Big Dreams for New York City’s Youngest Children: The future of early care and education

In October 2012, New York City launched EarlyLearnNYC, a plan that would upend its system for providing subsidized child care to working class and low-income families. The goal was to take the city’s sprawling assortment of child care programs—ranging from subsidized babysitting services to nationally accredited preschools—and blend them into a unified, holistic spectrum of early education services for children from 6 weeks through 4 years old.

Under the vision of EarlyLearn, teachers would be well trained, with extensive opportunities for professional development. Families would be engaged as active partners in their children’s growth. Programs would be grounded in research about what works in early education, providing optimal support during the finite time when a child’s brain develops most rapidly.

Nearly two years after EarlyLearn’s launch, however, the program’s future is tenuous. While some early education providers—especially those at larger organizations with multiple sources of revenue—have used EarlyLearn as a springboard to develop truly creative programming, many others report that their funding is simply too low to make the vision of EarlyLearn real. Teachers, many of whom lost benefits and take-home pay in the transition to EarlyLearn, struggle to keep up with increased expectations in the classroom. Many of the city’s smallest programs—those which operate in church basements and neighborhood storefronts—struggle just to keep their doors open. This report examines the impact of EarlyLearn on early education providers, families and children: Has the strength of its vision compensated for the shortage in funding? If not, is the child care system merely experiencing growth pains that will lead to better outcomes for children? Or has EarlyLearn, in fact, hurt the quality of child care?

Key findings include:

  • Enrollment has been a major problem system-wide. City-contracted child care programs have been under-enrolled for more than a decade, but the numbers plummeted during the turnover caused by the launch of EarlyLearn, and have only recently climbed back to up to 87 percent of the system’s capacity. Because providers’ funding depends on enrollment, even a few missing children can destabilize a program’s budget. (See “Empty Seats,” page 28.)
  • Although expectations of teachers have increased, their salaries have not. With the city’s pre-kindergarten expansion gearing up, directors say they are bracing for a mass exodus of their most talented EarlyLearn teachers. (See “Universal Pre-K and the Future of EarlyLearn,” page 48.)
  • The cost of the child care system has ballooned over the past decade, almost entirely due to an increase in the use of child care vouchers, which the city is mandated by federal law to provide to families receiving or transitioning off of cash assistance benefits. The result is a recurring $90 million hole in ACS’s budget. (See “The Context: High Aspirations, Limited Funding,” page 14.)
  • Each year, the city also gives out thousands of non-mandated vouchers to help working class families pay for child care and afterschool programs. Of all the non-mandated vouchers used at formal daycare centers and schools in January 2014, nearly 80 percent were paid to Jewish religious organizations. (See “An Unequal Distribution of Child Care Vouchers,” page 46.)
  • There are far fewer small, neighborhood-based organizations participating in city-contracted early care and education today, compared to two years ago. The number of programs with just one city-funded site has dropped by more than 60 percent. (See “Can Small Programs Survive?” page 37.)
  • The total number of child care slots for infants and toddlers has not significantly expanded, as the original EarlyLearn plan intended. The number of infants and toddlers in contracted, home-based care—where most young children are served—has barely budged, rising from 4,358 in July 2012 to 4,551 in January 2014. (See “Infants and Toddlers,” page 43.)

The report also looks to EarlyLearn’s future, offering a series of recommendations and solutions to help the city as it works to achieve its vision of reform. These include:

  • The city should ensure that teachers in early childhood education programs receive salaries and benefits that are comparable to the package for Department of Education teachers.
  • City Hall, ACS and the Human Resources Administration should direct more public funding into the programs by working together to steer substantially more recipients of mandated child care vouchers to EarlyLearn programs.
  • ACS should support enrollment in EarlyLearn programs by updating its centralized referral system, making it possible to inform families—in real time—about open child care slots in their neighborhoods.
  • The city should automatically adjust the ACS budget when there is a change in the utilization or cost of mandated child care vouchers.
  • The city should create a more affordable fee structure for families participating in EarlyLearn programs.

