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




Child Protection: An Insider's View

Not long ago, Child Welfare Watch interviewed frontline child protection workers about their job. We were considering writing an article about the stress they experienced, and what might be done to reduce it. One major source of stress for many, though, has no easy solution: the constant worry that they might miss something that will haunt them. Below are excerpts from one of those interviews as told to reporter Kendra Hurley. We've granted this investigator anonymity, although she didn't ask for it at the time. That was before two former ACS frontline workers were charged this week by the Brooklyn District Attorney with criminally negligent homicide for mishandling the case of 4-year-old Marchella Pierce, who died last fall.

The comments below are just one person's view, but some of her experiences are widely shared. She intended none of this to be interpreted as excusing any investigator's failure to do their job. Far from it. In her words:

I always wanted to work here and now that I'm here I'm like, "You've gotta be kidding." When the school year picks up, we just get case after case, and once a case is generated the clock is ticking. It's like a ticking time bomb. It's a juggling act. It's like that guy in the circus spinning those plates, and that's how I feel, I'm spinning those plates, and I can't drop one because that means a kid could be dead or a kid could be hurt.

So many responsibilities fall on my shoulder that I'm not really sure I can do this. I'm responsible not only for assessing the child's safety at that moment, I'm responsible for risk, which is the future. I'm responsible for looking into the future.

You could leave a house where you have a case and something bad happens there the next day and they could say, "Miss P, you needed to be able to see into the future." These are people's lives and it scares me every day I turn on my TV and see the news. I see a story where something went wrong with a child known to ACS and I'm thinking, "Is it my house? Is that my kid?"

I've been here almost a year now. I still get a rush when I get a case. I get excited. I want to go see what's going on. If I can't get in a home, I want to find a way. I'm one of those workers who's not afraid. I walk into any housing development where it's obvious there's drug trafficking, people hanging out, you know, and when I'm knocking at the door there's nothing in me that's saying, "Are you sure?"

It makes me feel good to know that I am trying to save a kid's life. I love the fact that my families look at me and say, "I need your help." They depend on me and I follow through. I get a sense of fulfillment. Sometimes you are a wakeup call for families. I've had my clients say "thank you."

I learned a lot from the academy where caseworkers get trained, but it's not the same as when you're in the field. I'm not used to getting these cases this fast and these cases just keep coming in. Even if it's a bogus case, even if it's a girlfriend calling a case on her ex-boyfriend who she's mad at, I still have to treat that case as if it's real. I still have to follow through with the investigation.

In the training unit, you get a page-long of directives on how to ascertain the relationship of a great great grandma who lives in Georgia, who has nothing to do with the case. But in the field I don't have enough time to dig into great granny's life. I don't have enough time to sit and figure out if there is domestic violence and dissect that.

In past jobs I've worked with different populations from youth to residential treatment facilities. I have a strong skill set. I have qualities I know I'm good at. But it's not helping me here. Here, I'm up against the clock. I'm not sitting down and servicing families the way I think they should be serviced.

The safety assessment has to be done in 24 to 48 hours. That's OK. But what if you can't find the children? You make biweekly visits for cases that are active and open. On day 45 or 50 you have to get ready to make a determination of what you think. Day 45 sneaks up so fast, and before that, services have to be in place.

Emotionally I've never been at a job where I'm just trying to get to the weekend. I'm just cranking it out Monday through Friday, and the goal is Friday. I just kind of stuff the stress someplace. I don't have time to process it or think about it. There are mental health services, but who has time for that?

My behaviors outside of my job have started to change. I spend money that I don't have. I talk myself into, "You deserve to spend that, you worked hard. Go ahead. Go out to dinner and buy those shoes."

I started noticing my alcohol intake was starting to increase. Whenever I'm at home and the problems from work are spilling over and my behavior is starting to change, I'm calling my mom saying, "What do I do about my job?"

I come from a family with a strong work ethic, so she's telling me to keep going. "You can do it," because that's what she's supposed to say. But after I hang up the phone I think, "I don't know if I can do this."

You can do a hell of a job and no one knows. But let something go wrong, you will get fired. You put so much into this job, and who's taking care of us? Now I see how workers can kind of say, "You know what? Forget it! Forget this!" That's not the way it's supposed to go. And that's how kids die.