Inside New York's Foster Care System

34,000 Kids Trying to Catch a Break

The Extension of Placement Petition was designed by a staff headed by ACS deputy general counsel Joseph Cardieri, appointed by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. The city loses federal funds when petitions are filed late, which occurs, I have been told, about 7 percent of the time. Ergo, one would expect Cardieri to streamline the petition-filing process. But ACS bureaucrats lack the capacity to recognize and remove obstacles, while the taxpayers' only function is to foot the bill.

Whenever a problem is identified or imagined by ACS management, a new government form is designed. At least five new forms have been introduced since I began employment, and there's no end in sight. We have government forms that track other government forms! The same information is written or typed again and again, and signed by numerous layers of bureaucracy, wasting time and resources.

No matter how hard I try, I simply cannot get on top of my paperwork, and in addition I must languish at court, or travel to the far reaches of the city, such as the last stop of the A train on Lefferts Boulevard in Queens, for conferences with children who generally don't arrive. I am mandated to participate in a planning review for each of my children every six months. This is a superficial encounter by any reasonable standard, especially since the parents or children seldom show up for the appointments.

Today in Brooklyn Family Court I sit on the floor, back against a wall, cross-legged like an Apache, because the benches are filled to overflowing. The waiting room has been cleverly designed without windows, and ventilated by soot-covered overhead shafts. In the Old West, even jails had windows so a horse thief could see a ray of daylight to soothe his troubled soul, before the final sashay to the hangman's noose. This waiting room also offers views of the men's and women's lavatories, with doors open and toilets flushing.

A uniformed court officer saunters in and declares, "If you've got a case in part three—please check in!" A human mass gathers like cattle around the court officer, blocking the door and elevators beyond, so no one can enter or depart the waiting room. The din reaches astonishing loudness, with no knob to turn it down.

After checking in, clients and caseworkers return to benches. Then court officers call names, and people shuffle to courtrooms in other regions of the court building, where behind closed doors, well-intentioned overworked judges determine fates of families based on hasty and intimidating courtroom interviews augmented by government forms completed by ill-informed caseworkers such as me.

A hassled male attorney in his late twenties, from the Division of Legal Services (DLS), approaches me and says, "We haven't been able to service the father, so I don't know what's going to happen. Maybe I'll try to get the case adjourned." He walks away.

I return to my seat on the floor and read an essay written in 1712 by Sir Richard Steele, a favorite author of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson: "All Strictness of Behavior is so unmercifully laughed at in our Age, that the other much worse Extreme is the more common Folly."

The rebellion against strictness of behavior has made deep inroads at ACS. Thanks to the Social Services Employees Union (SSEU), ACS caseworkers usually are not dismissed except for egregiously terrible behavior, such as the caseworker who urinated on his desk approximately five years ago, or the caseworker who kept his job though he did virtually no work. One day the latter caseworker's supervisor asked the caseworker to complete at least one task to justify his salary, whereupon the caseworker threatened the supervisor with bodily harm. Shortly thereafter, the caseworker was fired. The moral here is: Don't threaten your supervisor and don't urinate on furniture.

Despite these vagaries, most of my fellow caseworkers and supervisors are hardworking human beings who care about children and want to improve their lives. The main barrier is an aloof management apparatus strong on public relations and paperwork, but little else. Morale among the rank and file is rock-bottom, and caseworker turnover is constant, resulting in discontinuity of child care.

Around 10 a.m., the contract-agency social worker on my case arrives, waves wearily, and squeezes onto a bench at the far edge of the waiting room, where she removes paperwork from her griefcase and proceeds to write. I have dealt with her before. In her late twenties, she is bright, dedicated, and burning out at an alarming rate. Perhaps she was up half the night because of a foster child in a police station, a not uncommon circumstance for foster children and agency social workers.

Approximately 90 percent of my foster children manifest behavior known as "oppositional" in the trade. About 40 percent of my foster children become chronic truants, chronic runaways, criminals, street fighters, and/or single mothers while in the care and custody of the commissioner of ACS, Nicholas Scoppetta, a lawyer appointed by Mayor Giuliani.

Virtually all ACS caseworkers and supervisors who have expressed themselves regarding Commissioner Scoppetta in my presence think he hasn't a clue about what's happening in the agency he heads. Commissioner Scoppetta is a former foster child himself; therefore, it is assumed he understands these children's needs. Many caseworkers, including me, also have been foster children, but regardless of our family backgrounds, caseworkers generally agree that Commissioner Scoppetta's hands-off, papercentric management style undermines the well-being of foster children.

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