This report was made possible thanks to the generous support of the Child Care and Early Education Fund.

FAFSA - The How-To Guide for High School Students

The Center for New York City Affairs has published the second edition of its very popular guide for high school students who are applying to college and beginning their all-important quest for financial aid: FAFSA: The How-To Guide for High School Students (And the Adults Who Help Them).

This year's guide has been updated with the latest information and links as well as new information on the latest FAFSA verification demands and a new section on how to compare college financial aid offers.

We hope this guide will be useful to students, families and the many caring adults in New York City public schools and communities who help families navigate the U.S. Department of Education's Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The guide was made possible with support from Capital One Bank, which is committed to empowering students and providing resources for their academic future.

Filling out the FAFSA form is the first step for nearly all students seeking support to go to college. Understanding the form and handling it confidently is crucial for college matriculation and success.

The How-To Guide was written in partnership with New York City's most experienced college guidance and financial aid professionals. It addresses the most common questions of local students and families. Topics include: understanding how the form works, addressing citizenship questions, and demystifying how the FAFSA defines parents and households.

A new section of the guide has been designed to help students after they file the FAFSA. We explain what is involved in federal government's increasingly common verification process. We look at the components of a typical college financial aid package and we explain how to compare college offers. As it has been in the past, the How-To Guide is easy to read. We hope it will demystify the FAFSA and make it less intimidating.

We have also created a new website for educators and families available atwww.understandingfafsa.org. The website features PDFs of the guide in English andSpanish as well as a presentation version suitable for classrooms and large groups. Print copies are available while supplies last. Please go to www.freefafsaguide.com to order.

Take a look now to see how it may be useful to you or others in your school or organization. We grant blanket permission for photocopying and distribution, and we hope you will promote the guide on your organization's website or in electronic newsletters. Feel free to contact Kim Nauer at nauerk@newschool.edu with any questions or comments.

Building Blocks for Better Schools: How the Next Mayor Can Prepare New York's Students for College and Careers

BY CLARA HEMPHILL, KIM NAUER, ANDREW WHITE AND THOMAS JACOBS

New York City's Education Funders Research Initiative asked the Center for New York City Affairs to identify key priorities for education reform under Mayor-elect Bill DeBlasio. The paper analyzes the success and failures of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's education initiatives—and proposes six key areas for reform under the next administration. Key findings:

Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his schools chancellors have effectively used mayoral control to produce dramatic changes over the past 12 years. In that time, they thoroughly reshaped the school system, dismantling an ossified bureaucracy, increasing per-pupil spending and giving more authority to principals to run their schools. With significant support from private foundations, they made large investments in the creation of hundreds of new small high schools that have been widely credited with boosting high school graduation rates.

However, there is a large gap between graduation and preparation for college. Fewer than one-third of the city's graduates complete high school on time and ready to take courses at CUNY without remediation. Many of the city's high schools do not offer a college prep curriculum. Black and Hispanic students remain disproportionately unprepared for high school and leave high school disproportionately unprepared for college. Reading scores in the elementary and middle schools (as measured by the National Assessment of Education Progress) have been stagnant. And while principal autonomy has allowed dozens of groundbreaking schools with strong leaders to flourish, it has also allowed some schools—with weaker leaders or facing very tough challenges—to drift.

This research builds on two other papers published in this series: 

College and Career Readiness in Context, by Leslie Santee Siskin at New York University.

New York City Schools: Following the Learning Trajectories of a Cohort, by Douglas Ready, Thomas Hatch, Miya Warner, Elizabeth Chu at Teachers College

Building Blocks for Better Schools calls attention to the massive changes associated with expecting high schools to not only graduate nearly everyone, but also to prepare students for college and jobs that demand the higher education credentials once expected of only a few. It also highlights this new focus on college readiness as a revolutionary change in expectations.

Recognizing that the next administration must decide which aspects of Bloomberg's education legacy should be built upon—and which should be rethought or jettisoned—the analysis sets out criteria for making these decisions. And, it lays out a set of priorities that will help leaders at the NYC DOE meet the new expectations.

