Inside New York's Foster Care System

34,000 Kids Trying to Catch a Break

I have seen the lordly Commissioner Scoppetta twice during my employment. The first encounter was January 14, 1999, at a lecture/ training session concerning the recently enacted Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA). Hundreds of caseworkers packed the historic Great Hall at Cooper Union, where we were mandated to hear the commissioner's courtroom delivery. He is a skilled television performer, I'm told.

My second sighting of Commissioner Scoppetta occurred a few months later in the dreary box canyons of 150 William Street. The well-tailored jurist rushed down a corridor, surrounded by his praetorian staff, and he did not acknowledge the existence of caseworkers in the vicinity. Commissioner Scoppetta diligently avoids interaction with caseworkers who might talk straight to him and perhaps awaken him from his slumber.

I have heard caseworkers say, "ACS is designed to fail." My theory is that ACS never was designed at all, but sort of grew into the current dysfunctional monstrosity.

Child welfare in New York City began officially in 1832 when laws regulating the treatment of children were passed by city government. In 1895, the city elected to deliver services through private charitable institutions, known as contract agencies. As a result, New York City foster care today consists of two entirely separate, miscommunicating, and constantly warring entities. One is the city-controlled ACS itself, a leaky, rudderless barge floating on a swamp of paperwork. The other comprises approximately 60 private foster agencies funded by tax dollars, and allegedly monitored by ACS, but in practice they operate as loose cannons on the deck of the aforementioned sinking barge.

Although there is a tendency to trace the root of every social evil to insufficient government funding, money is not the main problem with ACS. The total ACS budget is $2.1 billion annually. With around 34,000 children in foster care, it computes to a staggering $61,764 per child!

Why does New York City foster care cost more than a year at Harvard, Yale, or Princeton? Let's follow the money trail. First, an ACS field-office caseworker on government payroll is assigned to investigate a report to the state of child abuse/neglect. If the case is "indicated," the child might enter foster care, and might be placed in a contract-agency foster boarding home or group home funded by tax dollars, but with minimal government oversight. The child then is assigned one agency social worker, who is mandated to see him/her once every two months, according to minimum standards. The agency social worker is backed up by a supervisor, the agency's assistant director and director, plus support staff and psychologists.

In addition, each foster child soon lands on the caseload of an ACS caseworker such as me, plus supervisor I, supervisor II, supervisor III, deputy manager, manager, deputy director, director, deputy commissioner, commissioner, DLS lawyers and judges, support staff, plus numerous executive-type people, including certain individuals possessing advanced social-work degrees who attend international conferences, or develop new government forms, or modify government forms already in use, or monitor caseworkers who monitor private agencies who monitor children. ACS employs roughly 8000 individuals, all requiring office space in one of the most overpriced real estate markets on the planet Earth.

Despite this multitude of government and contract-agency employees, and the annual expenditure of $61,764 per child, each child is seen only once a month by one agency social worker, and once every six months (maybe) by one ACS caseworker, in addition to receiving basic food, shelter, clothing, medical care, and an allowance (for kids over 14), according to minimum standards. You don't need an MBA to know that a huge chunk of tax dollars is devoted to bureaucracy, not children.

I have spoken with at least 40 contract-agency social workers, and they all said that they needed more visits with each child, but couldn't manage it due to overwhelming caseloads and high volumes of paperwork. One social worker explained that she could handle 15 children effectively, making certain they receive whatever they need to thrive, in addition to interviewing parents, appearing in court, and the usual filling out of paperwork. Instead she's got 32 children, all of whom need help, but must wait for services, during which time they may disrupt classrooms, punch people, join gangs, become runaways, sell drugs, get arrested, become pregnant, or go berserk. This is no exaggeration. Foster children are a wild bunch, and by the time help arrives, it's usually too little too late.

What's the answer? First, jettison the private agencies but incorporate their foster homes into ACS and hire their social workers and supervisors. Then provide one ACS caseworker, one supervisor, and one manager for one child, with one weekly visit from the caseworker, one monthly visit from the supervisor, and one two-monthly visit from the manager, supported by a trimmed-down childcentric ACS management staff. Dump ludicrous paperwork, and assign ACS's nonproductive staffers to actual child care. These reforms would approximately double the number of frontline caseworkers available to help troubled foster children.

The cost of these reforms would not exceed the present budget, since all the above already are on the government payroll. If more frontline caseworkers were available, they could spend more time assessing needs of the children and developing remedies that could be implemented more quickly. If foster children received more rapid interventions, they might lead happier lives.

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