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In the nine months since 7 year-old Nixzmary Brown died at the hands of her abusive parents, the response by the city Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) is still a matter for debate. Dozens of families with children in foster care vented to city councilmembers at a town hall meeting in East Harlem last week that ACS now seems to take children from their homes more hastily and return them more reluctantly.

Brown, who lived in Bedford-Stuyvesant, died when her stepfather allegedly beat and starved the second-grader for weeks before she succumbed to her injuries in January – after ACS had dismissed allegations of abuse against him.

“A lot of these people are paying for what Nixzmary Brown’s parents did to her,” said Violet Rittenhour, a parent and child welfare advocate who spoke out at the meeting. “It’s unfair for ACS to characterize all parents with children in foster care that way.”

At the time, metro-area media blamed the city for missing an opportunity to save Brown’s life. But now, child welfare reform advocates say the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction. “The impact is that children are now being needlessly torn from everyone that is loving and familiar in their lives,” said Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform. “This is the price of panic. Every frontline worker at ACS is terrified of having the next Nixzmary Brown on their caseload, and in that scenario the mantra is ‘take the child and run.’”

This year, Wexler’s coalition published a report examining trends in ACS starting with the death of Elisa Izquierdo in 1995, tracking the increase in foster care placements that followed, and assessing the reforms that ultimately reduced the number of children in foster care in New York City. The report concluded that children are safer now than they were when placements were high and urged ACS not to turn back in the wake of Nixzmary Brown.

ACS spokeswoman Sharman Stein says that although the number of children put in foster care has increased significantly since Brown’s death, the upswing in placements is not due to panic within the agency. Stein attributes the upsurge to the skyrocketing number of reports ACS received after Brown’s grisly murder made the front page.

“People were alarmed after Nixzmary Brown and everybody reported more incidents of abuse and neglect,” Stein said. “Many of them were substantiated and we saw a lot of serious cases right away and we were able to take those kids out of dangerous situations, which is a good thing. We understand why families are worried, but we do not believe that there has been an overreaction at ACS.”

Stein says the number of abuse and neglect reports from January to July, at 40,000, were up by one-third over the same time period last year, when the total was 30,000. Between January and May, ACS placed 3,263 children in foster care versus 1,962 over the same time period last year, a 60 percent increase. But the proportion of children placed in foster care as compared to the total number of reports of abuse and neglect has only increased by 1.5 percent, up to 10.3 percent of reported cases, Stein said.

After hearing teary-eyed parents plead for help getting their children back, Councilman Bill deBlasio, who chairs the committee charged with overseeing ACS, offered to broker a meeting this month between the families and Commissioner John Mattingly to air their grievances and work toward solutions.

“We have good access to Mattingly and he’s sympathetic to our concerns,” said Michael Arsham, director of the Child Welfare Organizing Project (CWOP), which sponsored the meeting. “But there is potential for de Blasio and Mattingly to form an agenda together to hone in on the issues that captured the councilman’s imagination.”

Rittenhour, whose children bounced from one foster home to the next for a total of five different placements between 2001 and 2002, said she was grateful that de Blasio was willing to act so quickly. She fought for her children’s return and continued to advocate for other parents caught up in the system even after her son and daughter came home.

“I know what these parents are going through,” said Rittenhour, now a parent organizer for CWOP. “I’ve experienced it myself, so it means a lot to me personally that the councilman wants to open the lines of communication between parents and ACS.”

Councilwoman Maria del Carmen Arroyo, whose brother has children in foster care, said it is crucial for elected officials to bring these issues to the agency’s attention. “The system is blind to the chaos that occurs when children are separated from their families,” Arroyo said.

“That’s an unfair characterization,” Stein said. “We do as much as we can to reduce the trauma of removal, whenever possible we place kids with their siblings, we place them in neighborhoods near their homes and we reduce the amount of time that a kid is in foster care.”

– Adam F. Hutton

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