Child Welfare Changes Stir Hopes, Fears

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In its drive to de-institutionalize foster care, ACS aims to “push everyone down a level” in the child-welfare hierarchy, says Nicole Lavan, senior policy officer at the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies.

Photo by: Marc Fader

In its drive to de-institutionalize foster care, ACS aims to “push everyone down a level” in the child-welfare hierarchy, says Nicole Lavan, senior policy officer at the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies.

Ten years ago, the Administration for Children’s Services overhauled the way it provided services to children and families in need, shifting the focus away from monolithic institutions to community-based services. A second and similarly profound wave of change was supposed to sweep through New York’s child welfare world this year, as ACS advanced its philosophy of keeping children in their homes or as close to them as possible.

But when it came time to select the private agencies that would implement this change, ACS decreased contracts for many providers with long-established connections to ACS¾with little clarity on how proposals were vetted and decisions made.

Last week, ACS announced a drastic shift, telling agencies it would rescind contract awards in a broad swath of categories, because “re-evaluation and re-scoring … is warranted.” As City Limits reported on Thursday, ACS spokeswoman Laura Postiglione confirmed that ACS will “rescind its recent recommendations for awards” to re-evaluate how and why decisions were made.

What this sudden change represents for the 16,000 children in foster care and the 257 children a day who are reported as abused or neglected is not yet clear. What is clear, however, is that the contract awards were only one of the concerns that experts and service providers have voiced about the sea change at ACS.

The focus on keeping children better connected to their families has wide support among service providers and advocates. But some of those same stakeholders have raised concerns about how that vision is being executed.

Shrinking resources

The budget is a primary worry. Changes include a 25 percent reduction in residential foster care beds and a two-thirds cut in community-based group homes. Critically, a threatened 21 percent hit to preventive services—including counseling, drug/alcohol treatment and parenting classes designed to keep families intact—that could have affected 3,000 households was largely restored in last-minute budget negotiations..

The foster-care cuts do not reflect empty beds in the foster-care network: Earlier this year, children placed by ACS filled all of the 451 beds now being cut. And cuts in residential care programs dig into an already-lean budget: Funding for residential programs was trimmed by 38 percent in 2005.

Overall, ACS statistics show a steady rise of youth in need of ACS support—from 50,000 children in 2005 to 64,700 in 2009, including a steep increase in reports of abuse and neglect in foster care—yet the current budget proposes a $33 million decrease, according to sources at the city’s Independent Budget Office, including cuts to family and residential foster care. (Adopted budgets can and do change in actual practice: In fiscal 2010, for example, the adopted budget for ACS was $2.67 billion, while actual spending reached $2.9 billion.)

ACS plans to add new services even as cuts are made, including mobile crisis response teams and services targeting developmentally disabled youth, children who have been sexually exploited and youth who have participated in sexual aggression or abuse.

Both new services and cuts, announced in June, were intended to be in place by October for foster care and preventive services programs, and by April 2011 for children in group-home care, a timeline that will surely be affected by ACS’ reworking of the RFP process. But their effects are already being felt.

A New Decade, a New Landscape

Mayor Giuliani created ACS in 1996. Today, the agency investigates abuse and neglect reports on approximately 92,000 children a year. Its preventive services support 31,000 children and their families.

For children who are removed from their homes, ACS runs a two-pronged residential system: foster families that take in individual children and group homes operated by contractors that host a number of ACS clients at a time. Some children are also placed in kinship care with extended family, rather than with new foster families. A small fraction—on average, 1,600 a year—are adopted.

Ten years ago ACS underwent a major bureaucratic shift. Initiated by then-commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta, the move was designed to nurture greater participation in the child protection system by minority-run, community-based agencies, shifting caseloads away from large, entrenched providers into the communities with the greatest child-welfare needs. The 2000 policy was embodied in a request for proposals to providers who work for ACS.

That well-intentioned strategy didn’t work, said Council of Family and Child Caring Agencies communications director Edith Holzer, because of the overwhelming complexity in child-welfare regulations and shallow support that was provided to small agencies. “The state invested in minority-led agencies, which were not supported and grew very large too quickly,” Holzer says. “Now, most of them are closed.”

Three years ago, ACS policies began to change. In 2007, the agency inaugurated its “Improved Outcomes for Children” initiative, which outlined a new approach designed to keep children at home when possible, and in their own communities if foster care was mandated. Improved Outcomes goals include less institutionalization, more home placements, increased adoption, shorter stays in foster care and fewer children returning to foster care once they have been reunited with their family of origin. In 2009, ACS issued a new request for proposals reflecting this vastly changed approach.

In its drive to de-institutionalize foster care, ACS aims to “push everyone down a level” in the child-welfare hierarchy, says Nicole Lavan, senior policy officer at the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies: Children who in previous years might have lived in a group home will now move to family foster care, say. Those who would have been foster children might stay with their family and receive preventive services.

Community-based care means that children may still attend local schools and remain connected to important relationships within the community. It’s also more cost effective: Foster care costs on average $36,000 a year for each child, and group homes average $50,000 per resident annually. Preventive services average about $9,000 a year for a family.

“Preventive-services programs have saved the city hundreds of millions in decreased foster care, by keeping those kids safely at home,” according to James Purcell, CEO of COFCCA. And those economic savings do not reflect the human benefit of sparing kids and parents from painful separations.

The new RFP, issued in early 2009, led to an 18-month process to evaluate current providers and identify new ones. In total, 67 agencies were awarded child welfare contracts; 27 won the rights to provide family foster care; with an additional 20 residential care providers and 59 preventive-services providers included in the contract awards, which were announced in May 2010. ACS’ recent about-face on its RFP means that those numbers will change, with some long-time providers restored and, many worry, new providers removed from the agency’s list. ACS must make changes quickly, however, as new systems of providers are expected to be in place by fall 2010.

Questions about the human cost

Some advocates’ concerns go beyond budgets or the RFP. While they endorse shifting kids from getting foster care to receiving services within their own families, they question the plans for youth who are more deeply involved in the system.

Most of the children in group-home foster care are older than 12 and are more difficult to place in traditional homes, for a host of reasons. Some who have had difficult home lives do not thrive in such settings.

While group homes are far from ideal, some teens forge relationships with counselors and caregivers that lead to eventual adoption or a return to a foster family or kinship care, with relatives instead of birth parents. In other cases, group homes are the fragile platforms from which youth who age out of foster care launch into emancipated, independent adult lives. Shifting these already-vulnerable young people to new agencies means establishing new connections, trust and communication with caseworkers, health-care providers, therapists and caregivers.

“Many children in group homes are there specifically because they require specialized supervision that many foster families find difficult to provide,” Claude Meyers, president and CEO of Abbott House, an agency that provides services to ACS clients and whose contracts were decreased in the current RFP, wrote in an email to City Limits. “In many cases, our youngsters have formed attachments to the direct care professionals who staff our group homes. For these children, the loss of any significant relationship may be traumatic. We are concerned that impending changes may be very difficult for those whose lives have already experienced too many losses.”

Shifting from group homes to foster care will cost time, too, slowing down the pace of eventually transferring children home. Family court processes must adapt to new providers, and steep learning curves will confront new caseworkers as they take on additional responsibilities.

The delays over the RFP have put the focus on process, not policy, and that’s a problem, according to Antsiss Agnew, director of Forestdale, Inc. The behind-the-scenes struggle over the RFP has been a distraction, she said.

“It’s important that people stop fighting and calling names,” Agnew told City Limits. “We’re involved in a political process instead of focusing on children and families.”

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