Foster Care Stakeholders Confront a Lingering Problem in New York City

marcia_ny_symp_2011-07-20_psSixteen years ago, Children’s Rights launched its first reform campaign, demanding improvements in the foster care system run by the city that we still call home.

At the time, New York City had one of the worst foster care systems in the country. The ensuing settlement led to many improvements across a variety of functions. But shortcomings lingered — most prominently, the city’s inability to move many children out of foster care in a timely way, resulting in exceptionally long stays in foster care.

In 2009, Children’s Rights’ Policy Department released The Long Road Home: A Study of Children Stranded in New York City Foster Care, a review of cases in which kids had been in foster care for at least two years. On average, those youth spent five and a half years in the city’s foster care system.

That’s simply too long.

The city’s Administration of Children’s Services (ACS) agreed and immediately committed to taking action to reduce that figure. But based on recent data made available to Children’s Rights by ACS and the New York City Family Court, we haven’t gotten there yet. As of February 2011, about 38 percent of kids in the city’s custody have been in care for more than three years. There has hardly been any improvement on that number in the past year.

This week, nearly 100 stakeholders gathered at ACS offices to identify ways to change this unnecessary reality. The group consisted of ACS personnel, judges from the Family Court, service providers, and advocates from many organizations across the city whose mission is to help abused and neglected children.

The task of bringing that many people — with so many different viewpoints on the foster care system — together was a giant step in the right direction. And the session-ending panel discussion suggested that the intermingling of so many integral pieces of the system could only serve to help the problem going forward.

Panel members cited many of the universal problems that exist in foster care: underpaid and under-supported caseworkers, overwhelmed families, backlogged courts. Each of those has a significant impact on either returning children to their own home or, when that’s not possible, finding them a new one.

But given the city’s slow progress, Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of Children’s Rights, challenged the group to identify new practices and implement strategies that would dramatically reduce the number of kids spending many years in foster care.

The city has accomplished much since The Long Road Home came out. ACS Commissioner John B. Mattingly launched the One Year Home campaign, and its cornerstone goal was to get more children reunified with their parents and more children placed in pre-adoptive homes within 12 months. The city has since improved its performance in meeting those objectives.

As New York City child welfare officials continue improving those processes, they must also devote more attention and resources toward finding loving, permanent families for the kids who can’t go home. Far too many spend year after year shuffling from one placement to the next — a tragedy no child should have to suffer.

Children’s Rights will pay the closest attention to future statistics coming out of ACS and the Family Court. We’re committed to ensuring New York City kids in foster care spend as little time as necessary in custody — and we’re equally determined to work with the city to make sure it happens. We know that every child faces a brighter future when he or she has a permanent relationship to count on. And the city, too, will prosper when it takes care of the kids who need it most.