The white-collar investigative firm Kroll Associates is renowned for high-stakes snooping. Its staff of former prosecutors and FBI agents has uncovered billions in hidden assets belonging to dictators like Saddam Hussein, conducted background checks on candidates for Wall Street’s loftiest executive positions, and even once tracked down eyewitnesses to an international heroin trafficking ring.
Recently, though, they’ve been scrutinizing New York City’s child welfare agency, the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS), at the request of the New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s administration, which has sought greater influence over the city agency’s operations. A 31-page report released in December by Kroll Associates included 11 recommendations and echoed criticisms from other external assessments of ACS in the wake of two child deaths last year.
After nearly a year of review, Kroll noted “deficiencies in ACS’s implementation and execution of key programs,” and revealed that the firm had referred 15 of the 150 child maltreatment investigations they examined to the state’s Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS), the state agency that oversees the city and county child welfare systems.
The city’s child welfare workers in those 15 cases, Kroll’s monitors wrote, had “failed to address critical safety issues that posed an ongoing risk to children.”
The report’s release follows a tumultuous two years for New York City’s child welfare system. In August of 2016, a federal judge declined to approve a settlement agreement in Elisa W., a case brought by a group of 19 current and former foster youth against the city and the state. That agreement, which was supported by the state but not by the city, would have significantly expanded the state’s oversight of ACS.
A month later, Zymere Perkins, a Harlem 6-year-old whose family had been the subject of multiple investigations for child abuse, was found dead, covered in bruises. Then, in early December 2016, another boy, a 3-year-old from Brooklyn named Jaden Jordan, was found beaten to death, days after ACS has received a child abuse tip about the boy’s family. Members of both families now face criminal charges, the head of ACS has been replaced, and OCFS appointed Kroll as an independent monitor in January 2017.
Those deaths prompted sharp criticism from public officials about the agency’s failure to remove these children. But in summer of 2017, the New York Times and the New Yorker both raised questions about whether ACS needlessly and disproportionately subjected poor, minority parents to scrutiny and child removals.
Kroll is credited with pioneering for-hire sleuthing for multinational corporations since its founding in 1972. Its independent monitor team is led by former New York State Inspector General Joseph Spinelli.
The firm reviewed nearly 250 family case files, including 97 where families that were enrolled in support programs instead of being formally investigated. They also interviewed dozens of ACS employees, and studied child fatality reports, recent audits by other agencies, and ACS’ policy and procedure manuals.
They had some praise for the city agency, describing its staff as “knowledgeable about cutting-edge ideas in the field of child welfare.” But Kroll also underscored the challenges ACS faces, including “workload and staffing issues, inconsistent compliance with internal policies, and insufficient access to technology tools.”
Kroll’s team also urged ACS to hire more so-called investigative consultants. Since 2007, ACS has been hiring these former law enforcement personnel, typically with decades of experience, to help train child welfare workers, to access criminal background-check databases those workers are not trained to use, and to accompany them to meet with families in some high-risk cases.
The number of consultants has increased from 20 to 119 since 2007. ACS recently approved funding for another 46 investigator positions, according to the Kroll report.
The city’s Department of Investigation made a similar recommendation in a January 2017 investigation into the Brooklyn boy’s death, and the Daily News endorsed the idea in an editorial after the Kroll report was released.
ACS, in a response issued alongside the Kroll report, said it is receptive to the idea. “ACS’s preference is to increase the number of [investigative consultants] to both perform clearance checks and participate in more field investigations,” the statement said.
Kroll’s report also introduced new corporate management jargon to the crowded debate over reforming ACS, calling for an agency-wide “enterprise risk assessment.” It’s a term for risk evaluation and internal controls more common to Wall Street or the insurance industry than to public welfare agencies.
That runs somewhat in contradiction to the advice of Casey Family Programs, a foundation that supports and consults with systems to improve family services, which released a study of ACS operations last May that called for the agency to reduce the number of internal reviews.
Instead, Casey advised, the agency should adopt principles from “safety-critical” industries like aviation, nuclear energy, and healthcare, and encourage “consistent, non-punitive, two-way communication between front-line staff and leadership about safety issues.”
Overall, ACS acknowledged many of the Kroll report’s findings, and says it has implemented reforms, including adapting a new web-based analytics software and distributing tablets to caseworkers. In a statement released to the media, the ACS chief David Hansell, who was appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio days after the state hired Kroll, praised the firm’s work.
“Over the last nine months, ACS has made critical reforms to protect the safety and well-being of New York City’s children, and this report shows that the steps we’ve been taking are the right ones,” Hansell said.
On the other hand, Abe George, the attorney suing ACS on behalf of Zymere Perkins’ family, questioned Kroll’s efforts as independent monitor, telling NBC’s local New York affiliate, “I think it’s more of a publicity stunt than anything else. I’m skeptical that what we’re doing may be just adding another layer of bureaucracy and not fixing the problem.”
The news station also reported that Kroll’s consultants were being paid $250 to $500 per hour each by city taxpayers, with no contract or set end date for the work.