These are some of the achievements of the last decade on which increased college and career readiness can be built:

  • Historically high citywide graduation rates
  • Increased attention to attendance in some of the city's poorest neighborhoods, with consequent increases in attendance and achievement
  • Development of data collection systems, aimed at aiding instruction, improving achievement and informing the choices of key stakeholders—including students and parents—in a system characterized by the expansion of choice and options
  • Creation of hundreds of small high schools that promote an intimate learning environment, including schools targeted at students not fluent in English, transfer schools, and high level career and technical education schools
  • Many of these crucial successes—and others, including the creation of many exemplary charter and district schools—have been made possible through vibrant partnerships with philanthropy at all levels of education.

There is reason for optimism. Perhaps the mayor's greatest education legacy is the belief that good public schools for all are possible. Yet the challenges, including resource challenges, remain huge. The school system avoided sharp funding cuts following the recession that ended in 2010, but steady increases in staff costs have squeezed individual school budgets. The new mayor will make consequential choices about where to allocate limited resources in order to overcome the many challenges that impede increased college and career readiness.

Priorities for the next Mayor and Chancellor:

The goal of preparing all students for college and careers requires not one strategy but a series of interlocking strategies to improve instruction and opportunities to learn in all of the city's schools.

1. Take action to dramatically improve literacy in the early grades, so more students are prepared for high school. This should include intensive interventions for struggling readers, as well as expanded early education, full-day pre-kindergarten, and targeted investments in community-based supports for low-income families and black and Latino students, who have the lowest rates of academic success and reading skills.

2. Use the newly adopted Common Core standards to promote college readiness, by investing greater attention and resources into the teaching of reading, writing, research, analysis, problem solving and other academic behaviors, as well as social and emotional skills to prepare students for rigorous coursework before they graduate.

3. Concentrate more resources, either directly or through partnerships with community-based organizations, in early and ongoing support for college and career guidance especially for the majority of young people who don't have this support in their own families.

4. Ensure a strong accountability system that uses a wide range of performance measures, while making it more informative for and responsive to the needs of school leaders, school staff and families. This includes continuing to use the accountability system to identify the 10 percent of schools that are struggling the most—and then providing these schools with intensive support.

5. Retain principals' important ability to control hiring, budgets and curriculum, but establish a clearer chain of command that provides supervision and support by superintendents and network leaders.

6. Strengthen the remaining traditional zoned neighborhood schools and create new structures to connect all schools—neighborhood, magnet and charters alike—within given geographic areas. At the same time, existing, well-functioning and innovative networks should be kept in place and drawn upon as models for their good work. We should provide all such networks with support to foster more effective partnerships with community organizations and institutions, and to cultivate greater racial and economic integration in schools where possible.

Child Welfare Watch: Baby Steps

Poverty, chronic stress, and New York’s youngest children

Scientific research has firmly established that early childhood experiences can have a tremendous impact on our lifelong well-being. When infants are exposed to chronic stress or trauma, the effect can be toxic, stunting brain growth and changing the trajectories of their lives. On the other hand, giving babies the care and attention they need provides a strong foundation for future development.

In this issue of Child Welfare Watch, we look at the science of early childhood development—and we illuminate how supportive, nurturing caregivers can buffer children from the negative impacts of early adversity, including the ambient stress that so often accompanies intractable poverty.

Some of the effective strategies to counter the negative impacts of early childhood adversity include ‘dyadic’ therapies that work with toddlers and parents together, aiding children by supporting their relationships with their caregivers. Despite the evidence that these interventions can prevent a host of future problems, they remain underfunded and rare in New York City, where triage continues to trump prevention. A violent teenager is more likely to win policymakers’ attention than a toddler who has trouble sleeping after witnessing his father’s murder. A mother struggling to care for her small child in an overcrowded apartment is more likely to be the subject of an investigation by government’s child protective services than to experience dyadic therapy at a neighborhood clinic.

