Youth Justice, Police and NYC’s Neighborhoods

WEDNESDAY, APRIL 30, 2014 8:30 AM - 10:30 AM THERESA LANG COMMUNITY AND STUDENT CENTER, ARNHOLD HALL 55 WEST 13TH STREET, 2ND FLOOR [Photo by Andrew Hinderaker]Center for New York City Affairs at The New School presentsa Child Welfare Watch forum Co-sponsored by the New York Juvenile Justice Initiative

There’s been a sea change in New York City juvenile justice policy and police practices over the last two years: Courts now place most teen delinquents in city programs close to home, rather than upstate; and police have sharply reduced the use of stop and frisk, a tactic that overwhelmingly targeted young men of color. Policymakers in the new administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio seek to drive change even further, to improve police-community relations and strengthen juvenile justice programs while also securing public safety. How does the administration intend to pursue its objectives? What do community leaders and others believe needs to change? Will young people and community residents gain a meaningful voice in both policy and practice? And can better data collection and data sharing help shape new solutions, both inside and outside the walls of government?

A conversation with:

  • Gladys Carrion, commissioner, NYC Administration for Children's Services
  • Joanne Jaffe, bureau chief, New York Police Department
  • Chino Hardin, field trainer/organizer, Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions
  • Gabrielle Prisco, director, Juvenile Justice Project, Correctional Association of New York
  • Chris Watler, project director, Harlem Community Justice Center at Center for Court Innovation

Moderated by:

  • Andrew White, director, Center for New York City Affairs, The New School


This forum is made possible thanks to the generous support of The Prospect Hill Foundation and the Sirus Fund.  Additional funding for the Child Welfare Watch project is provided by the Child Welfare Fund, the Ira W. DeCamp Foundation and the Booth Ferris Foundation.

What's the Matter with Staten Island?

Over the past two years, the north shore community of Staten Island had more children placed in foster care than any other community district in New York City, according to a Child Welfare Watch analysis of Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) data. In 2010, the neighborhoods of St. George and Stapleton, near the Staten Island ferry, had the unfortunate distinction of having more children placed in foster care than any other. In 2011, the district ranked second citywide.

The total number of children placed in foster care dropped sharply last year across the city, from more than 7,000 in 2010 to under 5,700 last year. There was a substantial decline in St. George and Stapleton as well, from 361 placements to 273. Nonetheless, the community district remains just below the top of the list.

What’s clear in the city’s 2010 data is that, when child protective investigators in these Staten Island neighborhoods decided they had reason to believe abuse or neglect may have occurred, a child had a nearly one-third one-fourth chance of being placed in foster care. This is a rate higher than any other New York City neighborhood with substantial involvement in the child welfare system.

Citywide, just over 19 percent 15 percent of “indicated cases”— where investigators have determined sufficient reason to suspect child abuse or neglect—led to a child being placed in foster care. In the remaining cases, children remained with their families, often receiving services and supports such as parenting classes, child care or counseling.

High rates of isolation and poverty and a philosophy of protecting children by removing them from home all contribute to the frequent placements, according to many who work in child welfare here.

“I think everyone who works in Staten Island knows how overprotective the system is,” says Jody Bahar, an attorney who represents Staten Island parents in Family Court. “We’re going to take the kids. That’s what we do here.”

Others cite a lack of institutional supports for low-income residents. “You have very poor people, and the demographic is very depressed economically, and [it doesn’t have] services that other parts of Staten Island have,” says Ralph Porzio, also an attorney for parents and a former Family Court judge. Porzio adds that services such as subsidized daycare can have a positive snowball effect for families, with one service connecting them to other local resources and supports.

Indeed, there are several thousand young children in these neighborhoods who are eligible for but not receiving subsidized child care—but this is true in most of the city’s low-income communities.

Where the northern Staten Island community district stands out, however, is the high rate of abuse and neglect reporting, and the path taken by these cases once they are investigated. Some activists say that child protective staff are too aggressive in their decision to seek removal.

“It’s the philosophy and the thinking of the administration. You have some very pro-removal people in charge,” says Fola Campbell, executive director of the Staten Island Council of Child Abuse and Neglect. She says that the tendency to remove reflects the second-class status of the St. George and Stapleton  communities, which have many immigrants and families of color, within an otherwise conservative, largely white borough.

Whether it's for conscious or unconscious reasons, “ACS will take a harder-line stance on those people who are poor and those people who are of color,” says Porzio. As in the rest of the city, Staten Island Family Court usually goes along with ACS child protective investigators’ recommendations to remove children.

“You need someone who is not only going to be remarkably diligent, but remarkably strong of character to say that this is the recommendation from ACS and I’m going to go against it,” says Porzio.

