Six child welfare agencies have been removed from a troubled agency list the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) created in February, ACS announced last week. The decision follows the removal of two other agencies from the list last month, and heralds the end of a period of intense scrutiny initiated by ACS Commissioner John Mattingly. Both the agencies and the department report that the initially contentious review process was ultimately a success.
“I think it was a positive process even though nobody wanted to be on the list in the first place,” said Herbert Stupp, CEO of Little Flower Children’s Services of New York. “ACS learned our strengths. We learned about the new interests and emphasis of ACS.”
Appointed by the mayor in July 2004, Mattingly promised to overhaul the city’s child welfare system and root out poor performers. In February, he had staff screen all agencies using EQUIP, an evaluation system established in 2000. The two foster care providers with the lowest scores—Miracle Makers and St. Christopher’s—immediately lost their contracts. Ten other providers with scores below 75 were put on the list.
The screening process was not without controversy. Since its inception, there has been debate over the reliability of EQUIP scores, which are based on indicators like how quickly children get back home or how consistently records are kept. Some agencies argue that using average scores as benchmarks is inherently problematic because EQUIP wasn’t entirely accurate in its first year of use. Even the ACS admits that drawing the line at a certain score is “arbitrary” because no score definitively divides a good agency from bad one.
But ACS didn’t rely on EQUIP alone. The department held two individual meetings with each agency over the past four months. The agencies were invited to discuss strengths not captured by their EQUIP scores, such as a connection to a certain neighborhood, for instance, or the aftercare services they provide.
Then the agencies were asked to file a statement on their plans to improve performance. ACS also offered free financial consulting to those who needed it. So far, eight of the ten providers that were on the list have successfully completed the review. ACS is still reviewing statements from two others, including one run directly by ACS.
The agencies seem to have taken the experience to heart. Stupp said his agency is now setting up a new performance appraisal process in which managers’ ratings will be linked to some of the same indicators of the EQUIP. Harlem Dowling-Westside Center, another agency that was on the list, has rolled out a new plan to enhance record keeping and case tracking by senior managers.
ACS officials say they were pleased with the agencies’ openness to change. “There are something that we learned here about the experience of working closely with an agency that we will want to figure out how to use in the future,” said Valerie Russo, deputy commissioner of ACS’ newly established Division of Quality Assurance. Russo said ACS does not plan to conduct this type of review on an annual basis, but will find a way to include new indicators proposed by the agencies into future evaluations.
“I’ve heard Commissioner Mattingly say a couple of times: Each agency has a different story to tell. When you look at the fact they were able to remove eight agencies from the list, ACS was pretty impressed with the stories,” said Jim Purcell, executive director of the Council of Family and Child Caring Agencies, an industry association. “I think ACS made a good faith effort here to look beyond the scores at other aspects that contribute to the quality of services that agencies can provide and the help they can give families and kids.”