This issue of the Watch also takes a look at the experience of infants and toddlers in foster care, and at new efforts to strengthen their development. The Watch asks the question: Are these children getting what they need?

Our findings include:

  • Studies have shown that elements common to poverty, such as overcrowding and family turmoil, can cause babies’ stress levels to spike precipitously—but the impact is mitigated when a baby’s mother is particularly responsive to her child’s signals. (See “The Science of Trauma.”)
  • National studies have found that 20 to 60 percent of foster children under age 5 have significant developmental delays, and that 25 to 40 percent display serious behavioral problems. Foster care agencies do not regularly screen for mental health impairments in very young children. (See “Babies in Foster Care.”)
  • In New York City, only a handful of programs and clinics engage the parent as a partner in a small child’s therapy. There is very little city or state funding for these programs. (See“Baby Watchers.”)
  • Putting mental health professionals where parents already are makes services easier for families to use. (See “How to Reach the City’s Youngest.”)

The Watch also offers a set of policy recommendations and solutions informed by the research and drafted by a panel of practitioners, experts, parents, young people and others, aimed at helping policymakers support the wellbeing of the city’s most vulnerable infants and toddlers. These include:

  • The New York State Office of Mental Health (OMH) and the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene should provide consistent, adequate funding for early childhood mental  health treatment, and for professional training.
  • The city, state, and nonprofit organizations should co-locate infant and toddler mental health services in the places where young children and their parents already go: pediatric clinics, foster care and preventive agencies, family court, homes, community centers and child care programs.
  • The Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) should require foster care agencies to ensure that babies and toddlers in foster care are screened for mental health impairments, in addition to standard developmental evaluations.
  • ACS and the state Office of Court Administration (OCA) should routinely train frontline staff and contract employees on the developmental needs of infants and very young children.
  • ACS and nonprofit family support organizations should ensure that parenting classes engage in active skill building, supporting parents to understand and nurture their children’s development.

The Child Welfare Watch project is made possible thanks to the generous support of the Ira W. DeCamp Foundation, the Child Welfare Fund, the Viola W. Bernard Foundation,  the Prospect Hill Foundation and the Sirus Fund.

ALSO IN THE REPORT:

BABY STEPS IN THE NEWS:

Creating College Ready Communities

Preparing NYC's Precarious New Generation of College Students 

BY KIM NAUER AND PAUL TAINSH
WITH ANDREW WHITE, TARA BAHL, SANDRA SALMANS, ANNA SCHNEIDER, JARED CARRANO AND TOM JACOBS

More students than ever before are graduating high school in New York City. More high school students have access to college-level and college-preparatory classes. And many more are applying to—and attending—college. These are trends New York City can be proud of.

Unfortunately, college completion rates for the city's public high school graduates remain low. Many of those who enroll in higher education do not complete a college degree. At the City University of New York (CUNY) senior colleges, about half of incoming freshmen in fall 2006 got a bachelor's degree within six years. At its community colleges, just 16 percent of students entering in 2009 earned a two-year associate's degree within three years. These numbers are in line with national trends, which show little change in the college diploma rate over the last decade. (CUNY is by far the most popular college choice for the city's students.) Increasing the numbers of New York City high school graduates going to college and earning a college degree has proven to be an elusive goal for local policymakers.

This report seeks to illuminate the latest college access efforts, and to shed new light on the complicated circumstances that allow some students to go to college and succeed—and so many others to fail. It is the culmination of four years of front-line research inside 12 New York City high schools and two middle schools located in four low-income communities, all with different types of students and academic needs. Center for New York City Affairs researchers also interviewed more than 250 educators, guidance counselors, college experts and policymakers and surveyed more than 300 students and teachers.

