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.