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.”

 

UPDATE AND CORRECTION-JULY 6

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)

CD

Foster Care Placement

Total Indicated Cases

BX1 - Mott Haven/Melrose

 74

11.6%

 640

BX2 - Hunts Point/Longwood

 70

16.7%

 418

BX3 - Morrisania/Crotona

 82

13.5%

 608

BX4 - Concourse/Highbridge

 108

14.5%

 747

BX5 - Fordham/University Heights

 96

13.4%

 714

BX6 - Belmont/East Tremont

 98

14.6%

 669

BX7 - Kingsbridge Hghts/Bedford

 72

12.7%

 567

BX8 - Riverdale/Fieldston

 18

11.9%

 151

BX9 - Parkchester/Soundview

 105

13.1%

 802

BX10 - Throgs Neck/Coop City

 23

9.5%

 242

BX11 - Morris Park/Bronxdale

 32

9.7%

 330

BX12 - Williamsbridge/Baychester

 86

14.5%

 595

BX - Unknown CD

 22

20.2%

 109

BX - Total

 886

13.4%

 6,592

BK1 - Williamsburg/Greenpoint

 33

10.3%

 320

BK2 - Fort Greene/Brooklyn Hts

 33

16.0%

 206

BK3 - Bedford Stuyvesant

 160

15.2%

 1,053

BK4 - Bushwick

 63

12.7%

 495

BK5 - East New York/Starrett City

 145

13.3%

 1,090

BK6 - Park Slope/Carroll Gardens

 18

11.4%

 158

BK7 -Sunset Park

 13

4.6%

 280

BK8 - Crown Heights North

 53

14.3%

 370

BK9 - Crown Heights South/Prospect

 33

13.1%

 252

BK10 - Bay Ridge/Dyker Hghts

 9

6.4%

 140

BK11 - Bensonhurst

 19

9.1%

 209

BK12 - Borough Park

 16

8.3%

 193

BK13 - Coney Island

 33

10.2%

 322

BK14 - Flatbush/Midwood

 27

6.8%

 397

BK15 - Sheepshead Bay

 9

4.5%

 201

BK16 - Brownsville

 138

17.8%

 775

BK17 - East Flatbush

 73

13.5%

 542

BK18 - Flatlands/Canarsie

 42

11.1%

 380

BK - Unknown CD

 51

22.0%

 232

BK - Total

 968

12.7%

 7,615

MN1 - Financial District

 3

13.6%

 22

MN2 - Greenwich Village/Soho

 -

0.0%

 15

MN3 - Lower East Side/Chinatown

 73

18.8%

 389

MN4 - Clinton/Chelsea

 21

21.0%

 100

MN5 - Midtown

 11

19.3%

 57

MN6 - Stuyvesant Town/Turtle Bay

 9

17.0%

 53

MN7 - Upper West Side

 29

13.6%

 213

MN8 - Upper East Side

 13

13.3%

 98

MN9 - Morningside Heights/Hamilton

 65

17.3%

 376

MN10 - Central Harlem

 98

18.9%

 519

MN11 - East Harlem

 127

18.6%

 683

MN12 - Washington Heights/Inwood

 54

12.6%

 428

MN - Unknown CD

 21

19.4%

 108

MN - Total

 524

17.1%

 3,061

QN1 - Astoria

 43

12.8%

 335

QN2 - Sunnyside/Woodside

 12

8.4%

 143

QN3 - Jackson Heights

 27

7.4%

 364

QN4 - Elmhurst/Corona

 18

5.1%

 351

QN5 - Ridgewood/Maspeth

 7

2.5%

 280

QN6 - Rego Park/Forest Hills

 1

1.9%

 54

QN7 - Flushing/Whitestone

 22

10.2%

 215

QN8 - Fresh Meadows/Hillcrest

 16

12.1%

 132

QN9 - Ozone Park/Woodhaven

 31

9.8%

 315

QN10 - South Ozone Park/Howard Beach

 22

10.7%

 205

QN11 - Bayside/Little Neck

 4

6.7%

 60

QN12 - Jamaica/Hollis

 96

12.0%

 799

QN13 - Queens Village

 53

13.5%

 394

QN14 - Rockaway/Broad Channel

 60

11.5%

 521

QN - Unknown CD

 18

18.9%

 95

QN - Total

 430

10.1%

 4,263

SI1 - Saint George/Stapleton

 118

18.2%

 650

SI2 - South Beach/Willowbrook

 22

13.5%

 163

SI3 - Tottenville/Great Kills

 17

11.3%

 151

SI - Unknown CD

 14

20.9%

 67

SI - Total

 171

16.6%

 1,030

NYC

 2,979

13.2%

 22,564

Source: ACS

 

 

 

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."

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.

Are Foster Care Visiting Reforms Vulnerable?

