New York

Inside New York’s Foster Care System


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.

What’s the connection between Aid to Dependent Children and abuse or neglect? I have read records of approximately 250 children adjudicated abused/neglected, and I estimate that 95 percent were raised on Aid to Dependent Children or other public assistance programs. ACS currently has 34,000 children in foster care. The national foster-care population is roughly 546,000 children.

According to records I have read, the abuse and neglect children have suffered includes beatings that resulted in broken bones and lacerations, plus burns, torture, insufficient nourishment, medical neglect in which mothers do not take sick children to free clinics, and educational neglect in which mothers do not send children to school. Some children are born with birth defects due to lack of prenatal care, despite availability of free clinics and hospitals. Other children are born HIV-positive or addicted to cocaine. Many children are voluntarily placed in government foster care by parents who can’t cope with their own flesh and blood.

Most of the children on my caseload are angry, perhaps because they feel cheated out of a decent life. They suffer pain and low self-esteem, often because they know that their absentee fathers don’t give a damn about them, and their mothers are too busy with outside activities, such as smoking crack. Conventional psychological and social worker theories have failed most of these children. Nothing makes an impression except Ritalin.

Of course, not all foster children are disturbed. Some not only survive foster care but even graduate from college, a testimony to their sterling inner qualities and the skills of some foster mothers. These rare success stories are paraded periodically before TV cameras, but of my approximately 50 teenagers of college age to date, only three have gone to college and none have graduated. By my count, 80 percent of my teenaged foster children are doing poorly in school—and acting out big time.

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. Instead, I fill out government forms.

According to my job description, I “monitor” two nongovernment welfare agencies, Episcopal Social Services and Graham-Windham, both contracted by the city to provide homes and services to the 126 foster children on my caseload. Translated from officialese, “monitoring” means reading reports written by the contract-agency social workers and signing my name at the bottom, then filling out innumerable government forms based on information in the reports. I have no idea if these reports are accurate, and apparently it doesn’t matter. I must sign anyway.

Instead of regularly visiting children for whom I am legally responsible and seeing the truth with my own eyes, I do paperwork. The reason is simple: If the paperwork isn’t completed, the city loses federal funds. The more government forms completed, the more federal money the city receives.

Most of the paperwork is ludicrously redundant. For example, consider Form RES 1A, which I must fill out every six months for each child. This form can require a half hour or more to prepare, because necessary data may be lacking. After digging up obscure details and filling in blanks, I submit Form RES 1A to my supervisor, who signs off, and Form RES 1A goes into the family’s case record, where it serves no purpose that I can determine.

The bureaucratic rationale for Form RES 1A is that it certifies that the child still is in foster care, but why should someone think that the child has left foster care, since the child never has been discharged? I have racked my brain and consulted with three supervisors, but we can discover no reason for Form RES 1A. Perhaps while I sleep at night, a lobster-shift supervisor accesses my files and studies my Forms RES 1A for a secret government initiative.

And then there’s Form 2970, on which I also must certify that a child is in care, although the child never has left care—or in other words, duplication of pointless effort at taxpayer expense.

For another ludicrously redundant example, consider the court Extension of Placement Petition, whose purpose is simply to get on the docket and provide basic facts to the judge. One or two pages would suffice, but instead, for one child, a caseworker is required to fill in the blanks of a 16-page government document. If four children are on the case, not unusual, the caseworker will wind up with 64 pages. Each page must be photocopied as many as 10 times, as must other documents containing pertinent information that first must be typed or written into the petition package. No bureaucrat has explained why pertinent documents can’t be submitted without their contents being rewritten, but bureaucratic appetites for superfluous documentation are bottomless. When completed, the petition package will contain over 2600 pages for four children, and another tree has been chopped down in Maine.

For one child, the birth mother’s name must be written or typed in seven different places (in the same petition package!), the child’s name in six, the docket number in five, the child’s birth date in five, the case ID number in six, the child’s ID number in two, the date of removal in two, the date of original adjudication in two, the agency worker’s name in three, and the caseworker’s in five. Naturally, none of this repetitious clerical labor helps foster children.

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.

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.

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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