A Clearer View of Bloomberg's 'Close to Home' Plan

It's been more than a year since Mayor Bloomberg announced that he wanted to pull New York City kids out of state-run juvenile justice facilities, sending them instead to a new system of programs and lockups controlled by the city. Until recently, details of the city's plan have been scarce: What would the city's system look like? Who would operate it? And how would it be better than the state-run system, with its decades of scandal and notoriously high rates of recidivism?

The details are now public, spelled out in a 100-page draft plan released earlier this month by the Administration for Children's Services (ACS). For larger context on the city's reform agenda, see our previous story here. What follows is a summary of critical details from the draft plan, which is open to public comment.

Under the existing system, the city has jurisdiction over children who've been arrested, while their court cases are pending. But after a child is sentenced to serve time, he or she is sent to the custody of the state government, which runs its own juvenile lockups and also oversees a network of residential campuses operated by nonprofit organizations, including some in the Hudson Valley and on Long Island that have historically cared for New York City foster children.

This year's state budget includes funding for the new approach, which will allow New York City to open its own facilities for kids who are sent by judges to so-called nonsecure, and limited secure, lockups. Those titles are misleading: The facilities are, in fact, secured by both staff and hardware, and kids are not allowed to leave on their own. Nonetheless, they generally house children who've committed less serious or fewer offenses than those placed in so-called secure, facilities, which are more restrictive and will continue to be operated by the state, at least for now.

The city wants to have new nonsecure residential centers up and running by September of this year. They will be run by nonprofit organizations, including those who have long experience with foster care residential treatment centers and others that have worked with juvenile delinquents sent to them by Family Court judges.

The city's first step is to submit a plan to the state's Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS). The plan must incorporate public feedback; ACS will hold two public hearings in May, and is accepting comments on its plan by email at closetohome@acs.nyc.gov.

Following is a summary of key elements of the city's draft plan:

New lockups

In January, ACS invited nonprofit organizations to apply for contracts to operate new facilities, which will essentially look like locked group homes. The administration is now in the process of scoring proposals from several nonprofit groups, and officials say they will announce awards by or in May.

Some organizations seeking to participate already own residential campuses in suburban counties surrounding the city. Initially, the nonprofits ACS selects will be allowed to operate their programs as far as 25 miles outside of city lines. Within two years, however, they will have to relocate to sites within the five boroughs, so that kids can have closer contact with their families.

While the Close to Home plan says the city will work to avoid over-reliance on out-of-home placements,, there is no built-in assumption that the number of kids sent to nonsecure facilities will decline. ACS says it will contract for 300 beds, the same number as are now filled by New York City youth in the state's nonsecure lockups.

This number reflects a significant drop from six years ago, however, thanks to several city initiatives designed to divert young teens from lockups altogether: Since 2005, the total number of New York City young people sent to state-run and state-contracted facilities has gone down by close to two-thirds, from nearly 1,500 to 544 last year.

If the plan is approved, facilities will open on September 1, 2012. All city youth given new, nonsecure placements by Family Court judges will go directly to the city lockups. Between September and December, ACS caseworkers will work with the state to transfer youth already in state custody, either into the new city facilities or into city-run aftercare, programs, which provide support services to young people and their families after they return home.

What happens when they don't work

Under the current state system, a large number of young people fail, out of private, nonprofit-run facilities and are transferred into state-run lockups. Last year, nearly one-third of children placed in state-run, nonsecure lockups had arrived there from private programs. Since the city will not directly operate its own nonsecure facilities, the only option for kids who don't succeed in private programs in the new system will be a transfer to a more restrictive level of lockup.

In its draft Close to Home plan, the city says it hopes to minimize such failed placements, by creating specialized program slots for children with particular needs or behaviors, such as kids with severe emotional disturbances or fire-setting histories. The plan stipulates that ACS social workers will meet with young people and their families before they assign kids to a particular program. Program providers will be able to appeal decisions if the provider thinks an inappropriate match, was made by ACS.

Young people who are deemed to be in imminent danger of leaving without permission,, or who present as a threat to themselves or others, will be transferred immediately to one of the city's secure detention facilities (which currently hold children whose trials are in progress) until a longer-term decision is made.