In the wake of a mom's abduction of her eight children from a foster care agency in Queens early this week, some child welfare practitioners and parent advocates are uneasy, worried that the city could roll back hard-won changes that have made foster care a little friendlier to kids and their parents. The abduction took place Monday, when Shanel Nadal fled with her eight children during a supervised visit on the grounds of Forestdale, Inc., one of the city's more highly rated foster care agencies. The Administration for Children's Services announced it will launch an investigation.

Advocates fear the results, along with critical press and political reaction to the incident, could push foster care agencies to set more draconian standards for visits between parents and their kids. Absolutely there will be blowback,, says Mike Arsham, executive director of the Child Welfare Organizing Project, a self-help and advocacy organization for parents involved in the system. Too often, he says, this is how policy is formed in this city. We look at the worst possible cases and we generalize to all parents.,

When children go into foster care, ACS's standard is to allow a visit with parents as soon as possible after being removed, and then twice per week thereafter. Regular visits are considered critical to maintaining bonds between parents and their kids, most of whom will reunite with their families eventually, and many of whom return home within a year.

Over the past decade, the city has substantially reformed visiting practices to make them more comfortable and productive for families. Ten years ago, parents were lucky if they spent two hours a month with their kids, says Tanya Krupat, a program director at the Osborne Association who headed an ACS commission to investigate and overhaul family visiting. In response to a 1999 legal settlement, the administration doubled the frequency with which families are entitled to visits and worked with foster care agencies to improve the spaces in which visits happen. More recently, ACS funded an effort to take some supervised visits out of foster care agency offices altogether, allowing community organizations to host them in neighborhood settings like parks and libraries.

Forestdale, where the abduction took place, was one of the agencies to embrace visiting reforms most wholeheartedly, working with a consultant to make visits less geared toward surveillance and more conducive to families spending happy, high-quality time together, says Krupat.

Visits give parents the chance to demonstrate they are capable of caring for their kids. Workers need to know that visits are improving with each visit, that parents are engaging better, meeting the needs of their children, having happy visits,, said Paula Fendall, director of ACS's Office of Family Visiting, in an interview conducted several weeks ago for a story on visiting that will appear in the upcoming issue of Child Welfare Watch. That's the only way they can move forward to reunification.,

But child welfare reforms are particularly vulnerable to a crisis, whether it comes in the form of budget cuts, a single incident like a child's death or injury, or the exposure of poor practices. The fear, in this case, is that demands for higher security could force agencies to step back to a more institutionalized approach to visiting.

I would hate to see the pendulum swing back,, says Bill Baccaglini, executive director of the New York Foundling, a foster care agency. Was there a lapse in this case? Yes. But you can't let these things get so darn mechanical that a mother never has 30 seconds alone with her kids.,

Arsham of CWOP worries that an increased focus on security could push foster care agencies to reduce the number of visits they offer, since they'll have to provide more personnel to supervise them, and return the system to a model of visiting that's damaging to parents and kids.

