Child Welfare In the Press: Painful Wounds Reopened

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On Nov. 5, 6 and 7, the New York Times published a three-part series of articles about the poor performance of some of the city’s minority-led foster care agencies. The series apparently seeks to evaluate the status of such agencies from the distance of 20 years after the start of a new public initiative. That initiative was the city’s effort to put far more care of foster children – who are overwhelmingly black and Latino – under the auspices of agencies run by people of color. In early 2005, however, the Administration for Children’s Services, which is responsible for most child welfare oversight in the city, placed the nine lowest-performing foster care agencies on notice that they could be shut down if they didn’t improve. Six of those nine were minority-led. This is the linchpin of the Times series, which provides a detailed exploration of the recent past without ever quite making it clear to readers why this story is timely now.

The articles generated a commotion among child welfare professionals. Some had been aware for a few years that this series was in the works. Adding the inherent clout of a Times front-page series to the immensely challenging high-stakes affair that is child welfare had others nervous. In the end many felt the airing of a stinging critique of minority agency leaders served little constructive purpose – especially without an explicit connection drawn to present realities. Here, two such professionals with differing experience in the field offer their reactions to the series.

Melba Butler served as executive director of Harlem Dowling-West Side Center, a child welfare agency, from 1990 through 2006. She now serves as interim president and CEO of the Black Equity Alliance and adjunct lecturer at the Hunter College School of Social Work. A licensed clinical social worker, she received her master’s in social work from Columbia University and is pursuing a doctorate in social welfare from CUNY. Harlem Dowling was one of the low-scoring minority-led agencies referred to in the Times series. Of ACS’s evaluation system, called EQUIP, Butler says: “Although Harlem Dowling struggled in the early years of the EQUIP system, all of the child welfare agencies of color are currently scoring Satisfactory [the middle rung of the rating system] or better.”

New York City’s prolonged debate about minorities and foster care entered an unfortunate new round with a biased New York Times series on the topic. In essence, the Times alleges that minority-controlled foster care agencies have badly failed the African- American and Latino children they were created to serve.

In fact, the series focuses on just three agencies, and it’s true these agencies had problems. But two of them haven’t provided foster care for three years – St. Christoper’s Inc. and Miracle Makers Inc. And St. Christopher’s is not really a minority-controlled agency; although the former director responsible for mismanagement is Latino, the board was mostly white. (Oddly, the Times did not give credit to Luis Medina’s successor Joseph Seimedi, also Latino, who greatly improved the agency.) The failures of these two providers are then used to implicitly denigrate all minority-controlled agencies and the management capabilities of minority foster care leaders.

The series poses, but doesn’t answer, the question as to whether or not these agencies should continue. I believe they must.

Minority agencies play the critical role in making the entire child welfare system more sensitive to African-American and Latino children and their families. There is no evidence to indicate that minority agency executives are less able than their white counterparts. On this point alone, the Times should be ashamed of itself.

To understand why this series has generated such controversy, a bit of history must be understood. There is no one with an opinion on the city’s child welfare system over the age of 40 whose views on foster care are not directly or indirectly influenced by the Wilder case. Shirley Wilder was a 13 year-old African-American foster care child who became the subject of a historic 26-year court case.

Wilder correctly alleged that mainstream foster care agencies discriminated against minority children, denying them access to the highest quality care. At the time the case was filed, a large percentage of African-American and Latino children languished in New York City-run agencies which everyone agreed offered dismal services.

By omitting any reference to this bitter case, the Times fails its readers. They cannot be expected to understand why leaders in African American and Latino communities were so eager to have our own foster care providers. We wanted to serve our own children because they were so badly served by others.

Despite start-up problems, we have done much to improve foster care. The minority agencies pioneered in kinship care which assigns foster children to live with relatives when possible. This allows troubled youngsters to remain in their communities and schools and it encourages family reunification. Today, kinship care accounts for 28 percent of all foster care placements.

I was executive director of Harlem Dowling-West Side Center for 16 years, the oldest of the child welfare agencies of color. And I know all too well the extraordinary burdens the child welfare agencies of color face and the informal “glass ceilings” that people of color confront in seeking high level positions in child welfare.

Although Harlem Dowling struggled in the early years of ACS’s ratings system (called EQUIP), all of the child welfare agencies of color are currently scoring satisfactory or better. Last year one of the agencies, Edwin Gould, even ranked highest in the city in foster care, and Harlem Dowling earned a perfect score in congregate care. The child welfare agencies of color also contributed to re-evaluating how to measure quality in the system. The nonprofit I currently lead, Black Equity Alliance, is an integral partner and donor to a public/private fund which supports infrastructure development in agencies of color.

Right from the start, minority agencies were a real part of the communities they serve. Overwhelming evidence indicates that children and families are best served by agencies and professionals that share their cultural values and are committed to the total well-being of their communities.

The minority agencies which now serve 14 percent of foster care children were and are leaders in pushing the entire child welfare system toward greater “cultural competency,” which values varying cultural differences and child-rearing practices among communities. This is of great significance in a foster care system where 93 percent of the children served are African-American and Latino.

One reason that the Times series has been so bruising to minority advocates and their supporters is the timing of its publication. Minority agencies arrived on the scene during the crack epidemic as New York needed to rapidly expand foster care services. Today, we face a very different situation. The number of children needing foster care has dramatically declined. The result is that too many providers are seeking to serve a diminished pool of young people.

The question at hand is not the one posed by the Times as to whether or not minority foster care agencies should be shuttered. The real question is: given that the foster care system is shrinking due to structural changes being made by ACS, should minorities still play a major leadership role?

Anyone understanding the importance of ethnicity and race in foster care placements would answer in the affirmative. How then do we preserve a meaningful minority presence in foster care?

Most of the answers can be found in the report of the Task Force on Minority Governed, Community-Based Foster Care Agencies, which appeared two years ago this month. Too little has been done to implement its recommendations.

The Task Force report focuses on a few major issues. Minority foster care providers require greater financial support from the public and private sectors, expanded technical assistance and more of the kind of oversight that New York City has been providing for the past three years.

It was disheartening but not surprising to learn that Shirley Wilder’s children wound up in foster care. After a three-year investigation, the Times offers no clue on how to stop that awful cycle from affecting a third or fourth generation of children.

The Times instead has elected to pick at old wounds, infuriate advocates and denigrate both minority leaders and organizations committed to their communities and to helping troubled families.

– Melba Butler

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