Restraints and physical force

The city's nonsecure facility operators will be trained in a system called Safe Crisis Management,, which stipulates that program staff must attempt to de-escalate crisis situations without using force whenever possible, and always use the least intrusive or restrictive intervention necessary. Physical restraints are permitted only as a last resort.

This represents a departure from practices in the city's detention facilities, where staff used physical or mechanical restraints more than 1,000 times in the last three months of 2011, according to ACS's quarterly incident report, which it is required to publish under city law. Children in custody were injured as a result of these restraints 78 times during that period.

When providers at the new nonsecure lockups use restraints, they will be required to notify ACS within an hour of the incident, according to the Close to Home plan. ACS will factor the use of restraints into evaluations of provider agencies. ACS case managers will meet with children who've been restrained soon after the incident, and will report restraints to children's families.

Alternative programs

In the draft plan, the city describes a newly expanded continuum of services, for young people in the juvenile justice system, with new programs designed to keep kids out of placement facilities. Historically, New York City's rates of juvenile incarceration stayed high, in part, because Family Court judges didn't have alternative programs to send kids to when they got in trouble. Over the past several years, ACS and the city's Department of Probation have established several alternative to placement, programs, where kids get supervision and services while living at home.

Under Close to Home, the probation department will open three new alternative programs, adding 65 new slots. It will also run a tiered system of probation, so that judges can assign kids to varying levels of scrutiny, including daily check-ins, without removing them from their homes.

According to the Close to Home plan, ACS is currently soliciting more slots for a short-term foster care program designed to keep kids with violent offenses out of lockups. And it is gearing up to expand its system of aftercare programs, which aim to keep kids from committing new offenses.

Reducing bias

One of the Bloomberg administration's signature juvenile justice reforms was the development of a risk assessment instrument,, or RAI, which gauges a young person's likelihood of either re-offending or disappearing while his or her case is pending. After an arrest, based on certain characteristics, young people are scored low-, medium- or high-risk. For those on the low end, the Department of Probation recommends that judges let them stay home, rather than sending them to detention. In part as a result of this assessment tool, detention admissions went down by 18 percent between 2006 and 2011.

The probation department is now working with the Vera Institute of Justice to develop similar tools to take bias out of placement recommendations,which help judges decide whether a child will be sent to a diversion program or to a lockup, and what level of security that lockup should be. Standardizing the process assures that recommendations of placement are not based on the youth's treatment needs, attitudes or behavior while in court or with the probation officer, all of which are factors that can sometimes cause low-risk youth to receive more intensive services than are warranted,, according to the plan. Assessment tools also aim to minimize racial disparities in sentencing.

Oversight

In the process of arguing for this local system, officials have repeatedly said that keeping children close to their families and lawyers, and to the elected officials who represent them, will allow for greater oversight of juvenile lockups.

According to the Close to Home plan, ACS will monitor the nonprofits running facilities, both through its annual scoring process and through its team of case workers working directly with program providers to track kids' progress through the system.

ACS is in turn regulated by the state, which holds the power to grant licenses to the service-providing agencies that will run the lockups. ACS will be obliged to report serious incidents to the state, such as severe injuries to children or suspected child abuse, and the state has the ultimate authority to shut the city's placement system down.

The city publishes certain data tracking the outcomes of its current juvenile justice programs, such as re-arrest rates and average lengths of stay, in the annual Mayor's Management Report and ACS's monthly Flash indicators. Under a law passed by the City Council, ACS is also required to post a quarterly incident report documenting restraints and injuries to youth in detention centers, an annual demographic report and an annual report of child abuse allegations.

The Close to Home plan does not explain what data will be publicly available about its new lockups, though it does say that [t]he city expects that throughout implementation and execution of Close to Home, we will be called upon to update the City Council, as well as key members of the State Assembly and Senate, including the Committees on Children and Family Services.,

The plan also anticipates regular and formal input from stakeholders and consumers of non-secure placement services (judges, lawyers, families, etc.), but does not explain how that input will be institutionalized.

Money

The annual cost of the city's nonsecure lockups is expected to be $56.8 million, with half to come from the city, and half to be paid for by the state. Of the state money, more than $12 million will come from the Foster Care Block Grant, which currently funds services for children and families in the foster care system.

