No Easy Choices: The unmet vision of community partnerships

The city's Community Partnership Initiative represents New York's vision for catalyzing neighborhood action in support of families, but it has taken hold only on the margins. Is it a step back to trade a grand vision for less ambitious, more measurable goals? High on a hill in the Bronx, in an office cluttered with particleboard desks and a grumpy air conditioner, Tracey Carter starts the day with three problems. First, there's a mother named Loretta who wants her daughter back. Under instruction from the child's foster care agency, she's taken four parenting classes, undergone counseling for domestic violence victims, demonstrated her knowledge of cleaning an apartment and practiced making a grocery budget. Six months ago, they told her she also needed to take a class on caring for kids with special needs, but the referral that would get her into such a class seems to have disappeared down a bureaucratic rabbit hole. No one at the agency can tell Loretta where to find the class, or how to sign up, she says. Nor can they say how it's any different from the classes she's already taken.

The second problem is easier: a mother with a big-eyed boy in tow is unsure how to complete a form for her son's Family Court judge. She grips Carter's arm as they fill in a series of much-Xeroxed blanks, murmuring, "I don't want to mess this up."

The third problem is an iceberg, the tip of which Tracey Carter spends an increasing portion of her time attempting to navigate. More than a year ago, the network of city-funded preventive services programs meant to help families in crisis spiraled into its own crisis. There were threatened budget cuts, flawed contract renewals and staff reductions, and Carter saw waiting lists for services in her neighborhood grow to as long as six months. It used to be that, when a family got a visit from the city's Administration for Children's Services (ACS) and was told there might be a problem with the way they were caring for their kids, Carter could set them up with a preventive service provider within a couple of weeks. Now, she says, she's got a growing list of frightened parents and a shrinking list of places to send them for help.

Carter's job is to help families navigate the labyrinth of services, meetings and court cases that surround the world of foster care in New York City. For parents in Bronx Community District 4, which centers around the neighborhood of Highbridge, she serves as an all-purpose child-welfare fix-it woman: part case manager for families that need services, fast; part ombudsman for parents who feel they're being treated unfairly; part interlocutor, mediating a long-contentious relationship between the child welfare system and a neighborhood where more kids are removed from their parents' custody than nearly any other in the city. (Highbridge ranked third in 2010, behind Bedford-Stuyvesant and the northern end of Staten Island.)

On a given day, Carter's to-do list might look a lot like that of a social worker at a foster care agency, but she occupies a position that's relatively new to the infrastructure of child welfare in New York City. Her organization, Bridge Builders, is part of a still nascent network of neighborhood-based coalitions, "partnerships" designed to give communities a central role in one of the city's most basic tasks: keeping children safe and, whenever possible, out of foster care.


To understand the story of Bridge Builders and why it matters, you have to reach back nearly two decades, to a time when the world of child welfare was desperate for new ideas. Traditionally, the architecture of foster care systems had been top-down and city-wide. Local geography didn't factor into decisions about administration or practice, so children were routinely placed in foster homes far from their schools and communities. A parent from the Bronx, whose life was already likely to contain a fair measure of chaos, might have to travel to Brooklyn to visit her kids, Manhattan for a parenting class and Queens for substance abuse counseling. The city didn't track numbers or divvy up resources according to neighborhood, so the system ignored a reality that was obvious to anyone who lived in the places where ACS did most of its work: Child welfare crises are concentrated in particular neighborhoods, and they're intimately connected to a host of other challenges and needs.

"These are the neighborhoods where unemployment is the highest, where demand for food assistance is equally high, where there's homelessness and risk of eviction," says Patricia White, a senior program officer at the New York Community Trust, which was involved in the original planning and funding of Bridge Builders. "Unless we're talking about this issue of poverty...we're not really addressing the root issues of child welfare."

By the mid-1990s, a critical mass of researchers and advocates had begun to argue for a more holistic approach: If child welfare services could be more effectively integrated into neighborhoods, the thinking went, they'd be better equipped to address forces that erode parents' ability to take care of their kids. Services could be kept closer to home; parents could get support to participate in making decisions that determine the fates of their families; communities could be brought into the work of keeping children safe; and the city could grow into its vision of a more family-friendly, community-building child welfare system.

