Inside New York's Foster Care System

34,000 Kids Trying to Catch a Break

A chilling statistic I've heard often cited at ACS: More than 70 percent of NYC's homeless are graduates of city foster care. This is one colossal failure that cries for reform, but ACS's management can be as misguided as it pleases, because the public at large is not well informed about its operations. Only an ACS insider would know that my previous director, Robert Pearlman, retired about two years ago and accepted the position of director of social services at the Catholic Guardian Society, a private contract agency. What's wrong with that? Perhaps private contract agencies exist to provide employment for retired ACS management executives. Or maybe private agencies help dilute responsibility in lawsuits against the city. Or possibly ACS management prefers to deal with nonunion private agencies rather than the militant and often unreasonable Social Services Employees Union. I can think of no other excuses for this two-headed, arthritic abomination.

Meanwhile, back in Brooklyn Family Court, my agency social worker colleague advises me that my child client has arrived, accompanied by his government-subsidized foster mother, who also is the child's maternal aunt. I drop to one knee in front of my clean, healthy-appearing child client and gaze into his eyes for the first time. I ask how he's doing. He does not respond, refusing to acknowledge my existence, and instead plays with his three cousins, whom his maternal aunt/foster mother brought to court. The child's reaction is understandable; I'm a complete stranger, although I will be making determinations affecting the rest of his life.

I initiate conversation with the maternal aunt/foster mother. She admits she's never liked the putative birth father and always considered him dangerous.

"Why'd your sister get involved with him?" I ask.

She shrugs, reluctant to say more, perhaps due to fear of the birth father. Or possibly she fears me, because a caseworker can snatch people's children, or help clients obtain government housing, or terminate government checks.

I return to my seat on the floor, where I update progress notes concerning my case. A female teenager looks at me and says to her male teenager companion, "Watch out for that guy over there."

I wait for my DLS attorney to return. Although DLS attorneys are the stars of Brooklyn Family Court, you have to wonder why they would accept the low pay and high pressure of their jobs. Perhaps they are social workers at heart, or they rejected corporate America's merciless competition, or corporate America rejected them. One DLS attorney said that he didn't feel comfortable defending murderers in criminal court.

Some DLS attorneys present themselves as Ally McBeals in high-fashion miniskirts and suit jackets. Others dress as college professors, oddball bohemians, Las Vegas lounge lizards, or aging hippies. My attorney favors the natty Wall Street look, plus hiking boots, and is unquestionably intelligent, committed, and frazzled. When he finally returns, he tells me, "I'll ask for substitute service, consolidate both cases, and adjourn."

"When can I return to my office?"

"I have seven more cases. We'll see."

Here are the basics of the case facing me: The birth mother and putative birth father had a romance that produced our child client. The birth mother has been and still might be a crack smoker, and she previously experienced other romances, which produced three other children from two or more unnamed birth fathers. The birth mother has demonstrated little interest in any of her children, each of whom is in foster care due to abuse/neglect, and all are displaying behavioral difficulties, including armed robbery by the oldest son (age 13), despite social worker counseling and psychological evaluations. The birth mother told the social worker that if the government terminates her parental rights, "I'll just make more babies."

The putative birth father is employed as a handyman in a Manhattan office building and has petitioned the court for custody of his son. He resides alone in a Bronx apartment full of used television sets, VCRs, piles of electrical cables, and possibly propane gas tanks. According to the social worker, the birth father still loves the birth mother, who apparently no longer cares for him. The birth father believes the birth mother's family is poisoning his son's mind against him and indoctrinating the child with physical-abuse scenarios. It is impossible to know who's telling the truth.

After spending most of the day in Brooklyn Family Court and never appearing before a judge, I get released by my DLS lawyer. I ride the subway back to my lower Manhattan cubicle, where I find a new mountain of paperwork waiting.

When I began as an ACS caseworker, I expected government waste to confirm my worst suspicions. I have found government waste far exceeding my worst suspicions, to the detriment of children. After more than 50 years of varied employment, I have never worked for such incompetent executives.

I recently reached retirement age, and rode off into the sunset like a graybearded old cowpoke. But what about the children I have left behind? What chance will they have to survive ACS foster care? And how much social damage will these children inflict, thanks to irresponsible parenting combined with rank ineptitude at ACS?

It's not about more funding, the usual focus of the phoney-baloney public-policy debate. It's about the will to change, and the banality of evil.

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