The motives may not be bad, says attorney Jody Bahar. “It’s for altruistic reasons, I do believe that… [Child protective workers] want children to be in a home like their home would be.” Still, she says, “My view is that we take the child too quickly.”

In response to a request for comment, ACS said in a written statement: “It is our goal to keep families intact and advocate for a child’s removal only when we believe there to be imminent risk to the child’s life or health.”



Our  analysis of ACS data comparing indication rates and placement of children in foster care contained an error, although the overall analysis is accurate. Here are the correct numbers: Among city neighborhoods with the greatest number of children entering foster care in 2010, Staten Island's Community District 1 (the neighborhoods of St. George and Stapleton) tops the list in the percentage of children with indicated cases that are placed. When child protective investigators in these Staten Island neighborhoods decided they had reason to believe a child may have been abused or neglected, that child had a 24 percent chance of being placed in foster care. Central Harlem came in a close second, with nearly 23 percent of children with indicated cases getting placed.

In Bushwick, by comparison, about one in 10 children with an indicated case is placed in foster care.

Our original analysis failed to account for the number of children placed into foster care for reasons other than abuse and neglect (such as children whose parents placed them in care voluntarily). The corrected data are below in Table 1, which lists the neighborhoods with a high number of placements.

The ACS uses a different method to measure the outcomes of child protective investigations that are indicated—that is, when the investigator believed there was reason to suspect abuse or neglect had taken place. Below, Table 2 shows the number of indicated investigations that led to a foster care placement of any child in the family, within two months of the conclusion of the investigation. Using this methodology, one placement can represent one or more children being placed from the same family. Central Harlem and Staten Island remain in the top three for the highest percentage of cases that result in placements.

Table 1: Percent of Children in Indicated Reports Placed in Foster Care

(Top 10 community districts plus Jamaica and Bushwick, and five boroughs)


Table 2: Indicated Investigations with Foster Care Placement, FY 2011

(Includes placements made within two months of conclusion of investigation)


Foster Care Placement

Total Indicated Cases

BX1 - Mott Haven/Melrose




BX2 - Hunts Point/Longwood




BX3 - Morrisania/Crotona




BX4 - Concourse/Highbridge




BX5 - Fordham/University Heights




BX6 - Belmont/East Tremont




BX7 - Kingsbridge Hghts/Bedford




BX8 - Riverdale/Fieldston




BX9 - Parkchester/Soundview




BX10 - Throgs Neck/Coop City




BX11 - Morris Park/Bronxdale




BX12 - Williamsbridge/Baychester




BX - Unknown CD




BX - Total




BK1 - Williamsburg/Greenpoint




BK2 - Fort Greene/Brooklyn Hts




BK3 - Bedford Stuyvesant




BK4 - Bushwick




BK5 - East New York/Starrett City




BK6 - Park Slope/Carroll Gardens




BK7 -Sunset Park




BK8 - Crown Heights North




BK9 - Crown Heights South/Prospect




BK10 - Bay Ridge/Dyker Hghts




BK11 - Bensonhurst




BK12 - Borough Park




BK13 - Coney Island




BK14 - Flatbush/Midwood




BK15 - Sheepshead Bay




BK16 - Brownsville




BK17 - East Flatbush




BK18 - Flatlands/Canarsie




BK - Unknown CD




BK - Total




MN1 - Financial District




MN2 - Greenwich Village/Soho




MN3 - Lower East Side/Chinatown




MN4 - Clinton/Chelsea




MN5 - Midtown




MN6 - Stuyvesant Town/Turtle Bay




MN7 - Upper West Side




MN8 - Upper East Side




MN9 - Morningside Heights/Hamilton




MN10 - Central Harlem




MN11 - East Harlem




MN12 - Washington Heights/Inwood




MN - Unknown CD




MN - Total




QN1 - Astoria




QN2 - Sunnyside/Woodside




QN3 - Jackson Heights




QN4 - Elmhurst/Corona




QN5 - Ridgewood/Maspeth




QN6 - Rego Park/Forest Hills




QN7 - Flushing/Whitestone




QN8 - Fresh Meadows/Hillcrest




QN9 - Ozone Park/Woodhaven




QN10 - South Ozone Park/Howard Beach




QN11 - Bayside/Little Neck




QN12 - Jamaica/Hollis




QN13 - Queens Village




QN14 - Rockaway/Broad Channel




QN - Unknown CD




QN - Total




SI1 - Saint George/Stapleton




SI2 - South Beach/Willowbrook




SI3 - Tottenville/Great Kills




SI - Unknown CD




SI - Total








Source: ACS




Preparing New Group Homes for Young Lawbreakers

The Bloomberg administration is swiftly moving on its plans to establish several new group homes that will house New Yorkers aged 15 and under who have been sentenced for crimes. The city has chosen 11 nonprofit providers to operate the nonsecure, residential centers, which will open as early as September. This leaves the organizations just a few summer months to get the facilities up and running.

