Hide and Seek: The rate of children in foster care living near their families and communities is plummeting.

More than a decade after New York City child welfare officials set out to create a new, neighborhood-centric foster care system, a key element of that initiative appears to have all but fallen off the table. Today, the percentage of children placed in foster care in their home neighborhoods, near their families, friends, schools and churches, has dropped precipitously, to below 11 percent, a level not seen since the late 1990s. This strong trend away from community-based placement of foster children began in 2004 and picked up speed two years ago. It runs counter to a 2001 target of 75 percent community-based placements that is still acknowledged in official Administration for Children's Services (ACS) performance indicator reports. And it directly contradicts the agency's massive reform plan kicked off in 1997.

"We have not placed children in neighborhoods anywhere near the way we should have," ACS Commissioner John Mattingly conceded at a Center for New York City Affairs forum held in December 2007. At the time, he also spoke about the need to form a stronger base of foster homes in communities with high rates of children entering care. Indeed, four years ago, soon after his appointment as commissioner, Mattingly assured Child Welfare Watch that neighborhood-based placement would be a priority of his tenure. His deputies said that they believed "far more" than 25 percent of children placed in foster boarding homes should remain within their community district.

Executives at several nonprofit foster care agencies that contract with the city to manage foster homes describe several hurdles that make community-based placement difficult, including a persistent dearth of appropriate homes for teens and special needs children. Nonetheless, city data reveal that even though poor and working class communities have hundreds of foster boarding homes, the vast majority of them house children from other communities, and often other boroughs.

From the time of the original ACS strategic plan delivered by then-Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta in 1997, city officials have advocated placing foster children either with relatives or with families living near their parents and schools. Many child welfare experts contend this minimizes the trauma of a stay in foster care, facilitates more frequent visits with parents, maintains connections with friends and communities, and can even speed family reunification.

Most children who enter foster care eventually return to their families. But before the late 1990s, proximity to parents and home communities was rarely even considered in placement decisions. This meant parents routinely endured hours-long bus and subway rides across boroughs and even outside the city simply to visit their children.

The percentage of foster children living in boarding homes in their original community districts reached a peak of 23 percent in fiscal year 2004 but has declined ever since. As of early May 2008, the rate had dropped below 11 percent, according to ACS data.

The rate of placements of children within their original borough has also declined rapidly, from a peak of 77 percent in fiscal year 2005 to just 52 percent during the first four months of fiscal year 2008. (These rates refer only to children placed in regular foster boarding homes. Children placed in kinship care or in group homes or residential treatment centers are not counted in these figures.)

Cynthia Garcia's infant used to live in a foster home that was a bus and a train ride away from her in the Bronx, and she has three other children who still live on the "clear other side of the borough," she says. Last year, Garcia had to quit her job because of all the time she spent traveling to and from visits with her children, on top of parenting classes and domestic violence counseling sessions, some of which were held in Manhattan. "It was a good job, but I couldn't keep it because they always wanted me to run around," says Garcia.

John Courtney, co-director of the Partnership for Family Supports and Justice at the Fund for Social Change, says he has heard countless stories like Garcia's. "This is a reform that's going in the wrong direction, and they don't know how to fix it," says Courtney about neighborhood-based placement.

Many executives of foster care agencies attribute the drop to a shortage of foster homes in neighborhoods that have high rates of children entering foster care. This problem was exacerbated when the city increased the rate of removals following the 2006 murder of Nixzmary Brown, these agency heads say.

"We got flooded with intakes that really took up all the empty beds and there weren't enough beds," says MaryEllen McLaughlin, assistant executive director for foster care/adoption services at Good Shepherd Services. "We just can't open homes fast enough," adds Richard Hucke, deputy director of foster home services at Jewish Child Care Association of New York (JCCA).

Yet city data show many hundreds of foster boarding homes in each of the most high-need communities, including homes that are vacant and presumably available for placements. Based on reports from the foster care agencies it oversees, ACS estimates that about 1,400 available beds in regular foster boarding homes are sitting empty.

Some of these 1,400 beds may be temporarily unavailable because a foster parent has decided to take a vacation, has a temporary personal issue to attend to, or already has a particularly challenging child to look after and feels unable to handle more, says James Purcell, executive director of the Council of Family and Child Caring Agencies. "Foster parents take a break, and agencies don't necessarily close the home," says Purcell. And many beds are empty because they are not open to the types of children entering foster care, including teenagers, special needs children or sibling groups, says Purcell.

"We are currently experiencing a mismatch in the beds available and the children coming into care," ACS' press office agreed in an email. "Our recruitment efforts are focused on increasing the number of beds that are available to these groups."

