With little fanfare, the Administration for Children’s Services achieved a record low caseworker load this September, a key measure of the agency’s ability to protect children from abuse and neglect. Now, as the fiscal crisis forces a citywide scaling back of social services, ACS is working to preserve these gains and forge ahead with plans for foster care reform.

The new average of eight cases per child protection worker – down from 21 in March 2006 – reflects intensive investment in front line casework, including a recruitment campaign earlier this year with broad coverage in the subways. Last May, the city committed $790.6 million to ACS programs for fiscal 2009, which began July 1. (The agency’s overall budget remained at $2.7 billion, thanks to one-time increases in state and federal funding.) Nonetheless, on Nov. 5, the agency announced it would trim $19.3 million for the remainder of this fiscal year, and another $38.4 million the next—a response to Mayor Bloomberg’s recent directives to all agencies to close the citywide budget shortfall by 2.5 percent in fiscal 2009 and 5 percent in fiscal 2010.

ACS proposed to stay ahead of the shrinking budget curve by economizing on office expenses, media campaigns, and other internal costs. The revised budget also leaves 127 vacant supervisory positions unfilled, and requires low-level supervisors to take on caseloads of their own. To more than 100 nonprofits around the city that contract with ACS to provide foster care and other family services, however, the biggest change may be that a gigantic request for proposals (RFP) they were preparing for – in which they would explain how their service delivery would incorporate new ACS priorities and approaches – has been postponed.

ACS communications director Sharman Stein says that calling off the RFP gives nonprofits a reprieve from the costly and time-consuming response process. In this decision and in its approach to budget cuts, ACS has found a kind of beleaguered understanding from its partners. “It could be worse,” said Andrew White, editor of the quarterly Child Welfare Watch (which is co-published by City Limits’ sister think tank, the Center for an Urban Future). “The child protection division has more people now than a few years ago, and it also has a high turnover, so it’s a logical place to save money by attrition.” White, who also directs the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs, added that he dreads the fallout of deeper cuts, which seem increasingly likely for fiscal year 2010.

Horrific cases of child abuse, alongside the role of overworked, poorly supervised caseworkers, are issues that remain seared into any discussions of budget cuts. In response to the 2006 murder of 7-year-old Nixzmary Brown by her mother and stepfather, ACS trained and hired hundreds of new caseworkers, including 340 child protection specialists and 49 investigative consultants this year. As a result, the average caseload plummeted, a trend that Stein insisted would not be altered by supervisor vacancies.

Stein also said that the agency would not compromise on Improved Outcomes for Children, a series of reforms launched in 2007 to increase provider accountability and family placement for youth in the foster care system. Commissioner John Mattingly is ready to take the reforms citywide, but could encounter an obstacle in state government, which supplies a quarter of the agency’s annual budget. Last year, city government picked up the tab after the state cut 2 percent of a matching grant program for preventive programs – the kind of counseling and other services that aim to keep families together so that children don’t need to go to foster care. In his latest round of cuts, Gov. Paterson also cancelled Bridges to Health, a medical program for kids in foster care. With a $12.5 billion state budget deficit predicted for the next fiscal year, will Paterson continue to favor a sweeping initiative like Improved Outcomes for Children, which needs state approval to expand? “As far as we know,” said Stein.

If ACS projects cautious optimism in the face of the budget squeeze, private service agencies are more anxious. At the East Harlem Council for Community Improvement, which provides preventive services such as counseling and parenting classes, director Darving Irizarry is stretching his budget to avoid the worst-case scenario: laying off any of the five family caseworkers on staff. “We’re trying to lean on our community service providers,” said Irizarry, referring to the outside soup kitchens, medical and mental health clinics, and after school programs that complement the work of preventive programs. “The problem is, they’re also feeling overwhelmed.”

In the Highbridge section of the Bronx, the Bridge Builders program has received competitive grants from the ACS Community Partnerships Initiative, as well as George Soros’ Open Society Institute. Now, foundations are closing their wallets, and the delayed RFP has dampened plans to expand the program. “We haven’t been impacted yet on the program level, but there is insecurity and uncertainty about the future,” said David Tobis, co-director of Bridge Builders and a longtime advocate of foster care reform.

Although ACS has promised to reopen the proposal process next year, Tobis worries that the momentum behind community-focused family services could evaporate in the interim. The program’s team of local counselors and school-based social workers has produced promising results, he said, including a 29 percent drop in foster care removals from 2006 to 2007, even as removals rose by 26 percent in neighboring areas. “Will Bridge Builders be able to survive? We have about 400,000 dollars for next year, and our budget’s a million. How are we going to fill that gap?” Tobis wondered.

– Lindsey McCormack