The new residences will each house from 4 to 24 young people, making room for more than 300 juvenile delinquents to serve their time in the city instead of in juvenile facilities upstate. One of organizations' first challenges has been finding affordable, spacious sites in the city. Some are converting properties they already own or lease, while others will rent new sites. Former convents and homes that once housed priests are proving especially popular. These buildings are too big to use for private homes and the diocese can keep them off the tax rolls by leasing them to nonprofits.

The new residences will be overseen by the Administration for Children's Services (ACS), and are expected to provide not only supervision but also counseling and social services. Despite the nonsecure, label, these city residences will in fact be locked and fully staffed, though not ringed with barbed wire like the upstate lockups they will replace.

Officials say that keeping teen offenders close to their families, communities, and lawyers, and in city-run education programs, should help smooth their transitions home and reduce the likelihood that they will commit new crimes. "This is as significant a shift as I have seen in my thirty years in the business, and a most welcome one," says Bill Baccaglini, executive director of New York Foundling, which will be running one of the new facilities.

The nonsecure residences are part of the city's Close to Home, initiative, which transfers responsibility for all but the most severe of the city's young lawbreakers from the state to the city. Though most of the new sites will open in the five boroughs, a few specialized residential programs for young people with specific issues, like fire starters or girls who have been exploited as prostitutes, will be located on residential campuses in Westchester and Long Island. ACS expects some of these specialized programs to move into the city within two years.

All of the new sites must meet certain state and city requirements, like having high quality video surveillance in common areas and windows that activate alarms when opened too far. "We want the facility to be appropriate and friendly to the young people so it feels as homelike as possible, and yet it has also to be a facility we can watch and monitor appropriately for the safety of the young people in the facility, but also for the community," says Alan Mucatel, executive director of Leake & Watts.

Leake & Watts will open a 12-bed home in the Bronx in a building that used to be a group home for mothers in foster care and their children. When renovating the site, the agency is getting rid of nooks where young people can hide from view and "that can lead to something unsafe and inappropriate," says Mucatel. Instead, the house will have large, open common spaces and bedrooms all on one floor.

All of the providers have experience working with young people who have committed crimes, most commonly as an offshoot of residential foster care programs, or as an operator of detention centers for young people awaiting trial. Most say they aim to strike a balance between keeping young delinquents and their new neighbors safe while also creating comfortable, welcoming environments that resemble family life. They plan to have a high ratio of staff to young people and will encourage parents and other family members to visit regularly. Most also plan to give the young people increasing degrees of autonomy as they win staff members' trust, including chances to make excursions outside the facilities without a chaperone. "As soon as it is deemed safe and appropriate, the child will be going on home visits," says Elizabeth McCarthy, executive director of Episcopal Social Services of New York.

Young people will live in the new facilities an average of seven months, and attend one of two schools that are hurriedly being created by the Department of Education. Under the current plan, many will return to their former public schools as they get close to returning home, in order to help make the transition less abrupt.

Over the next few months, ACS will train staff for the facilities in crisis management. This includes de-escalating volatile situations by talking with and calming young people, while avoiding the restraints and excessive force that a 2009 Federal Justice Investigation found routine at juvenile justice facilities upstate.

The administration has also asked the facilities to choose therapeutic evidence based, models that have been shown to have positive results. Most of the providers plan to adopt elements of the Missouri Model, a reform effort that began in Missouri but has been attributed to reducing recidivism rates among juvenile delinquents in other states as well. The model emphasizes rehabilitation and uses small groups, minimal force, and strong relationships between staff and young people, where staff are seen as supportive rather than custodial.

The organizations have only until the fall to put everything in place. "There's a tight timeframe here," says Mucatel. "There's all the anxiety that comes along with doing any new program. You want to do it right. You want to hire engaged and ambitious staff. And we are bringing on a model that is new to us, the Missouri Model, and I'm sure there will be some adjustment to us culturally to make that who we are."

Most of the providers say they are not yet clear on how or whether they need to inform communities about the new facilities. Several did not want to reveal the addresses of the new homes for fear that it might spur local resistance. But Mucatel of Leake & Watts says it is critical to find ways to work with neighbors and link the young people and their families to local supports right away. "The success of these programs is going to count on community engagement and family engagement. That's the whole point. That's what will give these young people a sense of feeling rooted in their neighborhoods, and propel them to making choices that will keep them out of the criminal and juvenile justice system," he says.