You're sitting in a cubicle with your child and a case worker who is writing notes on you, which often say that your interactions with your child seem strained,, says Arsham. Well, you're sitting in a freaking cubicle with somebody writing notes on you. If that's not strained, you're not human.,

Gay Teens in Foster Care

Finding a welcoming home for gay teens in foster care has long been a challenge. Advocates are calling for a city database that would identify and reserve supportive foster homes specifically for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) youth, but so far, city officials say there's no easy solution. No one knows how many teens in the city's foster care system identify as LGBTQ. Advocates who work with young people estimate the percentage to be high, because many gay and transgendered teens are kicked out by their parents and relatives, or leave home on their own, in part because their families don't accept their sexual orientation.

Often, teens report the same lack of tolerance and acceptance in foster care. Vanessa Fuentes, now 26, remembers being called names and getting beaten up in a group home for identifying as transgender. "Most of the time I ended up spending time alone walking the streets of NYC because I did not want to come home," Fuentes recalls.

Attorneys representing foster youth from Lawyers for Children, the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, Lambda Legal, and Legal Aid Society describe in excruciating detail the difficulties their LGBTQ-identified clients have experienced while in the city's custody. Their cases include incidents of foster parents seeking to turn gay kids straight, and others using religion as a justification for shunning gay people.

Many gay teens end up living on the streets, with one survey of New York City street youth finding that about one-third identify as LGBT. "By the time a young person calls my office, they've been through at least 13 failed placements," said Kimberly Forte, a staff attorney at Legal Aid Society's Juvenile Rights Practice, at a recent City Council hearing.

Over the past two years, ACS has amplified its efforts to recruit supportive foster parents for LGBTQ youth, which include a downloadable poster on its website to help find more of these homes. But all foster parents are managed by the private non-profit foster care agencies that ACS oversees, and the city has no systematic way to identify those that are LGBTQ-affirming or to connect them to gay youth.

When a young person is slated to move to a foster home, officials at the ACS Office of Placement Administration look at a database listing of homes with empty beds. The list shows where the homes are located, which private foster care agencies oversee them, and the number, gender and ages of children they will accept. But it does not report which homes are earmarked for LGBTQ youth.

This means lawyers working with teens can locate these homes only through an ad hoc network of advocates. "For kids who are LGBT, we don't have any way to clearly match them so they literally get placed in a clearinghouse, a network of LGBT advocates, where you give a description of a child, like 'I have a 14-year-old lesbian youth who seeks a placement preferably in Brooklyn and the Bronx,' and through word of mouth try to find an agency with a home that's a fit," says Linda Diaz, co-director of the LGBTQ project at Lawyers for Children. Diaz argues that as a result, LGBTQ youth spend more time than other teens in temporary, isolated situations.

At the recent City Council hearing, ACS Commissioner John Mattingly suggested there was a limited number of foster parents willing to work with teens. He said it wouldn't be helpful to set up a system to help match LGBTQ young people to the right homes, because even homes recruited for LGBTQ youth must go to whomever needs them first, regardless of the young person's sexual orientation. "The challenge in foster care in general is the more you set up specialized foster homes for LGBTQ kids or for this or that neighborhood, the more you bump into the fact that you have to leave them open for some time," Mattingly said.

City officials say they will increase sensitivity to LGBTQ youth in foster care by requiring staff at the private foster care agencies to attend specialized training, and by urging the state to provide similar instruction for prospective foster parents. "We are requesting that all training have some LGBTQ focus," said Lorraine Stephens, ACS deputy commissioner. "We want to make sure that all our placements are safe."

Jarel Melendez, who runs a support group at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community Center for youth in foster care, says that until the placement system improves, many young people will opt out of the foster care system and stay on the streets.

After hearing one too many times from his foster mom that he would burn in hell for being gay, one young man told Melendez, "I'm hungry, I've been prostituting, and I think I'm HIV positive." Melendez helped introduce him to a new foster family. "He met with a lesbian couple, and it was an instant connection," Melendez remembers. Less than a year later, he was adopted.

"This young man was ready to live on the streets the rest of his life. He wouldn't have gotten the medical attention he needed. He would have been prostituting himself," says Melendez. "It was a success, but only because he came to the meeting that night and I stepped in. Usually these kids have no place to go."