The research sheds new light on the complicated circumstances that allow some students to go to college and succeed—and so many others to fail. We found that academic preparation is vitally important, but there are other factors, such as how the schools relate to students and support them, that are equally important. Key findings in the report include:

  • New York City faces a tremendous challenge in its efforts to get all students academically ready for college or work. Just 29 percent of graduates in the Class of 2012 had test scores high enough to avoid remedial courses at the City University of New York.
  • Many schools offer access to one or two college-level courses—and passing even one course improves outcomes: An internal Department of Education analysis found that taking even one CUNY College Now or AP course, for example, reduces the likelihood that students will need remedial classes in college.
  • New York City's nonprofit sector plays a crucial role filling college guidance gaps: We found that high school counselors are typically able to offer only basic application and financial aid help. The nonprofit sector provides a crucial assist with the many additional supports students need.
  • Most high schools in New York City do not offer a full college preparatory curriculum. Students should have access to advanced math and science courses to prepare for college. Our analysis of citywide Regents exams for Algebra 2, Chemistry and Physics revealed that only 28 of 342 schools reviewed had all three of these courses—and 46 schools had none.
  • This academic challenge begins long before high school: Only 25 percent of New York City eighth graders met state standards for reading in 2013 when students took new tests aligned to college expectations. College preparation is daunting when reading skills lag so far behind.
  • Guidance counselor caseloads are too high to give students the help they need preparing for college: In 61 percent of schools, counselors have caseloads of 100 to 300 students—and in most of the remaining schools the caseloads are even higher.
  • Early attention to college academics and career dreams are needed to inspire tougher work: The Department of Education is counting on the new Common Core state standards to help achieve this goal. Students will need to be prepared for these more rigorous demands. An obvious step is to have honest conversations about careers and college much earlier, ideally beginning in sixth grade, so students establish personal goals and work toward them.
  • Guidance counselors and students both report that most young people don't become serious about college until 11th grade—and by then, it is too late to do genuine college preparation: A majority of students we surveyed didn't know that colleges see their 9th and 10th grade transcripts. Educators suggest that schools provide a formal, grades 6 to 12 curriculum on career and college planning and guidance, so students aren't blindsided in their junior year and take ownership of their academics beginning in middle school.
  • First-generation college students require high-quality professional help with the college search: Getting the help of a professional guidance counselor can be tough: a majority of high schools in NYC have guidance caseloads ranging from 100 to 300 students per counselor. The challenge is even more daunting given that these counselors typically have many other responsibilities—and may not fully trained to be college counselors.
  • The need for high-quality help was particularly apparent in the schools we studied, where the nonprofit partner groups stepped in to provide essential assistance to students in the application process: Surveys revealed that students and families were justifiably confused and intimidated by the torrent of demands, deadlines and decisions associated with applying to college. Nonprofit partners in the schools we studied provided an invaluable assist to overloaded guidance counselors and teaching staff.

In recent years, the Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg has made some important steps toward improving college readiness:

  • The graduation rate has increased dramatically, giving thousands more students a chance to apply to college. The number of New York City public high school graduates has increased by a third in recent years. On-time high school graduation rate reached 64.7 percent in 2012, up from 46.5 percent in 2005. And as a result, college enrollment at the City University of New York has climbed sharply. 
  • High schools are now held publically accountable for college and career readiness, with schools being graded on college matriculation and preparation.
  • Principals and teachers now know much more about their students after graduation, thanks to new data on how many students are going to college and whether they remain there.

Still, a great deal more work must happen if the city is to meet its goals of substantially improving both college preparation and the number of students who go to college and complete a degree program there.

The city needs to reward schools that provide students with opportunities for independent work similar to what they will experience in college. Today, schools get credit for offering college level and Advanced Placement courses, but there is no attempt to review the overall quality of each high school's curricular offerings. Teachers focus primarily on getting their students to pass the state's five Regents exams in order to graduate.

In addition, New York City students need high quality college guidance services. Our surveys showed that many students could not depend on their own parents for help with the college search, so trained, dedicated school staff is vital.