Boys Town, an organization with long experience in juvenile justice, already runs two homes in the city for teens convicted of crimes. One is a small group home in a brownstone on a tree-lined street of Park Slope. A married couple, Kenneth and Sarai Ortiz, run the house, which they share with six young men.

One of them, Omar (not his real name), is skinny and soft-spoken with brown hair and braces. He has also spent time in an upstate lockup where the boys had two big dorm rooms with beds lined up prison-style, he says, and everyone had to shower together, something he particularly hated. He says he often felt isolated, and scared for his safety. Upstate, Omar says, it felt like both the staff and the young people were just doing time.

But in the Park Slope group home, he says, "We're like brothers. We work together and do chores. I consider them family." After looking carefully around the living room at his surrogate brothers sitting on a couch, he breaks into a grin, adding, "Most of the time."

Could Plan to Speed Adoptions Have Unintended Consequences?

The Administration for Children's Services' (ACS) recently released strategic plan places a heavy emphasis on speeding up the pace at which young people move out of foster care and into permanent homes. But some attorneys and parent advocates are urging caution, worried that proposed new financial incentives tied to federal adoption timelines could have unintended results. There's no denying that many New York City kids are spending a very long time in foster care. More than one-third of New York City foster children aged 18 and younger have spent at least three years in foster homes, according to city data. That's better than it used to be: Today, half of the children entering care for the first time are back home within six months, down from 11 months in 2007.

Nonetheless, those on the adoption track still wait more than four years, on average, before leaving foster care. The long length of stay for would-be adoptees has hardly budged in recent years even as the size of the foster care system has shrunk. "Children are growing up without families, and there's nothing more devastating I could imagine than for a child to grow up without a family," says Marcia Lowry, executive director of Children's Rights.

The new ACS plan includes popular ideas to deal with these long lengths of stay, such as streamlining practices in the city's notoriously slow and backlogged Family Court. But Bloomberg administration officials have proposed another strategy that is proving controversial: giving foster care agencies financial incentives to meet a timeline set by the federal Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA).

ASFA, the sweeping 1997 federal law that attempted to cut lengths of stay in foster care, requires that agencies seek to terminate parental rights as soon as a child has been in foster care for 15 out of any 22 month period. But as of last summer, officials say, more than 95 percent of the approximately 3,300 New York City children who reached 18 months in foster care that year had not been the subject of a Family Court petition to free them for adoption.

"Federal timeframes and New York State statute must serve as guidance in our practice with children in foster care," says ACS Commissioner Ron Richter. "Children's timeframes are different than an adult's, and we have an obligation to achieve timely permanency planning for children in our care. Our foster care agency partners must make efforts to reunify families where possible, and when reunification isn't possible, another plan must be obtained."

Parents' rights advocates contend that financial incentives would have the opposite effect of what the city intends. Nonprofit agencies that run the foster care system for the city are paid a per diem rate for each day a child spends in foster care, and adoptions generally take much longer to complete than reunifications. This means there's a built-in incentive for foster care agencies to favor adoption, explains Mike Arsham, executive director of the Child Welfare Organizing Project, a parent advocacy organization.

"Setting a goal of adoption is going to drive up the average length of stay," says Arsham. "If you can set a goal of adoption for a significant number of children in your care, then you can ensure a cash flow."

Many children spend longer periods in foster care while their parents try to kick an addiction, finish a prison sentence or complete programs required to prove they're ready and able to safely care for their children. "Say a person has a drug problem and goes into drug treatment, and they have a couple of relapses before they are able to retain sobriety, and it takes two years rather than 19 months," says Chris Gottlieb, an attorney with New York University's Family Defense Clinic. "To speed that case to adoption doesn't serve the best interest of the child." In such a case, she adds, "it would not be appropriate to file a termination of parental rights."

Eric Nicklas, chief operating officer at the foster care agency Forestdale, Inc., says that because the foster care system has shrunk in size, a higher portion of its families present difficult challenges that take longer to resolve. "If you have a system that works to keep kids out of care, then the ones that are left are the ones for whom there is no easy solution. This is how it should be," says Nicklas, who worked at ACS for more than 10 years in its office of research evaluation and its foster care division. "But there needs to be a recognition that it takes more investment to get the kind of outcomes for these families we all want."

Nicklas says there's a danger in putting incentives only on adoption milestones, adding that ACS should keep financial incentives on actual permanency outcomes, including when a child is returned home.

