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.



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:

Child Welfare Watch: A Need for Correction

Reforming New York's Juvenile Justice System

Half the children housed in New York State’s juvenile correctional facilities suffer from mental illness, yet there is not one psychiatrist or psychiatric nurse on the staff of the state Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS), which runs the facilities.

That’s one of the findings of a new report by the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School entitled A Need for Correction: Reforming New York’s Juvenile Justice System., Coming in the wake of a federal Department of Justice investigation that found widespread use of excessive force by staff at four OCFS facilities upstate, this new report identifies shortcomings in mental health services and explores possible solutions, including the expansion of alternatives to incarceration for juvenile delinquents.

The report was released today, in conjunction with a forum from 8:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m., at Theresa Lang Community & Student Center, 55 West 13th Street, 2nd floor. The forum included a panel discussion on the juvenile justice system with two legal experts, a child psychologist, a state legislator and a member of one of the unions representing OCFS employees.

The new report acknowledges that OCFS has made improvements in the past two years, including tripling the number of social workers and psychologists who work in the juvenile correctional facilities. But the report found many shortcomings in psychiatric care and describes how a combustible mix, of mentally ill youth and fatigued line-staff (some of whom routinely work 16-hour days) can lead to violent confrontations.

The report examines alternative-to-incarceration programs that offer supervision and guidance to juvenile delinquents at home, in their own communities. Family Court judges have relied increasingly on these programs in the past decade, leading to a dramatic decrease in the number of youth admitted to juvenile justice facilities, from 1,938 in 2000 to 813 in 2008.

The report contains policy recommendations drafted by the Child Welfare Watch advisory board aimed at helping policymakers address issues of mental illness and juvenile justice.

Child Welfare Watch is published jointly by the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School and the Center for an Urban Future. This edition is made possible thanks to generous grants from the Child Welfare Fund, the Ira W. DeCamp Foundation, the Viola W. Bernard Foundation and the Sirus Fund.