The New York City Department of Investigation released its second report in under a month on policy and practice violations at the city Administration for Children’s Services on Tuesday. And just like its previous report, which coincided with the arrest of three individuals who had worked at a nonprofit provider of ACS’ Close to Home program, DOI alleges “systematic concerns, including violations of law.”
The report focuses on three cases – two fatalities and one near-fatality – of children whose families were being investigated by ACS for allegations of child abuse and, in some cases, were receiving services from the agency and nonprofit providers when fateful incidents occurred.
One child, given the pseudonym Chris in the report, was the victim of serious physical abuse and food deprivation. ACS had looked into his case two years before a near-fatal incident, but marked the claims “unfounded.” Eventually, three additional investigations were opened up after school staff called the statewide child abuse hotline after they were told by fellow students that Chris’ parents were abusing him, according to the report.
DOI claims that “ACS failed to timely and comprehensively complete all of its required investigative procedures while the parents’ abuse was escalating.” ACS took two months to interview fellow students, even though the agency requires child protective services caseworkers to conduct such interviews within seven days, the report states. DOI also says that caseworkers grossly overestimated Chris’ weight by 30 pounds and failed to obtain a medical expert and key medical documents that could have aided in obtaining a court order to remove Chris from his abusive home.
In another case, Morgan, a preschool-age child, died “under suspicious circumstances” while at the home of his mother, who had been investigated 11 times over 12 years for allegations of neglect, according to the report. The family’s previous interactions with ACS were troubling: The mother was shown to have exposed several of her children to cocaine in utero, and four of her eldest children spent more than a year in foster care, where they made numerous allegations of abuse and neglect against the younger children’s father.
Despite being provided preventative services and substance abuse treatment, the mother fell back into cocaine usage. Additionally, ACS investigators found that the children, upon release from foster care, were living in a “deplorable, unsafe, hazard-filled home and were only sporadically attending school,” according to the report.
Despite many years of services and interactions with the agency, Morgan died on “a day when, much like the previous allegations concerning this family, the mother was not supervising her children and the father of the younger children was not home,” the DOI report states.
In the final case, Alex, also a preschool-age child, was beaten to death by his mother, who had been investigated by ACS 13 times over the past 12 years due to allegations of drug abuse and excessive corporal punishment of her seven children, according to the report.
After spending time in foster care, Alex, along with other siblings, was “trial discharged” back to his mother, despite her admitting to recent drug use, failing to visit her children while they were in foster care and other “barriers to reunification,” the report states. A year later, and after two more “unfounded” investigations into allegations of abuse, Alex was beaten and killed.
In addition to detailing the three tragic cases, the DOI report suggests that the cases are symptoms of much larger problems at ACS. Specifically, the report cited ACS data showing that “16 percent of children who ACS determined were abused or neglected, were subsequently abused or neglected again within a one-year period,” failing to meet the state’s 7 percent target. The report also raised concerns about ACS’ timeliness in filing petitions to terminate parental rights, which must be filed if a child has been in foster care for 17 of the last 22 months, barring some “compelling reason” not to file; in 82 percent of such cases, ACS did not immediately file a petition to terminate parental rights.
“ACS is the first line of defense for the defenseless,” DOI Commissioner Mark Peters said in a statement. “DOI’s investigation found that on several occasions ACS and its provider agencies failed to take necessary steps to protect children and at times may actually have put them in harm’s way.”
However, ACS cautioned against extrapolating too much from just a handful of cases.
“I think there are certainly case practice improvements that ACS can make with respect to these three cases, but these are three specific cases – some of which had terrible, terrible consequences – out of over at least 55,000 that we see every year,” said Jill Krauss, an agency spokeswoman. “I would not say that they are representative.”
In addition to contesting the larger thrust of the report – that the three cases are representative of systematic failures – ACS and other child welfare professionals pushed back on some of the report’s specifics.
One point of contention was the report’s usage of the 16 percent repeat maltreatment rate, which Krauss argued lacked appropriate context.