Many of the city's 14,000 foster children are already exempt from ASFA's timeline, including the nearly 35 percent who live with relatives, whose homes are considered stable placements. Others, including some children with parents in prison or drug treatment programs, have been exempted.

"There's such a huge percentage of those kids there at 18 months who should go home," says Gottlieb. "It'd be much better to focus on the ones who have been in care three years and four years. Those are the ones who won't come home. And then let's talk about why they're not [moving out of foster care] more quickly."

Sandra Killet, a parent advocate at the foster care agency Children's Village, says that terminations of parental rights can have dire consequences for teenagers who end up as "legal orphans" because they have been legally separated from their parents but never adopted. Today, there are more than 550 young people in New York City who are neither legally tied to their parents nor living with a family who plans to adopt them. "Should we really be doing this? Is this in the best interest of the child?" asks Killet.

But others point to the long periods of time infants and toddlers spend in foster care, months that can add up to the better part of their short lives.

"For kids in foster care, every month matters. You only get to be 5 years old or 8 years old or 10 years old once," says Jim Purcell, chief executive officer of the Council of Family and Child Caring Agencies. "I want to see our agencies, ACS, and the courts bring a greater urgency to the decision-making so things move along, but I'm not necessarily in favor of rigid timeframes that might not work for some of our families."

" We will work collaboratively with our foster care agencies to develop strategies that will help us meet ASFA timelines, with an awareness that one-size-fits-all is never an appropriate approach," adds Richter. "Each family's challenges are different and each child's needs and interests their own."

One Step Back: The Delayed Dream of Community Partnerships

Nearly five years ago, New York City's Administration for Children's Services launched a plan to create a culture of community participation and transparency in the child welfare system, which is responsible for protecting children and assisting families in crisis.

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The Reinvestment Myth: Beyond the IBO Report

The idea of reinvesting savings from one part of the child welfare system into another sounded perfectly logical when it was first proposed in a city strategy paper in 2001, especially to anyone unfamiliar with the vagaries of government social services funding. More than a decade ago, before Michael Bloomberg became mayor, New York City policymakers saw a huge trend in the making: the number of children in foster care was tumbling downward, alongside crime rates and the once epidemic use of crack cocaine. Of course, there were other factors: families were helped by great improvements in the city's economy, for example, and there was also a growing realization in the child welfare field that placing 10,000 or more children in foster care each year was no panacea for what ails troubled families living in severe poverty.

So in 2001, the Administration for Children's Services (ACS) established a reform goal of reinvesting savings from the shrinking foster care system into social services, including case management, drug treatment, counseling, benefits advocacy, homemaking and more, all designed to help families, keep children safe and prevent placements in foster care.

Did it happen? Not so much. The charts below show there was very little reinvestment despite a huge, 40 percent decline in overall government spending on New York City foster care between 2000 and 2010. Remarkably, the number of foster children continues to fall. As of July 2011 there were 14,308 foster children, down 58 percent since 2000.

And yet, this year, New York City taxpayers' contribution to preventive family support services is almost exactly the same as it was 12 years ago.

With the help of the NYC Independent Budget Office (IBO), Child Welfare Watch mapped the impact of the last dozen years in budget and spending trends on ACS-funded services. The charts below show what we've found. Some of this analysis is found in a report published by the IBO last week. But with that agency's assistance, we chose a very different, and we think very useful, way to report and understand the numbers. And we've included some data here that are not in the IBO report.

Most importantly, in our charts and in the text below, all of the dollar figures are adjusted for the impact of inflation. In buying power, a dollar in 2010 had much less value than a dollar in 2000. Year after year, inflation wears away at the dollar's value. We believe inflation-adjusted dollars are a more logical way of comparing government spending over the years, rather than simply listing the actual (or "nominal") dollars spent each year in their value at the time. Why? Because the cup of coffee I bought at the deli for $1.45 this morning cost me just 65 cents in 2000. Much the same is true for the cost of salaries, benefits, office leases and all the other expenses that go into providing city-funded services.

When we adjust for inflation, for example, the $903.5 million that New York spent on foster care in 2000 has the buying power of $1.3 billion in 2010 dollars. (The IBO mostly uses nominal, unadjusted dollar figures in its reports).

These numbers tell a somewhat more sobering story than we heard from the IBO last week.

Chart 1. The Sharp Drop Foster care spending in New York City fell 40 percent from 2000 to 2010. Over the same period, the number of children in foster care declined by more than half. Foster care dollars go mostly to foster parents and to the nonprofit agencies that work with them, the children and their parents. (In all of these charts, we use the city fiscal year, which begins on July 1 and ends on June 30.)

