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

 

 

 

Cuomo Plan Cuts Home Visits for New Moms

If it makes it through the legislature, Governor Andrew Cuomo's budget plan could wipe out state funding for one of New York's best-proven methods of preventing child abuse, neglect and long-term poverty, while also making the state ineligible for millions of federal dollars through the health care reform act. New York is home to two large-scale home visiting programs for low-income mothers whose babies are considered at risk of entering the child welfare system. Starting early in pregnancy, educators meet one-on-one with new moms, talking about everything from bonding with their babies and child brain development to filling out job applications and planning a budget. The idea is to build trusting relationships, teach concrete parenting skills, and help mothers navigate difficulties in their own lives that might interrupt bonding or lead to abusive or neglectful behavior later on.

In the sometimes numbers-fuzzy universe of social services, Nurse-Family Partnership (a national program administered here through the city's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene) has been the subject of a series of rigorous, controlled trials, with some pretty stunning statistical results. In one long-term study, rates of child abuse and neglect were 48 percent lower among families that received home visiting services than families in a control group.

By the time kids who'd been in the program turned 15, they were 59 percent less likely to have been arrested than kids in similar peer groups and 90 percent less likely to have been designated by a court as needing external supervision because of incorrigible behavior. The RAND Corporation estimates that taxpayers get a return of up to $5.70 for every dollar they invest in the program.

In a smaller-scale study published last fall, Healthy Families New York showed statistically meaningful results on improved birth weight, language delays, child maltreatment and the need for special education. The program serves about 5,500 families across the state.

Currently, the state spends $23 million for services through Healthy Families New York and $6.3 million on Nurse-Family Partnership. New York City also invests substantial funding in Nurse-Family Partnership, which operates at a budget of just over $14 million to serve more than 3000 families. (For more on the program's services targeting young mothers in foster care, see this article in the Center for New York City Affairs' latest edition of Child Welfare Watch.)

Both stand to be slashed out of the state budget come June of this year as part of a $50 million state cut to services designed to prevent involvement in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. Under Cuomo's plan, home visiting would compete for funds with a long list of other programs, ranging from juvenile delinquency programs to shelters for homeless teenagers. Added together, all of these services currently receive $85 million from the state, according to an analysis by the Citizens' Committee for Children of New York. Once they are all lumped into the new funding stream, they'll battle for a total statewide pot of $35 million, a cut in overall funding of nearly 60 percent.

"These are programs making observable, measurable differences in children's lives," says Christine Deyss, executive director of the advocacy group Prevent Child Abuse New York. "By reaching them as early as these home visiting programs do, their whole lives are changed in ways you can't change them if you wait. Unfortunately we have some political leadership that doesn't seem to be concerned about saving money in five or ten years but cutting right now."

The Cuomo administration contends that combining preventive services into a single, competitive funding stream (called the Primary Prevention Incentive Program) will allow counties to make targeted decisions about which programs are most vital to their communities. "New York State is facing a severe and unprecedented fiscal crisis requiring deliberate choices be made prioritizing our limited funding opportunities," says Susan Steele, a spokesperson for the Office of Children and Family Services, which administers Healthy Families New York. "The Proposed Executive Budget includes a flexible Primary Prevention Incentive Program intended to give local discretion for those programs considered to be most effective. Healthy Families programs may be funded using this innovative funding stream, and those localities who choose to invest in the vital services that home visiting programs provide, may elect to use their flexible dollars in that regard."

Cutting the home visit funds may also mean the state will lose access to millions of federal dollars provided under the Affordable Care Act (the Obama Administration's healthcare reform initiative), according to advocates. The act includes an initiative to support home visiting programs, but states are eligible only if they demonstrate that they've maintained their own funding at the same level as when the act was passed in March 2010.

"There's just nothing about this that makes sense," says Meredith Wiley, state director of the advocacy group Fight Crime: Invest in Kids. "If we know so much about how to prevent abuse and neglect and we don't do it, what does that say about us as a state and people? This is the last thing we should cut; not the first."

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.

Against the Clock: The struggle to move kids into permanent homes

New York City is charging a growing number of families with abuse and neglect, leaving Family Court overwhelmed and more children spending longer periods in foster care. This edition of Child Welfare Watch reports on the difficulties of moving children out of foster care in a timely manner in the wake of Nixzmary Brown's murder, two years ago tomorrow.

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