Mayor Bloomberg seen at a 2008 event promoting a new program for protecting children. Support for preventive services has helped reduce the city's foster care population. But shocks to the system in 2010 might be preventing some families from accessing those services.

Photo by: Edward Reed/City Hall

Mayor Bloomberg seen at a 2008 event promoting a new program for protecting children. Support for preventive services has helped reduce the city’s foster care population. But shocks to the system in 2010 might be preventing some families from accessing those services.

For over a year, Sabra Jackson has had to face a challenge that makes even harder her already difficult job of helping parents implicated in child welfare investigations. Recently, when her clients have tried to get into programs designed to reduce their risk of child abuse or neglect, many have run into snags. Their initial telephone calls to organizations that offer this help have sometimes gone unreturned. In their follow-up phone calls, the parents may encounter unhelpful receptionists saying, “I don’t know why no one is reaching out to you. Who is the contact person? I’m not the person who’s responsible for that. I’m just answering the phone,” Jackson says. In other cases, parents have been told that the program is full, and referred elsewhere. In June, Jackson had a parent who had been waiting since the end of March to get into a preventive service program.

The 68 New York City programs responsible for helping these parents do so under $134.3 million in contracts between the city and 195 preventive service providers. For years, their largely invisible efforts have oiled the gears of New York City’s child welfare system, helping it run more smoothly by permitting at-risk, but cooperative parents to keep their children at home, rather than in foster care. They help parents by offering them a personalized menu of trainings, counseling, home visits and more, including substance abuse treatment, housing referrals and parenting classes.

These services have helped reduce the number of New York City children in foster care to 14,647 in March, the lowest level since fiscal year 2007, saving money and reducing the trauma that families experience when they are separated.

But in recent years, this crown jewel of the city’s child welfare system has undergone a series of shocks that curtailed its capacity to care for families and endangered some, advocates say. One disruption was a proposed fiscal year 2011 budget cut that loomed long but never materialized. Another blow came from a messy vendor selection process – called the RFP process – that erroneously awarded contracts to some providers and denied them to others, before being revised.

Both shocks caused some providers to lay off needed workers, other workers to lose confidence in their jobs and quit and providers to delay recruitment of new workers, shrinking the preventive services labor force. Now some providers don’t have enough workers, advocates say.

Money problems and process woes

Between May 2008 and December 2010, providers closed more cases each month than they opened. In June and July 2010 alone, providers closed 3,800 cases, partly to bring their caseloads into alignment with the projected fiscal year 2011 budget, which was supposed to include a roughly 20 percent reduction in funding for preventive services. Most of the cases in a sample of 223 closed cases were closed appropriately, according to the Children’s Services Planning Group report, but 15 percent were not closed appropriately. Six of the 33 closed inappropriately needed immediate follow-up, the report said.

The troubles lingering in preventive services began in March 2009, when ACS announced that it would be developing a new roster of preventive service providers, advocates say. The new roster of service providers was developed and finally announced in November 2010, but not before the city whipsawed the existing and prospective service providers for more than a year with contradictory announcements and decisions that advocates say ultimately affected their human resources plans.

First in March 2009, ACS issued a new set of guidelines explaining to providers how to compete for a fiscal year 2012 contract, then retracted and reissued revised guidelines within two months. Then between April 2010 and November 2010, the agency awarded contracts to providers based on those final guidelines, rescinded the awards—due to an error in the scoring of the applications—and reissued them to new winners.

Compounding matters, ACS asked providers who won contracts in April 2010 to begin collectively downsizing their operations by about 3,000 families to yield what ACS believed would be greater efficiencies and to comply with proposed city budget cuts. Then, in June, ACS reversed positions, telling those winners to stop downsizing because the city council agreed to finance services for 2,900 of the 3,000 slots slated for elimination.

Impact unclear

It’s unclear how much the preventive services labor force shrank under these pressures. And because preventive service providers aren’t allowed to keep waiting lists, there’s no way of knowing exactly how backed up the system is. But it’s clear the system is strained, causing parents to encounter long delays and unresponsiveness, advocates say.

Spokespeople for two preventive service providers—Good Shepherd Services and Brooklyn Community Services – say they weren’t experiencing problems with delays and unresponsiveness and referred City Limits’ questions to ACS. Two other preventive service providers – Northside Center for Child Development and Center for Family Life In Sunset Park—did not return calls for comment. But James Purcell, the CEO of the Council of Family and Child Caring Agencies – a membership group of 110 agencies across the state that provides foster care and preventive service – says the issue has affected some of his members, causing them to serve fewer families than they’d like.

“If you look at the city’s data, if you were to go back, you’d find over 11,000 families were getting preventive services. It dropped in the spring of last year and continued dropping,” Purcell says. The number of active preventive services cases fell from its 2010 peak of 12,949 to a low of 9,319 in November 2010, according to data from the ACS website. This drop occurred because the preventive services work force was shrinking and because referrals were slowing down and providers were closing cases, Purcell says. “It’s probably fair to say that the level of confusion and frustration on the part of the agencies – being told during the RFP that they had an award and then being told it was withdrawn – might be high,” Purcell says.

A spokesperson for ACS, Elysia Murphy, acknowledged that the number of active preventive services cases decreased significantly for about a year. Murphy says that’s because ACS slowed down its referrals to contracted providers and helped them close cases in preparation for a budget cut and in an attempt to operate more efficiently.

But the cases that were closed were handled carefully, says Michael Fagan, communications director for ACS.