Foster care spending and foster care population

Chart 2. Hundreds of Millions of Dollars Saved As the overall cost of foster care plummeted, total spending on preventive family support services increased, but the change was relatively modest.

preventative and foster care spending 2000-2010

Chart 3. Child Protective Services Grows Spending on child protective services, that is, the ACS Division of Child Protection's investigation of abuse and neglect reports, increased in the years following the murder of Nixzmary Brown in January 2006.

protective services spending FY 2000-2011

Chart 4: The Loss of Federal Funds Foster care is paid for with city, state and federal government dollars. The federal contribution collapsed in the middle part of the decade, when city officials acknowledged problems with the way they had been documenting claims for foster children's eligibility for funding under Title IV-E of the Social Security Act. So, despite the stunning decline in the number of foster children, the contribution to foster care from state coffers changed only modestly. And the contribution from city taxpayers was volatile across the decade, mostly plugging the huge hole opened up by the loss of federal funds.

Foster care funding by source

Chart 5: Who Pays for Preventive Programs? As with foster care, funding for ACS preventive family support services comes from the city, state and federal governments. The portion paid for by the city was lower in 2010 than in 2000. Since an agreement reached in 2006, an increase or decrease in city tax levy funds spent on preventive services is amplified by the state, because Albany matches local dollars spent on these services with a formula of its own.

preventative services by funding source

Chart 6: Preventive Services Funding Today In June 2011, the Bloomberg administration agreed to "baseline" ACS preventive family support services into the city budget at $230 million, almost exactly where it stood in 2010. This means that for the foreseeable future, the City Council may not have to fight to restore funding for preventive services every year. Dollars from the city still cover only a modest 20 percent of the preventive budget. (The figures in charts 6 and 7 are not adjusted for inflation, because they are so recent. The 2010 amount is actual expenditures. The 2011 and 2012 figures reflect what the city budgeted for these services.)

preventative family support services

Chart 7: Foster Care and Adoption Almost Below $1 Billion This final chart shows the four major areas of child welfare funding in New York City, excluding core administrative services. The "Adoption" category is mostly made up of subsidies provided to adoptive families. (Nearly 80 percent of the city"s adoption budget comes from the state and federal governments.) One interesting note: In Fiscal Year 2012, for the first time in decades, the combined budget of New York City foster care and adoption services is close to falling below $1 billion. If current trends continue, that may indeed happen in 2013.

child welfare funding 2010-2012 An important acknowledgement: Thanks to the IBO and analyst Kate Maher for their help crunching these numbers.

NYC Closes Transitional Housing for Foster Teens

On December 31, the Administration for Children's Services dismantled its program that gave 125 foster teens on the brink of aging out the chance to practice living on their own while still having the support of the foster care system. For more than 10 years, the now-defunct Supervised Independent Living Program (SILP) has provided foster teens aged 18 to 20 what many experts say is essential to any housing program helping young people transition to independence, a chance to try out living on their own, with a safety net to catch them if they get into trouble. "I thought this was kind of going to be the future for older adolescents in child welfare," says Green Chimneys Executive Director Joseph Whalen, who had hoped to open 20 more SILP apartments. "I was wrong."

In an emailed statement to Child Welfare Watch, the ACS press office said ACS's decision to close the SILP apartments stemmed from its philosophy that young people in foster care are best served living with families. "It can be difficult to transition to independence as an adult, and we believe that a youth should have a family to support him or her throughout each of their lives," the press office wrote.

Providers speculate a tough year for the budget, confusion about whom to place in SILP apartments, and ACS's perception that SILP became what one executive director described as "a dumping ground" for young people who did not make it in a family setting contributed to the decision. SILPs cost around $100 a day, says Douglas O'Dell of SCO Family of Services, a foster care agency with more than 500 teens preparing to age out. For the fiscal year ending July 1, 2010, the SILP program cost $4,422,317, with the city paying $1,459,365, or 33 percent, the state paying 41 percent, and the federal government 26 percent.

The SILP program is ending just as other housing resources are vanishing. The federal government has cut off Section 8 vouchers, and they have become more difficult for young people leaving care to secure.

While many providers praise the SILP program as the best option for vulnerable teens, others fault it for giving young people too much independence and too little supervision. Many agencies minimized this risk by filling SILP apartments with their most mature young peopleâ€, those who could be trusted to live well on their own. But some providers say that as the number of teens in foster care dramatically shrank over the last decade, a higher percentage of the teens left in the system struggle with histories of serious trauma. "Simply stated, seriously troubled kids and indirect s pervision are not compatible," Poul Jensen, president and CEO of Graham Windham, wrote in an email.

