Entering foster care

Advocates Fear City Budget Cuts Will Put Children at Risk

By Julie Bosman, New York Times, Apr 26, 2009, New York –-

The threat of more than $83 million in budget cuts at New York City’s child-welfare agency has left advocates for children afraid that recent improvements in its operations, including reduced caseloads, could be threatened. To bring the agency’s budget down to the size that Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has requested, officials at the Administration for Children’s Services have prepared to reduce preventive services, institute a 5 percent cut in fees to foster-care agencies that hold contracts with the city and lay off more than 550 of its more than 6,800 employees.

The cuts would be the largest since John B. Mattingly became commissioner of the agency in 2004, and among the most severe reductions since it was created as a stand-alone department in 1996. The city, meanwhile, is receiving a steadily increasing number of reports of abuse and neglect — 65,856 in 2008, up from 63,434 the year before. “As the economic crisis worsens, there are probably going to be more families who need services,” said Stephanie Gendell, an associate executive director of the Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York, an advocacy group.

“It’s not like A.C.S. has become less busy.” Jennifer Marino Rojas, the deputy director of the Children’s Defense Fund-New York and a former associate commissioner at the Administration for Children’s Services, said the cuts could not come at a worse moment. “A.C.S. was just getting the resources it needed to better respond to the needs of children and families,” she said. “And now to start chipping away at that again really does threaten the stability of the agency.”

Perhaps the biggest fear is that the average caseload could balloon, after an intense effort to bring it to its current level, just under 12, from 21 three years ago. A children’s services spokeswoman, Sharman Stein, said she could not say that child-protective workers, who investigate reports of abuse and neglect, would be spared from layoffs; Marc La Vorgna, a spokesman for Mr. Bloomberg, said,

“It’s an issue we have to look at very carefully.” “We have a goal of reducing costs while continuing the progress made in reducing caseloads,” Mr. La Vorgna said. In a statement sent by e-mail, Mr. Mattingly said he would try to keep caseloads at the current levels. “These manageable caseloads are a critical element in our ability to do strong, thorough protective investigations,” he said. “Children’s services has committed to the children and families of this city that we will continue to strengthen and improve our child-protective work.”

The city budget process is still underway; Mr. Bloomberg is scheduled to present his proposal on Friday. The Administration for Children’s Services was founded in 1996, after the much-publicized beating death of 6-year-old Elisa Izquierdo, who was killed by her mother. In response to the public outcry, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani removed child-welfare programs from the Human Resources Administration, then the umbrella agency for all city social services, and promised a renewed focus on protecting children.

After a string of high-profile deaths of children in 2006 — including that of 7-year-old Nixzmary Brown, who was found abused and starved in her home — Mr. Mattingly instituted a series of changes, beefing up child-protective services, vastly increasing the amount of money spent on family support programs, reducing caseloads and shifting more responsibility to foster-care agencies. But if Mr. Mattingly plans to prioritize child-protective caseloads, the proposed budget cuts would eliminate some preventive services and reduce others. These programs, which are administered through contracted agencies, address problems in families through parenting classes, housing advocacy or domestic violence counseling, for example, and can often keep children with their parents and out of foster care. Officials from the 36 foster-care agencies that hold contracts with the city have been told to prepare for a 5 percent cut in their fees, a reduction that many agency directors said could be devastating.

James F. Purcell, chief executive officer of the Council of Family and Child Caring Agencies, said that if there was less money to work with, “kids are going to stay in foster care even longer, and they’re already in care a very long time.”

Jeremy Kohomban, the president and chief executive of Children’s Village, said he was planning to lay off several employees. Bill Baccaglini, the executive director of the New York Foundling, one of the city’s oldest and largest foster-care agencies, said the cuts would mean a loss of roughly $500,000. According to data compiled in Child Welfare Watch, a biannual report published by the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School, preventive programs were operating at full capacity through most of 2008.

“A.C.S. is relying a lot more heavily on preventive services than it did, say, six years ago, and this means the caseloads are probably going to go up,” said Andrew White, the director of the center. “And it means there won’t be the kind of growth in family and children’s services that we need to diffuse the kinds of crises that send kids into foster care.”

Some of the layoffs within the city agency itself appear to be in line with Mr. Mattingly’s goals under Improved Outcomes for Children, an initiative begun in 2007 to delegate more responsibility and decision-making to the outside foster-care agencies. Several directors of the agencies said they were not concerned that many of the city positions would be eliminated. But many of the proposed cuts are of positions that provide support to child-protective workers, like administrative staff, computer technicians and drivers.

In 2006, the agency began building a staff of 60 former police detectives who work as investigative consultants. Ten of those positions will be cut. “The burden will fall on the child-protective workers, because they won’t have the supports that help them manage the cases and move the cases along,” said Faye Moore, president of the Social Service Employees Union. Some advocates predicted that the budget cuts were only the beginning. Even if the economy begins to recover, they said, another round of reductions was possible in the fall. “We finally started to get it right after Nixzmary Brown,” said Bill de Blasio, a city councilman from Brooklyn who is chairman of the General Welfare Committee.

“Now, by definition, it will be much harder to keep up with the cases, it’ll be much harder to protect kids, and this level of cut at a single agency suggests that we are not making this agency a priority.”

Original article, New York Times, retrieved on April 27, 2009

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