It’s a busy summer for child welfare provider agencies in every borough, as they work to respond by the August deadline to a massive request for proposals issued by the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS).

Viewed one way, the RFP is business as usual – a vehicle to renew expired three-year contracts among the dozens of nonprofit groups that deliver an array of services to children and families in need of help (or for new vendors to initiate them for the first time), including providing families with counseling to address problems; protecting children from abuse; and matching children with foster parents.

But this long-awaited RFP also aims to standardize some of the changing approaches to child welfare that have been evolving under ACS Commissioner John Mattingly in recent years, such as increasing the presence of child welfare issues in a given community’s social services framework, more intense family involvement, and a shift from group homes to more family placements for foster children. Although current agency providers are generally happy with the policy and practice goals of the far-reaching plan, the main concern on many of their minds is whether the depth and breadth of funding will be adequate.

“It’s a big worry, whether the dollars will be delivered so we can provide,” said Richard Altman, CEO of the Jewish Child Care Association, which provides a range of child welfare and mental health services to children and families.

In fact, funding questions held up the issuance of the RFP until this spring. Issuance of the RFP was cancelled in Nov. 2008 because of “budgetary uncertainties,” says ACS spokeswoman Sharman Stein. It was reissued six months later with a $630 million budget, instead of the $675 million in the first RFP, while ACS’ overall budget has gone down about 7 percent from fiscal 2009 to fiscal 2010.

Required to make cutbacks just like all city agencies, ACS also has identified hundreds of staff positions to cut from its workforce of close to 7,000 people, but has been able to hold off so far on all but 51 workers laid off last summer, and 159 others whose last day was Friday. Stein said those reductions will not affect oversight of the new contracts, however: “We have a better system than ever in place.”

Mattingly also maintains an optimistic view, as the RFP charts a course for the next nine years (of three renewable three-year contracts). In recent years, ACS has “introduced additional funding through reinvestment of foster and residential care savings,” he said, and these additional funds have gone towards strengthening the supports for foster families and relative caregivers, as well as helped bring down caseloads.

The RFP, he said in a statement, “represent the city’s undertaking of our role to set the direction and tone for services to families and children through the child welfare system. These include: more and stronger family-centered services in foster care; new assessment services that will be more community-based and family-focused; financially strengthened community partnerships; and a strengthened prevention system.”

Mattingly added that the new contracting process will help continue this progress in what he called “demanding fiscal times.”

Providers, though, are still a little anxious – not just about cuts, but the possibility of growing need.

“With the economic downturn, it’s likely that more families will need preventative services, to enable kids to stay in their homes,” said Stephanie Gendell, associate executive director of policy and public affairs at the Citizens Committee for Children. Better funding means agencies can provide more staff members to wrap families in the services they need.

One aspect where concerns might play out is the new emphasis on family team conferencing, which requires well-trained, staff to involve families more intimately in the decisions affecting them. Although providers generally support this addition, many worry about who the facilitators will be and how they will be paid for.

“In the pilot program [for family team conferencing], ACS provided the facilitators and support,” said Edith Holzer, spokeswoman for the Council of Family and Child Caring Agencies (COFCCA), a statewide group. “Now the agencies have to provide those staff members.” But ACS points out that it will augment that by sitting in and providing training along the way.

Whoever provides the facilitators, the idea behind family team conferencing is to use the assets of each family, such as understanding their own strengths, to arrive at a more solid, and hopefully permanent, solution. Hand-in-hand with this is a stipulation that calls for providers to move families through their program of services in an average of 12 months (acknowledging, however, that some will take six months, and others 18). Ideally, if a provider has capacity for 60 families, 15 of those are expected to be replaced within the first quarter, 15 in the second, and so on until all slots are generally refilled within a year, thus serving families more efficiently, and serving more families in crisis.

In order to encourage this, the RFP includes a financial incentive structure on a quarterly basis, where an agency’s funding may be reduced if goals are not met.

ACS came to this conclusion after the past few years of research, which showed the reason many families stayed in preventive services longer was “more a reflection of less than optimum practice by the agency” than a family’s needs, said Stein. In addition, research showed that there could even be diminishing results for a family using preventive services for more than six to 12 months. “Most families respond best to a clear, focused and mutually agreed-upon service plan,” she said.

Another area affected by the RFP is a move away from congregate care for foster children, placing more youth in family settings. Some agencies are not happy with this, citing cases where young people simply do not do well in a family placement, such as children who chronically run away, and need the group setting and around-the-clock supportive services that group homes provide. Jim Purcell, CEO of COFCCA, which represents the contract agencies, worries that without these group placements, children will bounce from family to family.

The RFP does provide for residential care for severe cases, such as young people working through substance abuse, who exhibit sexually abusive behaviors, or who have severe mental illnesses. However, the RFP no longer offers specialized residential programs for pregnant teens, LGBT youth, or parenting teens who otherwise do not have special needs. Instead, all future providers must be able to accommodate these populations in general care. Only in extreme cases, such as where an LGBTQ youth has faced bias-related violence in previous placements, for example, will specialized accommodations be an option.

Spokeswoman Stein said that although they are “asking a lot of the agencies” through the new RFP, ACS asks a lot of itself as well. The plan was developed to allow for as much flexibility as possible, and ACS has already issued addenda with adjustments. After the contracts are awarded, if alterations were needed, “we could change policy,” she said. In addition, each agency can decide how to use the funds provided. There is no set structure to be applied to all agencies, since each has different needs based on the strength of their community partnerships, for example, and breakdown of staff.

Deadlines for provider organizations are throughout August. Contracts will be awarded in late 2009 or early 2010, and are slated to start July 1, 2010.

– Jessica Glazer