Others defend SILP. "It provided them with an opportunity to try out their wings and assume adult responsibility, while still offering a safety net," explains Sister Paulette Lo- Monaco, executive director of Good Shepherd Services.

The 125 young people living in SILP apartments budget their own money, shop for groceries, cook their own meals, clean their own apartments, and learn to get along with neighbors and roommates, all while receiving instruction and oversight from caseworkers, who lead workshops on independent living skills and visit them in their apartments regularly. If the teens get into trouble, say, a landlord complains they are playing music too loud and too late at night, instead of facing eviction, they can move back to a more structured setting in the foster care system, until they are ready to try living on their own again.

In March, ACS informed Good Shepherd Services and other foster care agencies operating SILP apartments that all SILP apartments would be closed by the end of the year. The young people who were living in them at the time of ACS's announcement would either be discharged from foster care or moved to other foster care placements, preferably with families.

Foster care providers and advocates say they are skeptical that they will find families for the majority of the young people in SILPs. Moreover, they say SILP apartments prepare young people to live on their own in an experiential, hands-on way that cannot be matched in any other living situation.

"There are definitely better-than-adequate foster families, but I don't know if you get the same kind of curriculum built in the way it's built in SILP," says Theresa Nolan, director of New York City programs for Green Chimneys, which runs 15 SILP apartments. Nolan believes that the young people aging out from SILP apartments leave foster care more prepared to live on their own than youth in other foster placements. "They actually are sometimes better equipped than youth who do grow up in families, simply because so much attention is paid to the life-skills curriculum in SILP," she adds.

O'Dell, who is assistant executive director of SCO, says that 22 of the 23 young adults who aged out of SCO's SILP apartments over a recent 12-month period left with both income and housing in place. "SILP to me was the best preparation for a young person aging out," says O'Dell.

Some providers say young people who are most likely to struggle after leaving care are the ones who most need the experience of living on their own while they still have caseworkers to support them. "Some of the worst kids I had, I put them in there to give them a reality check," says Whalen of Green Chimneys. "We understood it as, 'Hey listen, here's an opportunity for kids. We can transition them to independence and keep an eye on them. A lot of them are going to fail, and this is a learning experience,'" says Whalen, adding that when a young person did fail, he simply moved them to a group living situation until they were ready to try again. "These are the kind of things that are powerful teaching moments for kids," he says.

Priti Kitaria, who represents teens in foster care at Lawyers for Children, agrees."It's the best model for youth aging out of care," she says. "Ideally, that's where most of my clients would go."

Velma Frezzell, 21, lived in numerous foster homes as a teen, but says none prepared her for independence the way her year spent in a SILP apartment did. In SILP, says Frezzell, she learned countless things that she believes can only be learned through living them, like the week she and her roommate spent trying in vain to fix a flooded toilet before their social worker explained they needed to call their super. "I thought I was independent, but it showed me independence in a different way," says Frezzell. "You're on your own, you don't have a parent or authority figure telling you what to do, but if you don't do what you need to do, you're going to be living in a bad environment, and no one wants to live that way."

Frezzell now lives in public housing, attends John Jay College full-time and, until just a few days before speaking with Child Welfare Watch, held a steady job as a department-store sales associate. She says her experience in a SILP made her transition out of foster care almost seamless. "I was ready to move out before I was finally discharged," she says. "I don't think I'd be where I am now if I wasn't in it."

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Deficit Reduction Hits NYC Child and Family Services

Mayor Michael Bloomberg's latest strategy to reduce city expenses includes yet another round of budget cuts for programs that serve low-income children, youth and families. As part of his midyear financial plan, released in late November, the mayor directed city agencies to cumulatively carve nearly $1.6 billion out of their budgets for Fiscal Years 2011 and 2012, in an attempt to help shrink a city deficit that amounts, by the mayor's reckoning, to more than $3 billion. Many of the cuts will likely go into effect on January 1st, causing programs to scale back or close immediately.

Among the agencies likely to take significant hits are the Administration for Children's Services (ACS), which must cut more than $60 million over the next two fiscal years, and the Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD), which plans to pull close to $26 million from the community-based organizations it funds. This is the ninth time the agencies have been called on to trim their programs since 2008.

The mayor contends the city has no choice but to cut costs, and starting well in advance of the next fiscal year will minimize the damage to city programs. "The idea is if you start now you make it a more gradual process," says Marc LaVorgna at the mayor's press office. "The further ahead you're planning, the better the chance you have of lessening the impact on people and families served."