It's a way of thinking that led to child welfare reforms in many cities and states, including New York City. But here, the development of a more formidable community-centered infrastructure to involve residents, parents and neighborhood institutions in the hard work of helping families has moved slowly, if at all. The effort has been buffeted by funding cuts like those that have hit the city's social service agencies repeatedly since 2008, and by the crises that invariably reshape the child protection agenda, like the murder of Nixzmary Brown in 2006. In many ways, Bridge Builders, and a number of other community-focused partnerships created in its image, have come to exemplify the marginalization of a vision. "While we have talked the talk, the investment of resources has been nowhere near what is needed to make what we're trying to do meaningful," says White.


Starting in the 1980s, foster care systems in the United States operated on the front lines of the crack wars, and policy was shaped according to a kind of battle-zone logic. Children were lifted from impoverished communities like evacuees, often to return as teenagers, and current or future parents, with severely disrupted educational and life histories. Child welfare systems were dealing with multi-generational cycles of children, placed in foster care from neighborhoods where caseworkers were perceived as enemies, people who took kids, rather than people who protected them.

In a 1997 paper, Frank Farrow, the director of the Center for the Study of Social Policy, describes the history of foster care as a process of ossification: "To maintain some semblance of quality control," he writes, child welfare systems "became highly centralized...[Child protective] caseworkers were grouped as specialty units within central offices, often far from the communities they served, and rarely teamed with other child welfare staff. Administrative and legal pressures on the system meant that every action and decision had to be documented; paperwork accounted for an increasing amount of time for everyone in the system."

Farrow's organization, along with the Annie E. Casey Foundation in Baltimore and the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation in New York, led the way to the new model. Each in their own way, they helped child welfare agencies in cities around the country develop structured partnerships with residents, community organizations, congregations, tenant associations, schools and other government agencies, all in neighborhoods deeply involved in the system. The hope was that, if residents thought of themselves as part of a network responsible for keeping kids safe, they would identify families who were running into trouble and get them help, preferably long before a child welfare investigator showed up at the door. If a daycare provider were linked to a preventive service agency, for example, she could sit down with a struggling mom and tell her where to go for help. A nurse who'd discharged a medically fragile child to her parents could call a child welfare worker who had the power to get the family in-home care.

The idea was to blend a government-led model of human service delivery with a more traditional idea about communities' responsibility to look out for their own children, to identify the proverbial village and give it an infrastructure. The kickback, it was hoped, would be healthier neighborhoods: Not only would local collaboratives be lither and more responsive than a monolithic city agency, but tightly linked networks would turn neighborhoods into better places to live. "The vision was premised on the belief that safe children require strong families and strong families require being a part of healthy and robust communities," says Susan Notkin, associate director of the Center for the Study of Social Policy.


In New York City, the community partnership model began to set down roots thanks to the work of Agenda for Children Tomorrow, a collaboration of city government and private funders originally based in the mayor's office. Its organizers pulled together local networks of social service providers and community groups scattered around the five boroughs. Then, in 2003, a group of local funders and child welfare advocates designed an experiment with a high-stakes mission: Enter a neighborhood with epidemic rates of child welfare involvement and equip it to keep kids safe at home.

The project brought together eight community organizations which provided services ranging from legal assistance to housing help to parenting classes. Under the umbrella name of Bridge Builders, the organizations shared funding, clients, an administrative team and a neighborhood storefront, where residents could walk in and get help. The goal was to create a one-stop shop, where families who were caught in, or at risk of entering, the child welfare system could get whatever support they might need to get on their feet and take care of their kids.

The project worked closely with the Administration for Children's Services (ACS), collaborating with that agency's Bronx borough office on cases from the neighborhood. Eventually, ACS joined as a formal partner, dedicating a full-time staff person to help coordinate Bridge Builders.

Meanwhile, in an unprecedented move in the Bronx Family Court, a judge and his staff dedicated three days each week to work only on cases from Highbridge. This allowed for a singular level of consistency for families in the city's notoriously changeable family court system. It meant that a small team of lawyers representing the city, the families and the children were regularly in one room together, able to troubleshoot problems and to quickly glean information from the Bridge Builders service providers who worked directly with families.