Providers will receive an initial base rate of $400 per child day, based on the assumption that 90 percent of their slots will remain occupied, plus add-on rates for extra services like paying staff to accompany children to school.

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.

Brooklyn's Home for Juvenile Justice

New York State is moving forward with plans to open its first psychiatric residence for kids with mental illness in the juvenile justice system. The planned facility, which will take over the site of a soon-to-close Brooklyn psychiatric hospital, is part of a large-scale reform effort to keep kids close to their homes and in community-like settings. But the state's first job, according to the director of the organization recently chosen to run the facility, is to overhaul the building so it doesn't feel like a prison. The building sits on a campus filling several blocks of Bergen Street in Brownsville. It's a sprawling, two story, L-shaped structure enclosed by a high iron fence with a sliding electric gate overseen by a guard booth. "They're acting like this is either a medium security prison or a target of terrorism," says Michael Pawel, who runs the August Aichhorn Center for Adolescents. "It's the antithesis of a community facility."

The state's Office of Mental Health Services (OMH) expects the new residential treatment facility (RTF) to be up and running by the end of the year, housing city teens who would otherwise be sent upstate to juvenile lockups. Though the residence will house only 24 young people, its opening reflects a critical shift in how the state aims to treat and house children with mental illness who wind up in the juvenile justice system.

Some 50 percent of young people in juvenile correctional facilities have been diagnosed with a mental illness, according to the Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS), which runs the New York State juvenile justice system. Advocates place that percentage even higher. The state has a long history of providing inadequate psychiatric care to these young people. A 2009 Department of Federal Justice investigation of four state juvenile justice facilities found that cases of children with mental illness were mishandled; young people were given powerful psychotropic medications without proper monitoring; and staff at the facilities used excessive force and restraints. Shortly after the investigation, the Department of Justice threatened to take control of four state juvenile facilities unless, among other requirements, children needing more services than the facilities could provide were transferred to more appropriate settings.

But appropriate settings for court-involved youth with mental illness have been hard to find. While some adolescents are sent to residential treatment centers funded through the city's foster care system, they rarely have the level of clinical supervision required for court-involved young people with mental illness.

State-licensed residential treatment facilities, which are funded by OMH, typically have lower staff-to-child ratios and richer clinical services than the residential treatment centers. However, they are also infamously difficult to be admitted to.Only one in New York City accepts children who are violent: Michael Pawel's Aichhorn Center.

It's one of the reasons OMH and OCFS selected Aichhorn over much larger social service agencies to run the new RTF. "This new program will really be able to manage some of the behavioral disruptions that the other RTFs aren't equipped to do," says Susan Thaler, director of children's services at OMH's New York City field office. "There is some expectation that these kids have histories of violence and running away and haven't been able to manage or receive treatment in other kinds of settings."

Thaler says the new program's Brooklyn location will make it easy for teens to visit with their families and will allow for a more natural transition when it's time to return home.

Pawel's plans for the residence, which he presented to OMH this month, are modeled after Aichhorn's adolescent psychiatric facility in Harlem, which currently houses some juvenile offenders. He proposed to break down the tall fence surrounding the building and add an entrance to the street to connect it to the neighborhood. On the inside, he wants to add carpeting and comfortable living room spaces and ditch the locks on the outside of bedrooms as well as the building's electronic "panic system," which staff at the psychiatric hospital now use to alert help with the touch of a button.

The building's living space will be divided into apartment-like units each housing a co-ed group of 8 young people."Having units co-ed is very unique and normalizing and helpful," says Pawel. "People tend to be calmer in co-ed groups."

Each unit will share meals in their own kitchenettes, family-style. And just like at the Harlem residence, mental health services will be folded into most every aspect of the young residents' lives, both while they're living in their units and in school. The site will have the equivalent of one full-time psychiatrist, three unit leaders, and two other therapists.

Pawel believes the program's most important challenge will be getting away from the idea that "might makes right."

"My understanding is that particularly mentally ill youngsters in OCFS facilities are being managed primarily by a lot of physical force," he says. "If you can get a group like this which is a very unhappy, very angry, very violent group and more or less eliminate the incidence of violence while they're being supervised, that's very good and I think that's going to be clear very quickly. And I think we can pull it off."

