New Report Recommends Widespread Reforms to Bring New York City Foster Kids Home Faster to Permanent Families

NEW YORK CITY – An in-depth new study of the New York City child welfare system, conducted by the national advocacy group Children’s Rights in collaboration with the New York City Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) and the Legal Aid Society Juvenile Rights Practice (JRP), has brought together an unprecedented partnership in an effort to reduce the overly long time many children remain in foster care while waiting to be returned to their parents or adopted.

A report released today on the study’s findings, titled The Long Road Home: A Study of Children Stranded in New York City Foster Care (PDF), says the child welfare system (including ACS, the Family Court, nonprofit foster care agencies, and others involved in handling these cases) has lacked a sense of urgency in its efforts to bring children home to permanent families — and this, combined with inadequate resources and too little accountability has resulted in many children remaining in foster care for a very long time.

New York’s problems in this area are among the worst in the nation: the state (63 percent of whose foster care population is composed of children in New York City) ranks 40th of 47 measured by the federal government on timeliness of children’s return home from foster care. On timeliness of adoption, the state ranks 44th.

Today, ACS announced a renewed citywide campaign to quicken the pace of permanency for all children in New York City foster care.

“A major effort is long overdue to solve the problems, from inadequacies in the child welfare workforce to severe delays in the Family Court, that have kept thousands of children growing up with government agencies as their parents,” said Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of Children’s Rights. “This report is a roadmap for overcoming the barriers and speeding kids’ progress toward permanent homes, and we call upon New York’s lawmakers, the Family Court, and child welfare officials to implement its recommendations without delay.”

John B. Mattingly, Commissioner of the NYC Administration for Children’s Services, said ACS has been making substantial reforms to the infrastructure of the child welfare system for the past five years to address both children’s safety and permanency. “We have increasingly been holding ourselves and our contract agency partners responsible for helping youth find permanency through a safe return home to their families, a kinship placement, or adoption,” Mattingly said.”We intend to work with all of our partners in child welfare to turn the structural improvements we have now made into the results we all want for children and families.”

Mattingly said ACS and its provider agencies will begin a new campaign called One Year to Family to speed progress for both children entering New York City foster care and those now awaiting placement in permanent homes. Among the campaign’s objectives:

  • Ensure that as many children as possible who enter care will achieve permanency within one yearthrough either safe return home or placement with a family willing to make a permanent commitment to them should they be available for adoption.
  • Establish specific plans by July 1, 2010, for children currently in foster care to achieve permanency within one year, to be developed through family team conferences and recommendations to the Family Court.
  • Ensure that no child age 18-21 leaves foster care without opportunities for stable housing, employment, medical coverage, a connection to a caring adult, and a support plan.
  • Strengthen the foster care provider agency workforce. Together with the state and federal governments,ACS will work to enhance federal funding for training of agency staff, develop minimum requirements for training systemwide, develop new recruitment and retention programs, and begin joint planning to develop a new funding design to better support all foster care providers.

Children’s Rights will track the efforts of ACS, the foster care agencies, and the Family Court toward increasing the pace of all children’s progress toward placement in permanent families.

The Long Road Home examines the case records of 153 children out of more than 4,000 in New York City who had, at the time of the study, remained in foster care for at least two years since they were slated for reunification with their parents or adoption. Their lengths of stay in foster care ranged from two years to nearly 17, and the average stay was 5.4 years. Nearly one-third of the children designated for reunification had been in foster care four or more years — and 10 percent had remained in care six years or more.

In addition to the case record review, researchers conducted interviews and focus groups with parents, foster parents, caseworkers, attorneys (for children, parents, and ACS), and Family Court judges and referees.

The Long Road Home pinpoints problems throughout the New York City child welfare system that contribute to delays in children’s progress toward permanent homes. High rates of caseworker turnover at contracted foster care agencies were prevalent throughout the cases studied. More than half the children in the study (51 percent) had three or more different caseworkers over a period of just two years. Three quarters of the agency workers interviewed for the study carried caseloads larger than the 11 to 12 children per worker recommended in a study commissioned by the state Office of Children and Family Services, and 43 percent said they were assigned caseloads before they received training.

Furthermore, the quality of the casework in many children’s cases was poor, as foster care agencies failed to engage families adequately or provide the intensity of contact and quality of services needed to return children home or get them adopted on a reasonable timetable. The agencies’ documentation of children’s and families’ progress was often incomplete or submitted late, contributing to delays in family court proceedings, and parents and foster parents who participated in the study said they did not receive the level of communication, respect, or support they needed from the agencies.