Taken neighborhood by neighborhood, the numbers reveal a relentless mismatch. For example, Highbridge and its surrounding neighborhood, Community District 4 in the Bronx, has long had one of the highest numbers of children removed from their homes and placed in foster care. As of May 2008, there were 264 foster children living in foster boarding homes in Highbridge. Just 27 of those children came from that community. The others were from other parts of the city.

At recent community meetings in all five boroughs, ACS officials presented data showing how many children who entered foster care were sent to live in unfamiliar neighborhoods, even as nearby foster homes were often filled by children from other communities.

These data show that in the Mott Haven section of the Bronx, for example, of the 351 children from that neighborhood who entered foster care in 2006, only 37 remained in the community. Meanwhile, 187 children from other neighborhoods moved into foster homes in Mott Haven.

In 2005, 148 children from Bedford-Stuyvesant were placed in foster care, but only 19 of them remained in the neighborhood. At the same time, there were 191 children living in foster boarding homes in Bed-Stuy--nearly all of them from other neighborhoods and boroughs.

Paradoxically, even as the city has fallen further from its goal of placing more children in their home communities, the overall need for foster boarding homes has declined steeply. In 2000, there were 5,015 children newly placed in regular foster boarding homes. In 2007 that number had fallen to just 2,767.

To cope with the shrinkage of the system, for several years foster care agencies consistently closed far more homes than they opened. Only last year did the number of newly opened homes nearly equal the number of foster parents who had left the system.

But keeping recruitment at a stable level is only part of the solution, observers say. Some critics say that the city's system for selecting foster homes for children is itself part of the problem and should be reformed. When a child is first removed from his or her parents and slated for a spot in a regular foster boarding home, ACS' Office of Placement Administration seeks to identify a home as quickly as possible. Officials check listings of vacant beds to see if any are available in that child's neighborhood and, if so, whether these beds are appropriate for the child's age and gender. If there aren't any open, they check to see if there are any openings in the child's borough. If that fails, they place the child wherever there is an opening.

Sometimes there are no immediate openings. Even if a child's neighborhood has many foster homes, they may not be available when needed. "The problem is, will these homes be available on the days and the months and the weeks that those kids from the neighborhood get removed?" says Patricia Rideout, the Annie E. Casey Foundation's technical assistance team leader for the Family to Family initiative in New York City, which is helping the city revamp its foster care services.

In fact, on any given night, ACS is likely to have children sleeping at the Children's Center, where it temporarily houses some of the kids entering foster care for whom it can't immediately find homes. If ACS removes children who have qualities that make them tricky to place--for example, if they have especially challenging behavior, are an older teenager or are removed during the night or weekend, workers at ACS sometimes skip the computer matching system and instead call their regular contacts at foster care agencies, according to directors of these agencies. This happens regardless of whether those agencies are designated to serve the child's community, and the placements that result are usually outside the neighborhood. If the city truly wants to boost the rate of children placed in their home communities, ACS needs to find a way to pay foster parents a "retention fee" that will keep them open and available for a local child, says Courtney. And it needs to make community-based placement a higher priority, especially for younger children.

He and others say the long-term benefits would outweigh the short-term inconvenience. "I think it's really shortsighted to say, 'We can prevent an overnight stay in the Children's Center by placing them out of their home borough now,'" says Mike Arsham, executive director of the Child Welfare Organizing Project. "We know that kind of decision making is likely to generate longer lengths of stays," he says, because children placed far from their parents are less likely to remain closely connected to their families.

In Highbridge, ACS has worked with the Bridge Builders project, with which Courtney and Arsham are involved, to launch a pilot program starting with five homes earmarked for Highbridge children only. When those are filled, ACS will reserve five more homes for neighborhood children. Bridge Builders staff hope this pilot will be the first step toward a systemwide practice. Rideout has seen other cities try this method of recruiting and retaining homes specifically for neighborhood children with varying degrees of success. One of the challenges, she says, is finding enough foster families who are willing to wait however long it takes to shelter a child from their community.

"That's tricky, because people who want to take children want to take children right away. They don't want to wait months," says Rideout. "In order to place a kid in their own community, we need to have some exponentially larger number of homes that are willing to sit and wait to stay open," she adds. It's critical to have a surplus of foster homes so that the system can afford to have some sit empty while waiting to take in neighborhood children.

Another challenge is to find enough local foster parents willing to take teenagers or other special needs children. In fact, some observers say older teenagers are likely better off exempted from in-community placement goals, because they often prefer to live apart from friends or peers who have been the source of trouble in their lives.

For now, Cynthia Garcia is puzzled by the fact that there are many foster children near her home, yet she has had to travel long distances to see her children in different neighborhoods and attend counseling sessions in Manhattan.

"It's hard," she says. "I'm just trying to keep it all together, to be honest with you."