"It worked because all the players knew each other," says Kara Finck, a managing attorney at Bronx Defenders who represented Highbridge parents. "You could get people into a service quickly, and you knew all along the way that you would get those cases. Court is where you hear that a referral was made badly or not made at all. When you're dealing with the same people every day, it's easy to make sure [appropriate referrals] are happening."

Finck says this level of consistency changed the courtroom experience for families. "For parents it feels community-based, less disrespectful, less demeaning...It makes so much common sense to work with the same people every day."

In the end, the value of most child welfare reform is judged on whether kids are safer and better-nurtured in their homes, and when they go into foster care, whether or not they are getting out more quickly, into a more permanent home. But the nature of child welfare data makes those questions tricky to answer. The number of maltreatment reports called into the state child abuse hotline, and the percentage of those reports that child protective specialists consider justified, fluctuate in response to a variety of social triggers. When there's been a tragedy involving child abuse in the news, for example, the number of reports goes up and investigators become more likely to substantiate neglect or abuse. During periods of calm, the pendulum tends to swing the other way.

Nonetheless, numbers from the early years of Bridge Builders suggest the project had a measurable impact. Each year of the project, researchers at the University of Chicago's Chapin Hall research center compared outcome data between Highbridge and three other Bronx neighborhoods with similar demographics and high rates of child welfare involvement. By year four, the numbers in Highbridge had begun to look notably different: Not only had there been a decline in the number and rate of child maltreatment reports, but the percentage of reports found to be substantiated had gone down as well, a sign that case workers may have felt safer leaving kids in their homes, knowing that families would receive support. Averaged over the years of the project, Highbridge saw children leaving foster care to return to their families at a higher rate than the other sites.

In 2006, when child abuse reports shot up all over the city, Highbridge numbers stayed more stable than the comparison sites. David Tobis, the president of the Fund for Social Change and one of the original Bridge Builders planners, posits that the difference amounted, at least in part, to the strong relationships between ACS, Family Court and the Bridge Builders service providers. "Rather than remove a child, ACS would come to us first and say, 'This family is having trouble, can you do anything?' We'd get somebody in there to help them. When cases were brought to court by ACS, we would know the family. We could recommend that the child should not be placed and ACS would listen."


In the fall of 2006, ACS announced a plan to take a version of the Bridge Builders model citywide, rolling out a network of community partnerships that would be funded by ACS but operated by community organizations and residents. Then-Commissioner John Mattingly had promoted neighborhood-based services in his prior job at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and he spoke of the partnerships as having the potential to transform the administration's relationships with communities. "I made a promise to build a formal, structured way for the system to ask for help, support and guidance, and that's why we're here," he said at the launch of ACS's Community Partnership Initiative. "In the next two to three years, we'll make major changes to the way we operate...It's a commitment to move into the future with us in a very different way than ACS may have been involved in the past. As a partner."

Through 2007 and 2008, the city launched 11 partnerships in neighborhoods where disproportionate numbers of children go into foster care. Each partnership was granted a modest $150,000 budget, part of which was to pay one full-time staff person, or liaison, who would recruit local organizations and residents to work together to improve child welfare outcomes in the neighborhood.

Three years in, nearly all of the city's partnerships have reached the point where they're accomplishing tasks that ACS assigned them, at or above the numbers the city requires. They are recruiting families to at least consider becoming foster parents. They are sending members of the community to take part in ACS child safety conferences, which bring together parents and child protective workers to discuss what to do next, whenever a child is either removed from home or at risk of being removed (see "Shifting the Power Dynamic"). And they are creating opportunities for children in foster care to visit with their parents in neighborhood spaces rather than antiseptic agency offices (see "The Tricky Thing About Visits").

On a more basic, if less tangible level, they're bringing together community organizations that might never have considered child safety a part of their missions and, to a limited extent, incorporating neighborhood residents into their meetings and projects. Under the auspices of the partnerships, officials from the ACS Division of Child Protection are meeting with community leaders to share data and discuss policies. At the very least, it is a successful public engagement strategy for the agency.