Equally troubling, most of the cases studied involved major delays in the Family Court. The average length of time between children’s removal from their homes and the court’s initial finding of whether abuse or neglect had taken place was 11 months. The average length of time from removal to disposition — the court’s decision whether to keep children in foster care or send them home — was 14 months, and took more than a year in 44 percent of the children’s cases. More than half the children in the study experienced delays in Permanency Hearings, required by state law every six months for all children in foster care, and court processes to legally free children for adoption were also slow. The average time to complete proceedings to terminate parental rights was almost two and a half years from the time termination petitions were filed.

“In my experience across the country, the standard for family courts in child welfare cases has been that both fact-finding and disposition should be completed within 90 days,” said Mattingly.

All of the groups that participated in the study — parents, foster parents, attorneys, and even judges and referees themselves — said the court does not consistently use its power to hold the parties in children’s cases accountable for their roles in these delays.

“Our state and city elected officials must devote adequate resources to solving these problems,” said Julie Farber, director of policy for Children’s Rights and one of the study’s authors. “All those involved in the cases of children in foster care, including ACS, the foster care agencies, and the Family Court, must accept some responsibility for the delays these children are experiencing and take action immediately to bring children home more quickly to the permanent families they need.”

The Long Road Home lists 18 recommendations for quickening children’s progress toward permanent homes. Among them:

  • Take rapid action to address the cases of the children who have been stranded longest in New York City foster care. ACS should develop and execute plans to speed progress toward permanent families for the more than 4,000 children in foster care who have been slated for reunification or adoption for two years or more, and for the more than 2,600 children who are no longer designated for reunification or adoption and are likely to age out of foster care with no permanent family at all.
  • Improve the Family Court process and accountability. The report calls on New York’s state legislature and governor to reduce overwhelming burdens on the Family Court by authorizing and funding more judgeships, and to enact mandated time frames for key Family Court proceedings. The Family Court itself should, the report says, require time-certain hearings, report publicly on the timeliness of court proceedings, and use its existing power to hold the parties in children’s cases accountable for ensuring timely progress.
  • Improve the child welfare workforce, foster care casework, and accountability. The state and city should provide adequate funding to reduce both caseloads for child welfare workers and caseworker turnover, and take additional steps to improve recruitment, retention, and training. ACS should rigorously implement a quality assurance program to increase accountability among the foster care agencies, and report publicly on key performance measures.
  • Improve supports and services for children and families. Areas where improvement is needed, according to the report, include visits between children in foster care and their families, planning and services for parents with mental illness and cognitive disabilities, and the Bridges to Health program for children with severe medical, developmental, or emotional disorders, which should be expanded significantly. The report also calls for additional housing assistance for vulnerable families and an increased commitment to preventive services aimed at strengthening families and keeping children out of foster care in the first place.
  • Establish a new permanency option. The report calls on the state legislature and governor to enact and adequately fund subsidized guardianship as an option for abused and neglected children who cannot return home and for whom adoption is not an option, federal funds for which were recently made available to states by the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008.

“The lives and well-being of the children we represent literally hang in the balance,” said Tamara Steckler, attorney-in-charge of the Juvenile Rights Practice of the Legal Aid Society. “The time for action is now on such crucial initiatives for children as the Office for Court Administration’s request to increase the number of Family Court Judges and the need to limit caseloads and enhance training for city child welfare workers and foster care agency workers.”

Children’s Rights conducted the study in partnership with ACS and the Legal Aid Society Juvenile Rights Practice, with the voluntary participation of 28 private foster care agencies, and with input and support on various aspects of the project from many other organizations and individuals, including the New York City Family Court, the Council of Family and Child Caring Agencies, the Child Welfare Organizing Project, the Center for Family Representation, the Bronx Defenders, the Brooklyn Family Defense Project, the Citizens’ Committee for Children, and the First and Second Departments of the State of New York Unified Court System, Appellate Division, Law Guardian Program.

The project was funded with support from the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, the Ira W. DeCamp Foundation, the Stella & Charles Guttman Foundation, the Edward and Ellen Roche Relief Foundation, the Marion E. Kenworthy-Sarah H. Swift Foundation, the Metzger-Price Fund, and the Marsicano Foundation.

To read The Long Road Home and find out more about Children’s Rights’ child welfare reform efforts in New York City and nationwide, please visit www.childrensrights.org/longroadhome.