Murphy says that among the parents that ACS refers for preventive services, the agency sees no evidence of delays and unresponsiveness. “We monitor those referrals very closely and we don’t see there being an issue or problem with families accessing slots among those cases,” Fagan says. When a case opens, ACS, the provider and the family meet, he says. “It’s not up to the family to try and navigate the system on their own,” he says.

When a provider doesn’t have space, ACS prevents delays in service by requiring the provider to notify it. “We have encouraged providers to reach out to us if they are in contact with a family whom they are not able to serve due to lack of capacity, because there is capacity overall in the system,” Murphy says. “We’ve told families that let us know if there is a family, for whom you do not have space.”

While some providers don’t yet know exactly how many new slots they will have for the current fiscal year, Fagan says, they will have several more months before they need to add the new slots and they’ve been given an estimate. They won’t be expected to expand their capacity before October, he says.

A system recovering

In fiscal year 2012, ACS is adding 1,000 slots of preventive services and 150 more slots of specialized preventive services, such as those for medically fragile children. In addition, there is evidence that the system is recovering from last year’s shocks. After a seven-month period of decline, the number of contracted preventive service cases began increasing in December 2010. But even on July 1, some of the providers whose new contracts had upcoming start dates still didn’t know how many people they would need to hire, leaving some programs still reluctant to staff up, advocates say.

In an email, Stephanie Gendell, associate director of Citizens’ Committee for Children, wrote that the city has made some admirable progress in its management of preventive services, particularly by restoring $30 million to the preventive service budget.

But she also wrote: “There is no question that the RFP process, the system downsizing that happened last summer, and the lack of certainty for programs about how many families they will have a contract to serve, has been challenging for the preventive service system.”

Parents bear the burden

The apparent shortage of preventive services has caused parents more than inconvenience, advocates say. Delays and unresponsiveness can jeopardize the safety of some at risk families. The inattentiveness of a now defunct preventive service provider – Child Development Support Corporation – to Marchella Pierce, the sickly 4-year-old Brooklyn girl whose mother and grandmother allegedly killed her in September, jeopardized her safety, according to a report by the Children’s Services Planning Group, an ad hoc task force that reviewed her case and others to identify areas for improvement.

The delays and unresponsiveness that parents have encountered when seeking preventive services can also retard and jeopardize the reunification process for parents eager to demonstrate that they are ready for their children to return home from foster care, two advocates from CWOP say. Parents’ failure to get into a program in a timely manner can be misinterpreted by the city’s child welfare workers as a sign that the parent is uncooperative, the two advocates say.

At the same time that some parents faced delays and unresponsiveness, others found themselves prematurely cut off from preventive services as the city prepared itself for the phantom proposed budget cut.

Parents who’ve had contact with the child welfare system expressed sympathy for those struggling with the turmoil in preventive services today. East Harlem resident Nicole Jones received preventive services from St. Nicholas, a now defunct Manhattan agency, when her children were placed in foster care in 2000. The four years of services included parenting classes. Her St. Nicholas case worker became her children’s godmother. “Preventive services aren’t what they used to be,” says Jones, who has friends who are still involved with the system. “I had a very good experience where I was able to take trainings. My daughter wound up landing a summer job though the program.”

Calls for accountability, reform

Mike Arsham, the executive director of CWOP, says the ACS administrators responsible for botching the vendor selection process should be held accountable for their actions. At an October city council hearing, he testified that: “Front line Child Protective Workers in the Brooklyn Borough Office were recently suspended due to errors in the handling of Marchella Pierce’s case, yet top management staff members at 150 William Street who were responsible for the RFP committed errors which devastated the entire Preventive Service system, potentially endangering thousands of children, and have not been held comparably accountable.”

Arsham and CCC have separately proposed a series of reforms that they believe will fortify the overall operations of preventive services.

Arsham recommended in his testimony to the City Council that ACS make better use of its resources by capping the number of families it requires to enroll in preventive services at 10 percent. At the end of 2009, 27 percent of all preventive services were court ordered Arsham testified before the City Council in October. Because those families haven’t opted in voluntarily, many don’t want to participate.

“Families experience it like a sentence, like this is something I have to do for the next 12 months if I want to get ACS out of my life,” he says. “Who is more likely to work productively with a service provider? Somebody who approached the provider and says I need some help or someone who is approached by a provider who says ‘I’m your shadow for your next six months. Get used to it?”

He and CCC also recommend that ACS reevaluate its decision to offer providers financial incentives encouraging them to close cases after one year on average. Both agree that some cases remain open too long, but say many families need more time. “I worked in preventive services for many years in the late 80s and early 90s. Our typical case was an actively crack abusing mother, HIV positive, living in a welfare hotel with three or four children with acute needs,” Arsham says. “It takes three to six months just to do a good assessment of the family. You can’t help them with their problems in six to nine months.”

In a 2010 report, CCC agreed. “CCC believes the length of service provision needs to be flexible, responsive and tailored to each family and their needs,” the report read. “It is also critical to CCC that families continue to receive preventive services when safety and risk factors continue to exist, regardless of how long the family has already been engaged in services.”

Fagan defended the incentives designed to close cases after one-year on average. “One of the reasons that we moved to this model to look at in more of a 12 to 18 month time period is some of the cases were lingering on,” he says. “What we’re advocating for is much more intensive services in a time-limited way that makes sure that the family is getting the help they need and getting back on track.”