"Many more people in these eleven communities have a better understanding of ACS because the coalitions exist," says Deborah Rubien, director of community planning at Agenda for Children Tomorrow, an organization funded by government and foundations that pioneered the partnership model in New York and helped staff Bridge Builders for several years. "It's moved ACS beyond being seen as the 'baby snatcher.'"

The plan, at the beginning, was to treat these first 11 partnerships as pilot programs and then expand across the city. In 2008, ACS put out a call for contract proposals that promised to double each of the existing partnership's funding to $300,000 per year. Eventually, officials said, every neighborhood in New York would be covered by a partnership, and the nonprofit agencies that run foster care services would be required to participate in them.

The partnerships began planning new projects, imagining they'd soon have the funds to reach beyond the tasks ACS required of them and develop broader community agendas. In the Bronx, Bridge Builders had begun a transition that was intended from the project's beginning: private funders were pulling back after several years of support, with the hope that community partnership funding from the city would make the organization sustainable for the long haul.

Then the economy imploded. Mayor Bloomberg ordered the first of a multi-year succession of budget slash-backs at ACS, which then scrapped its plan to expand community partnerships. Over the past three years, the administration has directed much of its shrinking pool of resources toward its primary mandate of child protective services, at the expense of the reform initiatives that were central to the early years of Mattingly's administration, including the partnerships, which have remained static at $150,000 per year.

If you talk with people who helped conceive the partnerships' original vision, you'll find a sense of deflated hopes. The dream was never that community partnerships would provide alternative child welfare practices for a few hundred families; they were intended to shift the center of gravity of the whole system, to pull it out of its centralized remove and into the orbit of people's communities.

John Courtney, a co-director at the Fund for Social Change, describes the partnerships as "sort of a tease. We're involved, we're out there recruiting foster homes, we're out there setting up visits, working with ACS. But you don't have enough money to do it right. If it doesn't change, I feel it will become another underfunded, poorly staffed aspect of child welfare services here in New York City."


Before Tracey Carter was an advocate, solving problems for other people's families, she was an addict, making a mess of her own. Carter discovered crack cocaine when she was 25 and it ruled her life for nearly 15 years, during which she gave birth to 11 kids. The first five grew up with their aunt. Four more went into foster care as babies and Carter lost her legal rights to them not long after. She got cleaned up by the time number 10 was born but relapsed before having the eleventh, just a year later. ACS took the baby from the hospital and removed the one-year-old from Carter's home, which, she says, was when she got serious.

Carter and her husband went into treatment programs and got their youngest children back after two years, while both were still toddlers. They got an apartment and jobs, and demonstrated to ACS that they could safely care for their kids, who are teenagers now. Carter's daughter calls her at work to talk about end-of-summer plans and back-to-school shopping. Her husband calls to say that he loves her.

Carter has been stationed at Bridge Builders since the project started, but she's paid and supervised by the Child Welfare Organizing Project (CWOP), an advocacy group that supports, trains, and employs, people who've had kids in the child welfare system. She says that her own history makes her better at working with Bridge Builders clients. "I use my experience to help the next person. I can't judge somebody or look down on them because whatever it is they're going through, I've been there."

CWOP was one of the first organizations to join Bridge Builders, and its role as a partner is one of the things that made the project different from anything that had been tried before in New York City. It meant that parents who'd once been subject to the system, living at the mercy of case workers and family court judges, were working as professional partners with ACS staff, not just as front-line greeters and service providers, but as participants in case conferences and co-planners of where the network should go.

When ACS took on community partnerships as a city-sponsored initiative, CWOP maintained its relationship with Bridge Builders and also started working with the East Harlem partnership, which contracts with CWOP to provide community representatives to child safety conferences, and to help with family visiting services. CWOP has pushed hard for the city to involve people in the other partnerships who have their own, personal child welfare experiences. A few have recruited community reps and visit hosts who were once involved in the system, but there's no formal rule. At most partnerships, community rep positions are filled by retired or aspiring social workers, church volunteers or foster parents.

