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Can you issue an RFP for a transformation?

It seems the city’s Administration for Children’s Services is planning to do just that sometime in 2008. From major providers like Good Shepherd Services to smaller outfits like the Flatbush Haitian Center, all of the 112 nonprofits presently providing foster care, or the preventive family services aimed at keeping kids out of foster care, will have to respond to a massive Request for Proposals if they want to continue as ACS contractors.

Still in development, the RFP will express a number of initiatives that encapsulate Commissioner John Mattingly’s drive for tangible service improvements at ACS, the city agency with oversight over 17,000 children in foster care and 30,000 children who receive preventive services. For some 20 months now, ACS has been implementing a strategic plan to sharpen the agency’s child safety focus, enhance frontline staff performance, and strengthen the investigation skills and decision making needed to evaluate allegations of child neglect or abuse.

Officials expect the RFP to enshrine some of the hallmark new approaches, such as family conferencing and community partnerships, with the overarching goal of reducing the length of foster care stays. But some wonder if all nonprofit providers are ready to deliver the neighborhood-centric web of supportive infrastructure that’s sought. Coming at a time when the ACS budget could be cut by 5 percent (as at all city departments except for police and fire), and when the agency wants to preserve recent advances in areas like preventive services, the RFP throws into relief the tensions of this high-stakes system.

“We’re moving too fast – but we must, in my view,” Mattingly told a group of more than 200 nonprofit agency leaders, parents involved in the foster care system, ACS staffers and others who gathered Wednesday at The New School for a forum on NYC’s child welfare system. The set of changes being implemented at the agency, which employs 3,500 people in child protection alone – apart from Head Start and child care, which ACS also directs – emphasizes improving accountability as a way to improve the outcomes of children’s cases. “We just can’t continue to accept everybody’s reasons,” he said – reasons, he didn’t need to tell this crowd, used to excuse the cases of child neglect, abuse and even death that routinely escape ACS’ prevention. “We have to hold ourselves accountable to a higher standard.”

At the same time that it seems like changes are being implemented quickly, Mattingly asked for patience, too: “It’s going to take 10 years,” he said.

While his staff is now putting the finishing touches on the concept paper for the RFP – to be posted on the ACS website, followed by a comment period and issuance of the Request, with all contracts to be in place by July 2009 – they’re also in talks with the city Office of Management and Budget about where to cut $41.1 million from the city tax portion of the agency’s $2.5 billion annual budget (the rest comes from state and federal sources). Because that is ongoing, and the state’s contribution for the next fiscal year isn’t yet known, ACS spokeswoman Sharman Stein wouldn’t say what cuts are being considered.

But at the panel, everyone from Mattingly himself to state Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS) deputy commissioner Jane Lynch to New York Foundling executive director Bill Baccaglini, Jr. said they were concerned that cuts could threaten preventive services. Those are the referrals, advocacy, counseling and direct assistance that’s “crucial to keep families and children together safely,” Stein said. “It is also much more cost-effective than foster care.”

Baccaglini, who worked at OCFS for years and now heads a nonprofit with more than 900 kids in foster care, told the assembled, “They will come after prevention. We cannot afford that this time. Prevention does work. We have to convince them of it.”

At the forum – sponsored by Child Welfare Watch, which is copublished by City Limits’ sister organization, The Center for an Urban Future – questions and answers covered everything from the system’s ambitions and the perennially inadequate resources provided to meet them; to the plight of non-English-speaking foster children placed in homes with guardians who don’t speak their language; to the scourge of unfounded “malicious reports” of abuse or neglect, which are called in to ACS as an attack on a parent; to one woman’s personal story of recently having her daughter taken by ACS – an action she called “kidnaping.”

Panelist Sabra Jackson addressed the child welfare system from several perspectives at once. A parent organizer with the Child Welfare Organizing Project, a representative to the ACS Parent Advisory Work Group, and a member of the ACS Citywide Head Start Policy Council, Jackson got most of her child welfare experience by having her children removed by ACS in 2004.

If the family conferences and other preventive measures that are in place now were available to her then, her daughter could have stayed with her, said Jackson, who acknowledges she had a cocaine problem at the time. “Did I need to get help? Absolutely. But she wouldn’t have been removed.”

Baccaglini of New York Foundling is generally optimistic about the major shifts underway at ACS and affiliated nonprofits. “We’ll remember this change as difficult to go through,” he said at the panel. “I think at the end of the day, this is a better system. I just think it’s going to be better for kids and families.”

But, he said yesterday, it’s worth asking why the Administration for Children’s Services isn’t spared the 5 percent cuts, along with police and fire. “Why can’t the kids be exempt? I don’t know how they justify ACS taking a 5 percent cut.”

“These are high-risk kids and families. If we cut them too much, the chances of them penetrating other systems,” like the city’s homeless and welfare agencies, “are much greater.”

– Karen Loew

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