One internal Aichhorn study compared the outcomes of young people admitted to the organization's Harlem program with other teens who met the same admission criteria but were rejected because beds were not available. Using state court data, the study found that 39 percent of Aichhorn's alumni were subsequently arrested, compared to 60 percent of the group that was not admitted to the program.

Pawel hopes he can produce similar or better results at the new residence. Advocates are optimistic too, but say the new program should be only the beginning. "For far too long, the juvenile justice system has been used to warehouse children with mental illness; an approach that fails both children and the public," Gabrielle Prisco, director of the juvenile justice project at the Correctional Association of New York, said in a written statement. "We hope that this is only one part of a larger transformation from a punitive juvenile justice system to one that meaningfully serves the needs of children, builds upon their strengths, and maintains their connections to their families and communities."

Photo: Sandeep Prasada

Cuomo Plan Would Close Juvenile Lockups

If Governor Cuomo gets his way, New York State's juvenile corrections facilities will lose one third of their capacity over the coming year. The governor's executive budget, which he presented to lawmakers earlier today, predicts the state can save $22 million per year by downsizing and closing juvenile jails, cutting 376 of the current total of 1,209 beds. He would also get rid of the current, mandatory 12-month waiting period for closing facilities - a controversial legal requirement that critics say forces the state to waste hundreds of millions of dollars each year on maintaining and staffing near-empty juvenile jails.

Under the governor's plan, $75 million would be redirected to community-based programs for young people who run into trouble with the law over the next two years. Another $38 million would go to improving medical, mental health and other services for youth remaining in state facilities.

Advocates for young people in New York City say they support reinvesting funding into community programs. "We're cautiously optimistic," says Avery Irons, Director of Youth Justice Programs at the Children's Defense Fund, New York. "We're hopeful that other cuts to children's services will not undermine efforts to keep kids on the right path."

Governor Cuomo has made juvenile justice reform a signature issue of his administration, capping off his January State of the State address by describing New York's overreliance on juvenile lockups as a violation of young people's civil rights, and promising to end the practice of keeping juvenile facilities open in the interest of preserving jobs. "An incarceration program is not an employment program," he said.

MONEY FOR ALTERNATIVES

Over the past several years, consensus among New York City and State policymakers has shifted toward keeping kids out of state-run lockups, which investigators from the US Department of Justice on down have condemned as dangerous, violent and counterproductive. Since 2006, the city has invested in a large-scale effort to expand and support community-based programs for kids who get arrested or end up in court, providing them with supervision while keeping them near their families and providing services like counseling and job training. (See the Center for New York City Affairs 2009 report: A Need for Correction: Reforming New York's Juvenile Justice System.)

City officials say their alternative programs are far more effective and less costly than incarcerating kids far from home, but they worry that it will be hard to maintain or expand the programs in the face of the city's deficit. Last year, the city's largest alternative program had to turn away more than 150 kids who may have been eligible for its services, since it lacked capacity to take them in.

Under the Governor's budget, the state would make $29 million available to local governments to invest in alternative community programs in the coming fiscal year (which begins in April, 2011), and $46 million in the following fiscal year.

Much of the money for those programs would be made available by restructuring the way the state reimburses counties for the cost of detaining young people who are awaiting court hearings or transfer to state lockups. Under the current system, the state pays 50 percent of the cost of running local detention centers. The governor's plan would put a cap on that money, a move he predicts will save $23 million in the coming fiscal year and $51 million in the next, and give counties a financial disincentive to hold low-risk youth in detention centers.

THE FIGHT IN THE LEGISLATURE

Now that the Governor has presented his plan for the budget, the battle over juvenile justice funding and reform will move to the state legislature. Last year, the Senate passed bills that would have accomplished much of what the Governor has proposed in his budget, reinvesting money from juvenile lockups to community services, and guaranteeing state reimbursement for alternative-to-incarceration programs. But the bills faced tough opposition, primarily from Republican legislators whose districts depend on juvenile justice facilities for jobs, and from the New York State Public Employees Federation, which represents employees at the state's juvenile facilities. Both bills died in the Assembly.

As of January of this year, there were 604 young people confined in state facilities, of which 375 were from New York City. Currently half the beds in the system are empty.

The Governor's budget provides $10 million economic development grants to areas impacted by closed facilities.