“While the state’s aspirational goal may be 7 percent – to be sure, any repeat maltreatment is a problem – but the counties of New York City consistently have the lowest repeat maltreatment rate of the entire state,” Krauss said, citing a state Office of Child and Family Services chart that shows all jurisdictions outside of the city with higher rates of repeat maltreatment, many of which are above 30 percent. “I think that’s an instance where the DOI chose to tell a story in a pretty negative light when our data is actually relatively strong.”
Other child welfare advocates called into question the accuracy of repeat maltreatment data generally.
“In our experience, children grow to trust their preventive or foster care worker and will disclose abuse that happened weeks or months before the latest ACS investigation,” said Mary Jane Dessables, director of research, information and accountability for the Council of Family and Child Caring Agencies, which advocates on behalf of child welfare nonprofits. “Later, when ACS issues outcomes data to each agency as part of their annual assessment, agencies find some of these cases in the data, based on the indication date and not the date the maltreatment occurred. In these cases, it’s not subsequent maltreatment but more information of prior maltreatment.”
But Peters emphatically denied any inaccuracies in the data point.
“These numbers are re-abused numbers,” Peters said. “You can try to slice them any way that you want, but the bottom line is in 16 percent of cases where ACS determined the child has been abused or neglected, they’ve been re-abused or neglected within a year. And that number has not gone down over the past four years, and it’s twice what the state says in an acceptable level.”
ACS, and other child welfare advocates, also called into question DOI’s emphasis on ACS’ role in the process to terminate parental rights when, in practice, much of the system is dominated by family court judges and attorneys.
“It is important to know that New York has some of the strongest attorneys representing parents and children who may not necessarily want termination, so they could be fighting it in court for some time,” Krauss said. “When you litigate something, it is protracted. It is not just an ACS unilateral decision to make.”
Krauss specifically called into question DOI’s claim that ACS fails to file timely petitions to terminate parental rights, given that family courts have largely endorsed the agency’s efforts.
“In 97.6 percent of our 2015 cases, a family court made the determination that ACS made a reasonable effort to achieve permanency, based on all of the facts and circumstances of a case,” Krauss said, adding that the federal statute that DOI cites includes hundreds of exceptions to the firm 22-month timeline. “(The family court rate) is probably a more accurate measure than the 17 out of 22 months rule, only because that rule has so many exceptions to it that it’s not actually measuring what happens in specific cases.”
However, Peters stuck by DOI’s measure and called into question the accuracy of family court statistics.
“I do not have – ACS has not provided to me or to anybody else – all of the family court records to demonstrate (the accuracy of family court’s assessment),” Peters said. “The law requires that after 15 months (the federal guideline is 15 months plus 60 days after the child was removed), you file to terminate parental rights unless there’s a very good reason not to do so, and we know that ACS didn’t do that 85 percent of the time.The fact that they think that the family court system approves of this, I don’t know whether that means that the family court system approves of them not following the law, or what the family court was told in each instance. It’s not a helpful number.”
Despite these points of disagreement, ACS largely accepted DOI’s recommendations, including a new system to avoid conflicts of interest for caseworkers investigating cases to which they had been previously assigned, as well as improving information collection systems and creating more robust oversight mechanisms.
ACS also said that, since the tragedies in 2014, Mayor Bill de Blasio has added $100 million to strengthen the child welfare system, including hiring 700 new staff, increasing training and reducing caseloads to record lows. Krauss also touted a recent ACS initiative called No Time To Wait which works to streamline reunification and adoption processes and has already increased efficiency in adoption subsidy approvals by over 50 percent.
Peters, however, was unmoved by mention of the new initiative.
“The length of time in care has actually gone up,” Peters said. “The question is not do you come up with a bunch of interesting sounding programs, the question is: are child abuse investigations being done properly? Are children being kept safe? Are you taking steps to get children to safe, permanent homes? And if the numbers suggest that’s not getting better, it kind of doesn’t matter what you call the new program that you come up with.”
Notwithstanding these criticisms, Krauss said that she hopes that city agencies will strive for comprehensive services for families touched by the child welfare system.
“A lot of the problems that can bring families to our attention are huge systemic problems around poverty, homelessness, a lack of education and a lack of resources and supports for families that are really struggling,” Krauss said.
This article was first published on New York Nonprofit Media on May 4.