This report offers a number of recommendations to the next mayor and chancellor, including:

  • The city Department of Education should institute additional Progress Report measures that identify and reward those schools that are most effectively preparing students for independent work and the demands of college.
  • City Hall and the Department of Education should press the New York State Education Department to allow more "portfolio" high schools, which use different assessments than the Regents exams.
  • The Department of Education should develop a system-wide post-secondary counseling curriculum to ensure all students are taught about their college options, how to prepare for college and what to expect in the workforce.
  • City Hall and the Department of Education must provide schools with either a full-time, trained college counselor or sufficient outside help from nonprofit partners or other paid providers.

The lessons learned and reflected in this report were based on a $4 million, 3-year demonstration project initiated and supported by Deutsche Bank Americas Foundation. The foundation launched College Ready Communities in 2009 as a major component of its investment in community-based initiatives that advance college access and readiness for underserved students across New York City.

In addition to research support from the Deutsche Bank Americas Foundation, funding for this report was provided by the Capital One Foundation, the Donors' Education Collaborative and the Local Initiatives Support Corporation.

New York City's College Ready Communities Initiative: Evaluation and Documentation 2009 - 2012

The Deutsche Bank Americas Foundation launched this initiative in 2009 to link community development corporations and advocacy groups with 14 public schools to help students prepare for higher education. Our evaluation of four unique collaboratives found large improvements in college access, college knowledge and college-going culture in many of the schools, and identified large hurdles that remain for NYC to address.

Child Welfare Watch: Brushes with the Law

Young New Yorkers and the Criminal Justice System 

In the past decade, New York City has transformed its treatment of children and young adults who get in trouble with the law. The city has cut the number of kids it sends to juvenile lockups by two-thirds, investing in a system of alternative programs that provide supervision in young people’s homes and neighborhoods.

For older teens and young adults, criminal justice agencies have launched a continuum of services that includes job training, mentorship and education assistance, designed to get probationers and parolees connected to community-based support systems. The goal is to move young people out of the criminal justice system more quickly, divert them away from jails and prisons, and keep communities whole.

Ironically, the site of least reform has been at the criminal justice system’s front door. While other city agencies have worked to de-criminalize and de-incarcerate, the New York Police Department has continued a two-decade policy of aggressive crackdown on low-level crimes, concentrated heavily in the city’s lowest-income, black and Latino neighborhoods. As a result of growing anger and advocacy in minority communities, police tactics like stop-and-frisk promise to be a major issue in the 2013 mayoral and City Council elections.

This issue of Child Welfare Watch looks at what has changed and what hasn’t. As the city enters its final year under the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has made juvenile justice one of the signature issues of his time in office, we consider the progress of reforms and the places where they’ve been stymied. And we look at the impact on communities that have long been destabilized by cycles of crime, police scrutiny, arrest and incarceration.

Our findings include:

  • The number of arrested teens aged 15 and under whose cases have been diverted from court—or adjusted—and closed by the city’s probation department increased 47 percent between 2009 and last year. This number has more than doubled since 2006.  (See “Case Closed.”)
  • Last year, the NYPD conducted more than 151,000 patrols in NYCHA buildings, or more than 400 per day. Public housing residents make up about 5 percent of the city’s population, but from 2006 through 2009, roughly half of all NYPD trespassing stops in the entire city took place in public housing. (See “To Protect and Serve?”)
  • Following a year-long negotiation that included tenant leaders and police, trespassing stops in public housing dropped by almost 60 percent. There’s no evidence that cutting back on trespass stops tied the NYPD’s hands when it came to making other arrests.
  • New York’s policy of trying 16- and 17-year-old nonviolent offenders as adults in criminal court reduces each teen’s lifetime earnings potential by more than $60,000. The state loses at least $50 million in foregone wages for each annual cohort that passes through the adult courts—and unknown millions in lost tax revenues. (See “The High Cost of Convicting Teens as Adults.”)
  • In the coming months, ACS plans to spend $22 million to provide short term, evidence-based therapies to work with about 3,000 families. This is a targeted effort to reduce the number of children 12 years old and older placed in foster care. (See “Social Workers at the Kitchen Table.”)