Will New York State Pay for Guardianship, or Not?

A new law designed to give young people in kinship foster care a more permanent home won't force them to sever ties with their parents, but it's not clear how New York will pay its share of the program, called "subsidized guardianship," due to begin April 1. The Federal government will cover 50 percent of the cost, but Governor Cuomo's recently proposed budget does not account for how the state and city will divvy up the rest. The state legislature must decide whether the money will come out of the foster care block grant, which would likely mean the city would shoulder nearly the entire cost, or whether the state and local government should share the costs, as they do for adoption subsidies.

The city's Administration for Children's Services, as well as Citizens' Committee for Children and the New York Public Welfare Association (NYPWA), recommend that state and local government share the costs. "Our position is that this is a permanency option, comparable to adoption, and should be paid for using the [the same division of costs between the state and local districts that] funded adoption in 2010," NYPWA wrote in an emailed statement.

Until the legislature resolves the issue, the city and other local districts will be expected to pick up the tab for all costs not covered by federal funding. The city stands to save thousands of dollars each year in administrative oversight for each child who would otherwise have remained in foster care.

More than 5,500 New York City children live in kinship foster care with aunts, uncles, grandparents, and other relatives. Pending federal approval, nearly 1,000 of these could leave the foster care system and remain with their relatives without the intense, sometimes invasive oversight and costly monitoring of the Administration for Children's Services and the private agencies it oversees. These relatives would receive between $7 and $56 a day, depending on a child's age and needs, the same rate as adoptive parents. But unlike adoption, which can fuel family tensions because it requires parents to lose their legal rights as parents, children in kinship guardianship will stay legally bound to their parents.

"If there's a reason to keep the parents in the life of the child, then guardianship is the way to go," explains Mark Testa, a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Social Work.

New York is one of the last states in the nation to start such a program. Testa, who has helped implement similar programs elsewhere, predicts it will affect about 500 New York City children the first year and 300 to 400 children the second year. But others guess these numbers might be lower for New York City because of potential months-long delays in Family Court.

At a recent NYC Bar Association meeting, Lauren Shapiro, director of the Brooklyn Family Defense Project, said that parent attorneys were already reviewing cases to see which might be right for kinship guardian. To qualify, a child must be in a certified foster home with relatives for at least six months and have no plans to return home or be adopted. Subsidized guardianship will be an especially welcome option for children whose parents have mental illness or debilitating addictions, Shapiro noted. With the new program, these kids could find stability without disrupting their bonds, legal and otherwise, with parents. "Subsidized guardianship gives all of us an opportunity to retain better outcomes for families," Shapiro said.

Meredith Sopher, director of child welfare training at Legal Aid's Juvenile Rights Practice, described a client who had bounced through six different foster homes before finding stability living with her mother's cousin, who planned to adopt her. But just before the girl's birth father died of cancer, he asked his daughter to never be adopted. When the girl's foster mother began adoption proceedings, guilt consumed the young woman and she ran away, ultimately aging out of the foster care system to live on her own.

Sopher wishes she had been able to offer the young woman subsidized guardianship, and expressed relief that it was now on the table. "It's a new option," Sopher said. "We're thrilled."

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."

Click to enlarge.

Number of Families Receiving Preventive Services Drops to 10-Year-Low

Administrative confusion in city government has left thousands of families with children at risk of entering foster care without help from critical support services in recent months, according to data released by the Administration for Children's Services. Despite an influx of emergency funding, the number of families taking part in programs that provide everything from counseling and case management to drug treatment and housekeeping fell 21 percent between April and July of this year, ACS data show. The number of children taking part in these "preventive" programs, which are designed to stabilize families in crisis and protect kids from abuse or neglect, has dropped to a 10-year low since April. New enrollments are down nearly 40 percent compared to last year, a dramatic reversal of a core city policy long intended to make sure children are safe at home while parents receive help dealing with extreme poverty, domestic violence, mental health issues and other difficulties.

