When a local advocacy group releases a report aimed at changing city policy, it’s often ready to expect immediate resistance from the target of critique, and then perhaps slow alterations made over time.

But when the nonprofit Children’s Rights released a report last month analyzing how long it takes for foster children to obtain a permanent home, the city agency involved – the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) – not only supported the release, but soon announced a related initiative aimed at shortening the length of time children remain in foster care.

This would be even more remarkable if the report hadn’t all but closed the case on what many in the city’s child welfare community have known for years: New York has one of the worst mechanisms for helping children move from foster care to permanent homes in the country. (It placed 44th among 47 states; see p. 71 of this state report.)

For the 153 children followed in “The Long Road Home: A Study of Children Stranded in New York City Foster Care,” the average length of time it took to either be returned to their families or adopted – called “achieving permanency” in child welfare terms – was more than five years.

Beginning next month, ACS will put a benchmark on improving that measure with a new “One Year to Family” campaign, aimed at either returning children to their families or finding them adoptive homes within one year of July 1, 2010. ACS says it will also work to continually increase the percentage of children leaving foster care for each year after that.

“We have increasingly been holding ourselves and our contract agency partners responsible for helping youth find permanency through a safe return home to their families, a kinship placement, or adoption,” said ACS Commissioner John Mattingly when the report was released.

“We intend to work with all of our partners in child welfare to turn the structural improvements we have now made,” said Mattingly, “into the results we all want for children and families.”

In addition to placing tight timeframes on finding permanent homes for children currently in foster care through the use of revamped family team conferences and a greater presence in family court, the division says it will make changes to its relationship with private foster care agencies as well.

ACS says it will advocate for federal funds to create a system-wide level of training among caseworkers at private agencies, create guidelines aimed at limiting turnover, and establish a more flexible funding structure to help private foster care agencies provide services to families to help smooth a child’s exit from foster care.

This ambitious and hopeful glimpse into the future stands in stark contrast to the picture of the city’s current foster care system portrayed in “The Long Road Home,” in which information gathered from ACS, private foster care agencies, family court judges, attorneys and parents showed that close to 30 percent of the caseworkers studied had an average caseload of more than 20 children, and that the length of time it took for a decision to be made about whether a child would either remain in foster care or be returned home took an average of 11 months.

“You can’t say that the permanency problem in New York is all [about] older children,” says Children’s Rights policy director Julie Farber, a lead author of the report. “There are 5-year-olds who have been languishing in foster care.”

Farber says the report is less an indictment of the city’s child welfare system than it is a tool of “advocacy leverage” against cutbacks in a service area not always backed by the same political will as the state’s education and health sectors, but is still subject to underfunded mandates from Albany when tragic stories of child abuse hit the headlines.

Although the state’s current budget situation is one in which many government agencies will be asked to do more with less, Farber is quick to point out that a lack of investment in shoring up the city’s foster care system is likely to cost the state in other ways, as children who “age out” of foster care without permanent support are more likely to be homeless, incarcerated or unemployed.

For its part, family court has convened a workgroup comprised of judges, foster care agencies and attorneys, according to administrative judge Edwina Richardson-Mendelson, who says they’re looking at creating solutions to the problems of non-compliance with court orders, and frequent delays in the hearing process.

Two possible solutions include the expansion of time-certain hearings, where a hearing for a child is given a beginning and ending time that will be adhered to – rather than having hearings endlessly postponed and moved as is the norm – with the goal of accomplishing concrete plans for the future; and the use of court conferencing, where attorneys for a child’s foster care agency, ACS representatives and parents exchange valuable case information before a hearing.

While the general conclusion of “The Long Road Home,” that the city’s child welfare system is woefully underfunded, is hardly disputed by many people in the child welfare community, the reaction to some of the report’s recommendations is more mixed.

Judge Richardson-Mendelson, for example, objected to the report’s recommendation that family courts make greater use of sanctions to bring attorneys for a child in foster care to the table, noting that such actions would result in costly sanction hearings that would take even more time away from planning for a child’s release.

“If we had a perfect number of judges in the system,” notes Richardson-Mendelson, “we would still have the problems we have unless the agencies are better resourced and the attorneys are better resourced.”

Richard Wexler, the director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform in Alexandria, Va. says, “The biggest problem with the report is that it ignores the elephant in the room, which is the fact that so many children [in foster care] are needlessly removed in the first place.”

Wexler believes the report’s inclusion of birth parents through the use of focus groups was cursory at best, and “reflects the same kind of bias against poor families” that can lead to a child’s removal.

“We tried to convince [Children’s Rights] to go into more depth in their work with parents in preparation for this report. It is an often-neglected perspective,” concurs Mike Arsham, executive director of the Child Welfare Organizing Project, a reform group focused on parents’ involvement in the system. But, Arsham wrote in an e-mail, “Given the limits of the ‘parent voice’ in the preparation of the report, I do think the report itself provides a pretty balanced perspective. It is appropriately noted that sometimes parents’ behavior contributes to inordinately long stays in foster care, but that agencies and courts can be, and often are, just as culpable.”

Michelle Conklin, community relations vice president with SSEU Local 371, the union that represents the city’s 5,400 child welfare and protective specialists, also notes an over-reliance on the use of foster care as a tool by ACS, but identifies a different cause: the elimination this September of 300 clerical child welfare specialist positions and the dismantling of the city’s Office of Contracted Agency Case Management (which was responsible for coordinating service plans between private foster care agencies and the city).

“ACS still has oversight of cases, but they’re doing it in a different way by using statistical analysis and giving the responsibility to private agencies,” says Conklin.

“If statistical analysis shows that a private agency doesn’t perform, they’ll sanction that agency, but they’re not following the individual child.”

As part of the One Year to Family Campaign, ACS said in an e-mail that “technical assistance/monitoring teams from Children’s Services will track progress on an ongoing basis with each of the foster care agencies and all results will be publicly tracked in a setting involving other stakeholders and advocates including Children’s Rights.”

– Nekoro Gomes