City Delays Moving Children From Institutions

The city has delayed plans to move some 500 foster children from institutions to family settings after foster care agencies complained that the moves were poorly planned and rushed, according to foster care agencies, children's law guardians, and the city's Administration for Children's Services (ACS). In the past two years, some children were sent to relatives who couldn't care for them, some were sent from one institution to another, and still others were discharged from care to live on their own before they were ready, foster care providers say. In addition, some children were sent to foster parents who had not yet been trained, the providers say and the city acknowledges.

"Some moves happened very quickly. Speed became important as opposed to accuracy," says Irwin Moss, director of social work at Leake and Watts' residential campus, which was the campus from which about 130 children moved over the last 18 months. "Some [kids] went to situations that weren't the best. Many went to independent living before they were ready." One young woman, Brandy Allen, 19, told Child Welfare Watch she was sent from Leake and Watts' campus to a group home while ACS was authorizing another home for her to live in. The group home did not have a bed for her to sleep on, Allen says. Instead of sleeping on a couch, she went to a friend's house, she says.

The Administration for Children's Services acknowledges there have been problems in the city's plan to move 1,000 children from institutions in the 21-month period that ended June 2009. ACS Deputy Commissioner Lorraine Stephens says about 500 children were moved by the end of June, but the agency delayed the timeline for moving the remaining 500 children after it received complaints from foster care providers. ACS now hopes to reach its goal by June 2010, a year later than anticipated, Stephens says. She says ACS is working more closely with foster care agencies and children's law guardians to make plans for which children will move and where. "I think how we included providers in the discussion has changed," she says.

The plan to move children out of institutions, including residential treatment centers and group homes, is part of a wider effort by the city to keep more children in family settings. A growing body of research suggests young people fare better living in families than in group care. Of the over 16,400 kids in foster care, about 2,100 now live in institutions. That's a reduction of 2,200 children in institutional care since 2003, when more than 4,300 New York City foster children lived in group care.

While almost all child welfare practitioners agree with efforts to keep children out of group care whenever possible, some say the plan was driven by ACS's desire to reduce the number of institutional foster care beds rather than by the individual needs of children.

Only six of 16 children who were moved from Green Chimneys, a foster care provider in Brewster, N.Y., found stable family placements, says Debbie MacCarry, compliance and risk manager for the agency. Two ended up in psychiatric hospitals. Two others went home, but ended up back at Green Chimney's campus after that did not work out, and eventually moved to another group living situation, she says. Many of the children had serious mental health issues.

Moving children to homes that are tenuous sets them up for the trauma that results from a failed placement, she says. "Failing for them is re-traumatizing them, sometimes causing a subsequent hospitalization," says MacCarry. Lawyers representing children in foster care say more recent moves have been less chaotic. "They aren't closing placements with the same kind of blind urgency that seemed to drive the process when it first started," says Betsy Kramer, director of policy and special litigation at Lawyers for Children.

"They also seem to be concentrating on replacing smaller numbers of children at a time, which is a huge improvement on the massive wave of bed reductions that happened in the beginning, this smaller scale makes it much easier to really focus on the young people, what their options are, and where they should go. The process has not been without problems, but it has definitely improved."