The report considers new projects led by the city’s Department of Probation, which has committed to investing in the neighborhoods where probationers live, partnering with residents and organizations to make communities stronger. It looks at the potential—and the limitations—of efforts to raise the New York State age of criminal responsibility, treating some 16- and 17-year-olds as juveniles, rather than adults, in court. Finally, it considers the adaptation of evidence-based social services, developed for use in juvenile justice cases, to teens at risk of entering foster care.

The report offers a set of policy recommendations and solutions informed by the research and drafted by a panel of practitioners, experts, parents, young people and others, aimed at helping policymakers continue toward cohesive criminal justice reform. These include:

  • City Hall and the NYPD should invest significant resources into repairing relationships with communities that experience aggressive policing.
  • The Department of Probation should make good on its commitment to work with communities, creating infrastructure for shared decision-making and partnership.
  • The state legislature should pass, and governor Cuomo should sign, a bill that would transform the treatment of 16- and 17-year-olds in criminal court.
  • Prosecutors should make full use of the pilot diversion court programs in criminal court.
  • As ACS expands evidence-based preventive services, it must continue to invest in promising practices and support program design and research.
  • City Hall and the City Council should ensure that evidence-based preventive services are available to families not involved with child protective services.
  • City Hall must invest more heavily in community supports like childcare programs and housing assistance, which help families and communities stay strong.

This edition of Child Welfare Watch is made possible thanks to the generous support of the Prospect Hill Foundation, the Pinkerton Foundation, the Child Welfare Fund, the Ira W. DeCamp Foundation and the Viola W. Bernard Foundation.

 

Child Welfare Watch: One Step Back

The Delayed Dream of Community Partnerships 

Nearly five years ago, New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services launched a plan to create a culture of community participation and transparency in the child welfare system, which is responsible for protecting children and assisting families in crisis. Its Community Partnership Initiative sought to establish neighborhood collaboratives with organizations and residents in 11 districts that have high reporting rates of suspected abuse and neglect.

Not only would the system become more accountable and connected, but children would be safer, with communities taking part in the work of child welfare, helping to identify families on the edge of crisis, and preventing them from tipping over. Today, the partnerships train community representatives to help parents navigate the child welfare system. They forge relationships between child care providers, who encounter families every day, and preventive service agencies who can help stabilize families if they run into trouble. They have created opportunities for child protective services officials to meet with local people, share neighborhood data, and discuss what it means for government and communities to try to keep children safe.

But the initiative’s original aspirations were much greater. This edition of Child Welfare Watch looks at the progress of the city’s community partnerships, at their accomplishments as well as their very real limitations, and at the vision they still represent for a child welfare system that answers to the communities it’s designed to serve. Our findings include:

  • While partnerships provide valuable assistance to a small number of families with children in foster care, their work remains largely on the margins of the system. They have not received the investment or support they would need to achieve broad-scale change.
  • In 2008, the city planned to double the funding for each community partnerships and to expand their reach. That plan never materialized. Total funding distributed to partnerships has remained static at $1.65 million, barely more than .1 percent of child welfare spending in New York City. (See “No Easy Choices.”)
  • In 2010, ACS held 9,235 child safety conferences, allowing parents to meet with the workers who decided whether their children should be placed in foster care. Community partnerships sent representatives to 1,395 (15 percent) of these conferences, with the goal of helping parents participate in decisions about their families. (See “Shifting the Power Dynamic.”)
  • Each partnership is responsible for facilitating 40 visits per year, where kids in foster care can spend time in the community with their parents. Many of the partnerships’ visiting services have been underutilized due to a lack of referrals from foster care agencies. (See “The Tricky Thing About Visits.”)
  • Foster care in New York City costs 42 percent less than in 2000, but the city has not stuck to its plan of reinvesting savings into services that help stabilize struggling families: Adjusted for inflation, city taxpayers spend almost the same on preventive services as they did 12 years ago. (Download the report PDF to read “The Dream of Reinvestment.”)