Michael Arsham, CWOP's executive director, argues that without an explicit requirement, the partnerships' tendency is to hire people who make service providers and ACS workers comfortable; not people who bring a different perspective into the room. "If you're going to improve child welfare practice in communities where ACS's presence is most pervasive," he asks, "how are you going to do that without involving people who are most directly impacted by the system?"

"Have some integrity," he adds. "If you really are committed to improving practice through community involvement then you need to be at the table with the community members who feel most aggrieved and marginalized by the system as it exists. It's as though [ACS is] saying, 'We want to involve the community but not to the extent that it makes things too difficult for us. We want different perspectives at the table, but not to the point where it creates tension.' Well, what can you create that's new without tension?"


His question begs another: Is a project that's funded, defined and monitored by a city agency truly able to transfer meaningful power to communities and their residents?

Child welfare is explosive because it's a place where the state holds extreme control over one of the most intimate aspects of a person's life. Behind the daily bureaucracy of paperwork, service plans and court delays, the brute reality is that the government can take away your children, and it exercises that power almost exclusively in the country's poorest, most politically and socially marginalized communities.

While the day-to-day work of Bridge Builders and other partnerships is to create neighborhood-sized safety nets, they also make a radical proposition about communities' potential for self-determination. By investing neighborhoods with responsibility for the kids and families who live there, and by offering resources to help exercise that responsibility, the partnerships suggest that communities should have a say in policies and practices that impact people's lives, and that residents should be part of identifying their own community's problems and making its solutions.

One of the original principles of Bridge Builders was that it should ultimately be planned and run, at least in part, by people who lived in Highbridge, not only service providers who worked there. To that end, each decision-making body had spaces reserved for community residents, including one of the two co-chair positions of the project's executive committee. There were mini-grants for projects organized by residents and leadership trainings for community members who wanted to move up in the project's ranks.

Whether that potential for community control can survive in the city's iteration of community partnership is a question that remains to be answered. Given the limits on budgets and staffing, it's inevitable that the partnerships spend much of their time scrambling to meet the deliverables set for them by ACS, with little left over to make their own goals or agendas. "The whole notion is to be responsive to city agencies but also independent of them. It's the independence that we have yet to see," says Patricia White of the New York Community Trust.

There is often a split between advocates who focus on safety nets, providing better, more coordinated services to struggling individuals, and those who emphasize community empowerment efforts that involve residents in the planning and execution of projects that impact their lives. The thing about the partnerships is that they have the potential to do both. In White's view, they're failing that potential and, in the process, missing an opportunity to make communities stronger, better places for families and their kids.

"What we have is a social service model. We have yet to see a community partnership where the goal is about building sustainable communities," she says. "Too often, we say we have to start at what's doable. Every time we say that it becomes the excuse to never do the heavy lifting. So we don't achieve what we wanted and when it comes time to evaluate, we assume that the model didn't work."

*** With the beginning of a new administration at ACS, the immediate question facing community partnerships is how, or maybe even whether, to move forward.

"It's time to take stock," says Bill Baccaglini, executive director of the New York Foundling, a foster care agency that collaborates with several of the city's partnerships. "Let's face it: the city has pulled back on these. If we're committed, let's be committed; not one foot in, one foot out."

Baccaglini contends that, in order to have a real impact on communities, the partnerships should be reoriented toward preventive services, pulling together neighborhood resources that can keep kids from ending up in the child welfare system in the first place. "The city needs to move this thing closer to the front door," he says. "That requires a different set of players at the table."

The "players" argument is one that's made frequently, among the small world of people who've thought a lot about the city's partnerships. It rests on the idea that the partnerships would have a much deeper impact if they could pull in city agencies beyond ACS, including the Department of Education, the Department of Homeless Services, the New York City Housing Authority, the Department of Youth and Community Development and the mayor's office, among others. Not only do these agencies manage the contractors and service providers who come into contact with families every day, the logic goes, but collectively, they have a far broader scope than ACS alone to change the conditions under which parents care for their kids.

