Inside New York's Foster Care System

34,000 Kids Trying to Catch a Break

In 1997, 62-year-old Lenny Levinson was looking for work. After selling 83 paperback novels, mostly pulp adventure tales, he could no longer place his manuscripts. He landed a job as a caseworker at the Administration for Children’s Services, from which he retired on May 26.

As I write these words, I am crammed along with approximately 70 other individuals into an overheated waiting room on the fifth floor of Brooklyn Family Court. I am experiencing anxiety, because every sizable New York City public gathering contains at least one raving lunatic. * The one in this group is seated on a bench about 10 yards away. She is a well-dressed, heavyset, thirtyish black woman who is loudly denouncing the Hispanic male caseworker from the New York City Administration for Children's Services (ACS), who is sitting in the far corner, calmly reading the Daily News. According to the woman's tirade, the caseworker snatched away her children, alleging she was too mentally disturbed to care for them.

Is the mother merely angry, perhaps justifiably, or on the verge of violence? And what in the name of heaven or hell am I doing in this potentially hazardous situation? I am not a journalist or anthropologist, but an ACS caseworker from the Office of Contract Agency Case Management (OCACM). I am scheduled to attend a hearing concerning a child on my caseload whom I have never seen.

I had not planned to become an ACS caseworker. Until three years ago, I had been the undistinguished pseudonymous author of 83 paperback novels, most about cowboys and other tough guys seeking justice in an unjust world. But neither they nor my so-called serious novels were exactly bestsellers. No publishers demonstrated interest in my final three extravaganzas, and I was not deluged with job offers from Microsoft and Intel. Only ACS would hire a 62-year-old failed novelist.

The caseworker job requirement was a B.A. with 24 credits in psychology, sociology, or related social-service courses, which I accumulated during four years at Michigan State University, class of 1961. Despite the extreme age of these dubious credentials, plus my space-cadet mentality, I was hired by the New York City agency that serves foster children.

To prepare new hires such as myself for this important assignment, back when I began, ACS provided three weeks' training at its Satterwhite Academy in Jamaica, Queens. Most of the curriculum involved social theorizing, sensitivity training, and exercises during which participants wrote or drew cartoons with colored pens, like we did in kindergarten. My classmates and I were introduced to a gaggle of incomprehensible government forms and ad-vised that we might occasionally be mandated to attend family court. The actual functioning of ACS never was explained coherently, and no one taught us how to perform our new jobs.

Sometimes, after hours of reading case records, I want to scream or cry. I wake up in the middle of the night, thinking about these children. I sincerely want to help them.

Which might explain my state of mind this morning in Brooklyn Family Court, where the same angry mother continues to rage against her caseworker. She hollers that she is on medication, but that doesn't make her a drug abuser or an incompetent parent. She spews vituperation, indignation, broken thoughts, pain and suffering, as she drags us through her psyche. Finally a court officer takes her arm and gently leads her away. She does not resist, although she carries on her eloquent though disjointed tirade. In his corner, her caseworker continues to read the News.

I wonder what the notorious Pecos Kid, one of my favorite Western characters, would think of Brooklyn Family Court. No doubt he would simply shake his head, jump on his trusty horse, Tomahawk, and gallop away.

I calm myself by contemplating my upcoming court appearance. I must testify on behalf of a four-year-old boy who recently was returned to foster care following an unsupervised weekend home visit with his putative birth father. The child allegedly reported to his maternal aunt/foster mother that his father had struck him so hard, he (the child) was knocked to the floor. The child also made the same statement to an investigator from the ACS Office of Confidential Investigations (OCI). But the child showed no marks, and no eyewitnesses can corroborate the child's story.

I never met the child, birth mother, or putative birth father. No valid reason exists why I should be in court, since I know only the child's paperwork, and can contribute no firsthand testimony. But ACS procedures have mandated my appearance, as they mandate substantial other unproductive activities.

Meanwhile, on another bench, a female teenager sucks her thumb while caressing her nose, like an infant. Around us swirl confusion, frustration, recrimination, shrieking children, and families coping with monumental issues. Fluorescent light throws ghastly rays on dirty blue-and-yellow walls. Ceiling tiles have been stained by water leakage. The government wall clock never deviates from one minute to two.

This is the real-deal world of children's services today, a descendant of the child-welfare state inaugurated during the Great Depression in Franklin Delano Roosevelt's first administration. To fight poverty, President Roosevelt and his brain trust devised numerous government programs. One was named Aid to Dependent Children (ADC), which mailed checks to citizens then known as "unwed mothers." ADC continues to provide money and services to children of what now are termed "single parents." The percentage of children born to single parents has increased approximately fivefold since ADC began in 1935.

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