Administrative confusion in city government has left thousands of families with children at risk of entering foster care without help from critical support services in recent months, according to data released by the Administration for Children's Services. Despite an influx of emergency funding, the number of families taking part in programs that provide everything from counseling and case management to drug treatment and housekeeping fell 21 percent between April and July of this year, ACS data show. The number of children taking part in these "preventive" programs, which are designed to stabilize families in crisis and protect kids from abuse or neglect, has dropped to a 10-year low since April. New enrollments are down nearly 40 percent compared to last year, a dramatic reversal of a core city policy long intended to make sure children are safe at home while parents receive help dealing with extreme poverty, domestic violence, mental health issues and other difficulties.
The disclosure comes in the wake of the September 2nd death of a malnourished, medically fragile four-year-old Brooklyn girl, Marchella Pierce, whose mother has been charged with assault, drug possession and endangering the welfare of a child. The family had been receiving preventive services from the nonprofit Child Development Support Corporation, but the agency apparently stopped monitoring the family when its contract ended in June.
Preventive service programs have been hit by a triple-whammy of budget cuts, operational errors and strategic planning decisions that many advocates describe as both shortsighted and dangerous. "It's a train wreck," says Michael Arsham, executive director of the Child Welfare Organizing Project, a self-help and advocacy organization of parents involved with the child welfare system. "The provider community is in chaos."
Preventive services have been on the city's chopping block since ACS issued its most recent request for contract proposals this spring. In anticipation of a budget squeeze, and as part of a plan to provide more intensive services over shorter periods of time, the agency planned for a reduction of 2,400 (out of about 11,000) preventive service slots.
By the time ACS finished evaluating proposals this April, 600 more slots had fallen to budget cuts. Nine agencies were told they wouldn't be awarded contracts with the city, and many more were instructed to shrink their services and begin closing or transferring cases. "Child safety and risk were carefully considered in these assessments," says Laura Postiglione, a spokesperson for ACS. "Where families were found to need continued child welfare services, those families were transferred to another preventive program or re-referred to child protective services."
But administrators at preventive service agencies describe the period of caseload reduction as disorganized and painful. "It's not possible to cut 3,000 cases without putting children in danger," says Robert Gutheil, the executive director of Episcopal Social Services of New York, which was slated to lose nearly 50 slots at its Bronx preventive service site. "You have no choice but to reduce intake, which means only those with the most glaringly obvious problems are going to get any attention. Just as night follows day, we're going to have horror stories."
More than two months into the caseload cuts, a whole new layer of administrative chaos hit the system when the administration announced it had made a mistake in scoring contract proposals, and that its award recommendations, which had sent agencies scrambling in the first place, would be rescinded. Meanwhile, in June, the City Council announced that it would restore funding for 2,900 of the 3,000 lost preventive service slots.
ACS sent a memo to contracted providers, asking them to halt reductions. The administration reverted back to its previous set of contracts, extending all but two until the end of June, 2011, and asking provider agencies to ramp back up to their previous service levels. But by that time, many agencies were well into shut-down mode. Several had laid off staff, some had terminated leases and many had announced to clients they were cutting back on services.
"It's more than fair to say that hundreds of families fell out of the system," says Sophine Charles, a program director at Steinway Child and Family Services, which was scheduled to close after it didn't receive a contract award from ACS. "Now we're required to go back to our original utilization rates, but it's starting from scratch. How do you hire staff when your funding is only secure for the next eight months?"
The number of families participating in preventive services fell from more than 15,200 in June 2009 to just 12,230 in July 2010, according to data recently released by ACS (click to view chart). New enrollments fell from more than 1,100 in the month of March 2010 to just 579 during July (click to view chart). Many families must enroll in these programs under court order; others attend voluntarily with the encouragement of ACS child protective caseworkers, or they are referred by social workers, physicians or others in their communities.
Child welfare advocates, as well as members of the City Council, are pushing to have the money from the council's restoration funding baselined into the mayor's budget before the next fiscal year, which begins in July 2011, so that agencies have the ability to develop stable, long-term planning. The council's General Welfare Committee plans to hold a hearing on the changes to the preventive service system on September 28th, says Meghan Lynch, chief of staff for the committee's chair, Annabel Palma.
Public Advocate Bill de Blasio has also launched an inquiry into preventive service reductions, linking the cuts to the death of Marchella Pierce. In a letter to ACS Commissioner John Mattingly, de Blasio called on the agency to review every case that was closed during the April-to-July reduction period. "The heartbreaking circumstances surrounding Marchella Pierce's death raise troubling questions about ACS policies and practices and the possibility of systemic problems that could leave an untold number of children at risk," he wrote.