Back when the Center for the Study of Social Policy evaluated its first series of community partnerships (which now exist in more than 50 places across the country), it identified interagency collaboration as a crucial factor in making the efforts successful: "Experience suggests that localities will have trouble protecting children more effectively without dramatically expanding the participation of five key partners in a safety agenda: schools, substance abuse prevention and treatment providers, the police, domestic violence service providers, and economic/welfare services," wrote Frank Farrow, the center's director, in a paper on lessons learned.

New York City has experimented with interagency family-service collaborations before: From 2004 to 2007, the Bloomberg administration sponsored a project called 'One City/One Community,' which targeted Bedford-Stuyvesant families receiving services from three or more city agencies. The project included ACS, and it ended up working with many families at risk of losing their kids.

A Brandeis University evaluation of the project describes two examples. In the first, a family faced eviction from public housing after one of the parents was released from prison. Under the rules of the Department of Probation, the returning parent needed stable housing. NYCHA forbids ex-felons from living in public housing, and ACS was concerned that the family would become unstable.

In the second case, a single mother who'd recently aged out of foster care was living with two young children in an apartment with peeling lead paint and no gas or electricity. Her landlord refused to clean up the lead, but he wouldn't give her the lease release that would allow her to use her housing subsidy to look for a new apartment. If she stayed where she was, the young mother would become vulnerable to a charge of neglecting her kids.

In each case, the One City/One Community staff were able to pull together case workers from all of the relevant city agencies and figure out solutions, allowing these families to continue caring for their children. Then, through the mechanism of the project, the cases were integrated into conversations between high-level decision makers at each relevant agency, so that policy could be shaped to make services better.

According to the Brandeis University study, one of the most important lessons learned from the project was that structured, top-level buy-in is crucial to making collaborative policy-reform projects work. One City was effective, its participants said, because it garnered the active support of commissioners and their deputies, as well as the mayor's office.

It remains unclear whether ACS's community partnerships will get that kind of buy-in, or, if they continue to exist, whether they'll gain the infrastructure they'd need to meaningfully change communities' relationships with the child welfare system. As ACS determines how the projects move forward, it will be making a fundamental decision about direction and purpose: Are partnerships aimed at making children safer by strengthening and empowering communities? Or are they aimed at better utilizing neighborhood resources to make the city's child welfare system stronger?


ACS's recently appointed commissioner, Ronald Richter, agrees that it's time to assess. "There are neighborhoods where our support is important...where we have to develop better relationships with the community," he says. "I don't know that the kind of investment that we are able to make can do that. I don't know if the investment that we've been making is necessarily the best way."

In the interest of making that decision, ACS has hired the University of Chicago's Chapin Hall Center, the same researchers that conducted early evaluations of Bridge Builders, to measure the partnerships' ability to make a difference. Rather than looking at broader questions about the partnerships' potential to catalyze community networks, they will assess specific tasks that directly affect families and children involved with ACS and foster care agencies: the community representatives who take part in child safety conferences; the partnerships' efforts to host family visits in communities; and their success at recruiting foster families in their neighborhoods.

For Richter, it's a way of making the work of the partnerships more concrete, and of determining the measurable value of the city's investment. Until now, he says, "we haven't asked our community partners to come up with outcomes. They've sort of done what we asked them. We didn't ask them to do anything terribly rigorous."

Whatever the evaluation's results, Richter is clear that they will be considered in the context of tough financial realities. "I really have to make hard decisions," he says. "You can't do everything. We're focusing on a limited set of resources. So we're trying to figure out...What does it make the most sense to identify as ways in which the community partners can help advance what we think is our agenda going forward?

"Conferencing is something we want to do well as an agency because it gets families involved in decision making in child welfare early and is very important to avoid removals of children," Richter adds. "We also really want good foster homes in communities where children come into our system. And we think good community partners can help us do that, which means children will go to the same school, children will be near home, so that if there has to be a temporary entry into foster care, kids will be near home and near to their familiar surroundings. That's a good use of community partners.

"Do I think it's my job as commissioner to not do everything I would like to do because this is 2011 and there are very hard decisions to make for every city agency? Yes....We want to make our communities stronger. Find foster homes in our community. Get partners in our conferences so the parents are supported there. They are not easy choices.