The disclosure comes in the wake of the September 2nd death of a malnourished, medically fragile four-year-old Brooklyn girl, Marchella Pierce, whose mother has been charged with assault, drug possession and endangering the welfare of a child. The family had been receiving preventive services from the nonprofit Child Development Support Corporation, but the agency apparently stopped monitoring the family when its contract ended in June.

Preventive service programs have been hit by a triple-whammy of budget cuts, operational errors and strategic planning decisions that many advocates describe as both shortsighted and dangerous. "It's a train wreck," says Michael Arsham, executive director of the Child Welfare Organizing Project, a self-help and advocacy organization of parents involved with the child welfare system. "The provider community is in chaos."

Preventive services have been on the city's chopping block since ACS issued its most recent request for contract proposals this spring. In anticipation of a budget squeeze, and as part of a plan to provide more intensive services over shorter periods of time, the agency planned for a reduction of 2,400 (out of about 11,000) preventive service slots.

By the time ACS finished evaluating proposals this April, 600 more slots had fallen to budget cuts. Nine agencies were told they wouldn't be awarded contracts with the city, and many more were instructed to shrink their services and begin closing or transferring cases. "Child safety and risk were carefully considered in these assessments," says Laura Postiglione, a spokesperson for ACS. "Where families were found to need continued child welfare services, those families were transferred to another preventive program or re-referred to child protective services."

But administrators at preventive service agencies describe the period of caseload reduction as disorganized and painful. "It's not possible to cut 3,000 cases without putting children in danger," says Robert Gutheil, the executive director of Episcopal Social Services of New York, which was slated to lose nearly 50 slots at its Bronx preventive service site. "You have no choice but to reduce intake, which means only those with the most glaringly obvious problems are going to get any attention. Just as night follows day, we're going to have horror stories."

More than two months into the caseload cuts, a whole new layer of administrative chaos hit the system when the administration announced it had made a mistake in scoring contract proposals, and that its award recommendations, which had sent agencies scrambling in the first place, would be rescinded. Meanwhile, in June, the City Council announced that it would restore funding for 2,900 of the 3,000 lost preventive service slots.

ACS sent a memo to contracted providers, asking them to halt reductions. The administration reverted back to its previous set of contracts, extending all but two until the end of June, 2011, and asking provider agencies to ramp back up to their previous service levels. But by that time, many agencies were well into shut-down mode. Several had laid off staff, some had terminated leases and many had announced to clients they were cutting back on services.

"It's more than fair to say that hundreds of families fell out of the system," says Sophine Charles, a program director at Steinway Child and Family Services, which was scheduled to close after it didn't receive a contract award from ACS. "Now we're required to go back to our original utilization rates, but it's starting from scratch. How do you hire staff when your funding is only secure for the next eight months?"

The number of families participating in preventive services fell from more than 15,200 in June 2009 to just 12,230 in July 2010, according to data recently released by ACS (click to view chart). New enrollments fell from more than 1,100 in the month of March 2010 to just 579 during July (click to view chart). Many families must enroll in these programs under court order; others attend voluntarily with the encouragement of ACS child protective caseworkers, or they are referred by social workers, physicians or others in their communities.

Child welfare advocates, as well as members of the City Council, are pushing to have the money from the council's restoration funding baselined into the mayor's budget before the next fiscal year, which begins in July 2011, so that agencies have the ability to develop stable, long-term planning. The council's General Welfare Committee plans to hold a hearing on the changes to the preventive service system on September 28th, says Meghan Lynch, chief of staff for the committee's chair, Annabel Palma.

Public Advocate Bill de Blasio has also launched an inquiry into preventive service reductions, linking the cuts to the death of Marchella Pierce. In a letter to ACS Commissioner John Mattingly, de Blasio called on the agency to review every case that was closed during the April-to-July reduction period. "The heartbreaking circumstances surrounding Marchella Pierce's death raise troubling questions about ACS policies and practices and the possibility of systemic problems that could leave an untold number of children at risk," he wrote.

Chart: ACS new preventive cases, August 2008 , July 2010.

Click to enlarge.