Advocates and providers counter that the mayor's plan hurts vulnerable New Yorkers at a time when the safety net has already been weakened. "The agencies that protect and nurture children have already eliminated any duplicative or nonessential services," Stephanie Gendell, an associate director at Citizen's Committee for Children, testified to the City Council last week. Further cuts, she said, "will have a profound negative impact on children."

The mayor's planned cuts have not yet been approved by the City Council, but fiscal analysts on both sides say the legislative nod is likely for the reductions in current fiscal year spending. The larger proposed cuts for the fiscal year that begins in July 2011 will be part of the spring budget negotiations between the mayor and the council.


Over the last few years, ACS has lost 1,000 staff through layoffs and attrition, coupled with a reorganization within the agency. With the November cuts, ACS will eliminate 257 more positions, including 80 managers in the division that investigates allegations of child abuse and neglect. Since the 2006 death of 7-year-old Nixzmary Brown, a child known to ACS who was killed by her stepfather, the number of abuse and neglect reports ACS investigates has remained far higher than it was even at the height of the crack epidemic in the early 1990s. Managers in child protection will now supervise more frontline workers.

ACS will also lay off 118 clerical workers by early spring, while further reducing staff at the agency's training academy. The agency also plans to cut 27 specialists who facilitate case conferences, scaling back a key initiative.


ACS plans to restructure homemaking services, a foster care prevention program that provides several months of in-home support to families who might otherwise lose children to foster care. Going forward, the program will focus on short-term help for families with children in danger of imminent removal from their home. While providers support using homemaking services as a way to stabilize families in immediate crises, they say it's critical the program continue serving families who have longer term needs, as well.

About one-third of the families that Brooklyn Community Services now serves are headed by a parent with a medical or mental disability, says Norma Martin, the organization's assistant executive director. One mother in her mid-sixties has cancer and is very sick, says Martin. A homemaker helps her take care of her 13-year-old daughter, who was adopted as an infant and has special needs. "What's going to happen to the little girl?" asks Martin. "Where is she going to go? Foster care?"


DYCD plans to eliminate street outreach for homeless and runaway youth, and to cut funding to drop-in centers for young people on the street.

Youth shelters have been filled to capacity for more than two years, and often turn away youth who have nowhere to sleep. "Balancing the budget on the back of children sleeping on the streets is absolutely unacceptable," Councilmember Lewis Fidler said at a council hearing last week.

At the hearing, DYCD Commissioner Jeanne Mullgrav testified that very few young people went to shelters as a direct result of street outreach, making the program vulnerable to being shut down.

But staff at Safe Horizon's street outreach program point out that their mission goes far beyond steering young people to shelters. Outreach workers bring young people on the streets supplies like food, condoms and coats. It can take weeks or months of outreach before a young person visits a drop-in center or accepts other services.

Johanna Westmacott of Safe Horizon's street outreach program testified that the new cuts will force her organization to turn away even more young people with no place to go. "I cannot describe what it feels like to look a child in the eye who is desperately seeking help and the best advice you can offer them is to find a buddy to take turns sleeping in public and try not to get arrested for trespassing," she said.


The cuts also hit families who depend on city-run programs that provide child care, academic enrichment and social support to kids outside of school hours.

Each of the 66 city-funded Beacon programs, which serve as school-based community centers, will lose 10 percent of their DYCD fundingâ€, or about $38,000. Though the programs have been much lauded by the city, they already operate on less funding than when they were launched 19 years ago.

"Working families need a safe place for their children to go so they can keep working," says Anthony Ng, deputy director of policy and advocacy at United Neighborhood Houses. "Beacons are already operating on bare bones and the funding continues to erode."

DYCD has attempted to help programs absorb cuts by reducing the number of people each center is contractually required to serve, but providers say they're not willing to turn young people away half-way through the program year. "No one's going to tell the 101st kid who comes to the door, "Sorry, you can't come in,'" says Gigi Li, a policy director at the Neighborhood Family Services Coalition.

DYCD also funds nearly 500 after-school programs across the city through its Out-of-School Time (OST) initiative. Beginning January 1st, those programs will lose 9 percent of their OST budgets.

The city adjusted after-school agencies' contracts, allowing programs to operate on fewer holidays than are currently mandated, but providers say the money they'll save through holiday closings doesn't make up for the funding that's being cut.

"We just can't see where the money's going to come from," says Amy Mereson, director of youth education and arts programs at University Settlement. "Our options are to close down for significantly more time, or we cut all the stuff that makes programs rich, chess, dance, theater, sports, the things that make a quality program, it's all taken away."

"The city's approach to trying to find what's ultimately pocket change on the backs of these populations that we serve, I can't wrap my brain around it," Mereson adds. "The assumption is always that community-based organizations will find a way. We're getting to the point where we can't find a way."