavioral or mental health problems.
Meanwhile the city’s housing, homelessness, child welfare, probation, health, welfare, and aging departments are collaborating on an ambitious pilot program, set to start in late January. One City, One Strategy will involve roughly 200 families in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a neighborhood chosen for both its high level of need and its strong community services. If a family applies for help at one government office but seems to need assistance from others, the initial agency will convene a case conference. Representatives from the relevant departments will come to a central location and talk to the family, and each other, about its needs. The panel will then monitor the case as it progresses.
“On the one hand, it’s going to help families get better, more coordinated services,” Williams-Isom says. “On the other, it’s going to give us a chance to see some of the real policy obstacles that lie in the way of families getting good care.” While collaboration isn’t a new concept, Williams-Isom considers this level exceptional. “There are so many commissioners that are engaged in this and making it a priority,” she says.
Fuchs agrees. “This isn’t about making a big political noise,” she says. “It’s about getting the work done.”
Additional reporting by Sarah Unke.
SIDEBAR: Private Eyes
City agencies aren’t the only ones working together to help families reunify after foster care. In Brooklyn, an independent project is bringing another key player into the mix: private social service providers.
Safe Haven began in New York City in 2002 as a collaboration between the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University and the Coalition for Hispanic Family Services. Families in the project must have cases with Brooklyn Family Court, the Administration for Children’s Services, and the Human Resources Administration and be affected by substance abuse. The project currently operates in Bushwick, Bedford-Stuyvesant, East New York and Williamsburg.
Facilitators organize and moderate monthly meetings with family members, representatives from the Administration for Children’s Services and Human Resources Administration, foster care caseworkers, drug treatment counselors, and other service providers involved with the family. “It’s really about coordinating the timing of services,” says Nina Moreno, the program director. “When you’re involved in multiple municipal service systems–not even I would know what to do, what needs to be done first.”
The program is still extremely small, working with just 30 families a year. But Moreno sees big potential. “It’s really a model,” she says, “that you can apply across the board for families that are involved in multiple service agencies.”