This report looks closely at two of the partnerships’ most promising projects: their work in child safety conferences, where they amplify parents’ input in identifying services and resources that might help their families; and their role in improving parents’ visits with children in foster care which can speed up reunification. The report also looks at the larger context of the city’s commitment to prevention, strengthening the power of communities to keep children safe at home.

The report offers a set of policy recommendations informed by the research and drafted by a panel of practitioners, experts, parents, young people and others, aimed at helping policymakers better support partnerships to do meaningful work. These include:

  • ACS and City Hall should commit to, and invest in, resources and supervision that will enable partnerships to produce impressive results.
  • ACS should begin tracking outcomes data that demonstrate the partnerships’ impact on family support and stability.
  • The ACS Office of Community Partnerships should provide more skilled expertise, guidance and facilitation.
  • ACS should hold foster care agencies accountable for participating meaningfully in community partnerships.
  • Partnerships should recruit community residents with experience of the child welfare system.
  • New York City Family Court should create designated court parts for neighborhoods with well-developed community partnerships.
  • Community partnerships must have room to develop their own agendas and pursue goals that strengthen and expand neighborhood resources.

Special audio feature:

Listen to “community reps” from the Child Welfare Organizing Project talk about their work helping parents in crisis, as ACS workers decide whether or not to remove their children.

Child Welfare Watch: In Transition

A better future for youth leaving foster care

Last year, more than 1,100 New Yorkers aged 18 or older left the city’s foster care system. A few were enrolled in college. Others found steady jobs and affordable places to live. But many more were on the insecure fringes of the economy, without stable housing or income.

There are fewer children in foster care than there were 10 years ago, so fewer are leaving foster care each year. Yet despite a decade-long effort of innovators, government officials and philanthropists, the rate at which they age out of the system and into extreme poverty appears to be at least as high as it was then.

This special double edition of Child Welfare Watch reports that homelessness and severe economic hardship are widespread for young people aging out of New York City foster care. Its findings include:

  • 15 percent of young men and women who became adults in New York City foster care entered homeless shelters within two years of leaving the system, half of them with children of their own, according to an unpublished city review.
  • More than half of those young adults are mothers, entering shelters with children of their own.
  • New, innovative housing support services for young men and women can serve only a small fraction of those who need them, even as other, long-established housing programs have been eliminated or sharply reduced.
  • The number of young adults in city homeless shelters has increased nearly 71 percent since 2002, from 18,770 to 32,277.
  • Family stabilization services intended to prevent placement of children in foster care are being eroded by budget cuts. The total number of children served by preventive programs declined 23 percent between September 2009 and September 2010.

Public officials in New York have reshaped foster care in hopes of promoting strong relationships with helpful adults and better preparation for adulthood. Many of these changes have proven valuable, yet the situation remains troubling.

The 36-page report includes an investigation into the high-stakes challenges of young women who leave foster care with children of their own. It also documents lessons learned from a recent city experiment in supportive housing for high-need, high-risk young adults.

In addition, the report offers a set of policy recommendations informed by the research and drafted by a panel of practitioners, experts, parents, young people and others, aimed at helping policymakers better prepare adolescents in their care for successful, independent adulthood. These include:

  • The city must create enforceable standards and adequate finding for foster care agencies to ensure that young people are connected to meaningful assistance even after leaving foster care.
  • The mayor, City Council and the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) should provide funds to hire current and former foster youth as peer advocates in nonprofit agencies and government.
  • ACS should take new steps to stabilize housing for young women before and after childbirth.
  • Foster care agencies and ACS should make school attendance and graduation a top priority for teens in foster care√¢‚Ǩ, including teen parents.
  • The state’s Office of Mental Health must create better options for young adults with mental health challenges.
C. Guzman, 22, is one of 200 residents in a new supportive housing program for young adults leaving foster care with no place to go. Guzman gives a tour of his new home. View the full report on young people leaving foster care in NYC at: centernyc@newschool.edu