Like most foster care systems, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s in New York City is plagued by grim outcomes for foster youth: Many develop mental health conditions, only about half finish high school, and one in five enter a homeless shelter within three years of leaving care.
Last week, the city agency that oversees that system, the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS), released a new plan to improve the system, making returning more foster youth to their birth parents its top priority for the next five years. The long-term strategy is one of the first from the agency to be wholly designed by ACS Commissioner David Hansell, a former Obama administration official hired by de Blasio in the wake of several high-profile child deaths in the city in late 2016.
The foster care system has figured prominently in political drama that continues to play out across the state. Letitia James, once a threat to challenge de Blasio and now a top contender to replace disgraced former New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, saw her profile rise in 2015 after filing a lawsuit against the city’s foster care system.
The suit — filed in federal court with two other legal organizations representing a group of foster children — resulted in a settlement that was ultimately thrown out by a judge. Still, Hansell’s team derived their just-released blueprint for the foster care system in part from the Foster Care Interagency Task Force that de Blasio created in response to James’ suit. The large group of civic leaders, advocates and experts on the task force, including James, released their recommendations in March.
Hansell’s new plan reflects longstanding agency goals, with top billing given to reunification. That’s the technical term for getting kids out of foster care, reunited safely with the adults who’d been accused of abusing or neglecting them. It’s the child welfare profession’s preferred outcome for foster youth — as opposed to adoption, or allowing children to grow up and out of the system — yet only about half of all the New York City youth who left foster care in 2016 were reunited with their parents. The numbers nationally are similar.
ACS says that they will try to improve reunification rates by improving the quality and frequency of visits between foster youth and their original families; enhancing efforts to inform parents about their rights during a child welfare investigation; and expanding partnerships with groups that advocate for the rights of parents who are being investigated for abusing or neglecting their children. Other top priorities include increasing placements of mistreated children with relatives, simplifying the adoption process, and expanding mental health treatment access to foster youth. The plan had 31 points overall, with the top four focusing on reunification and most of the rest focused on the subject of James’ suit — the quality of foster care itself.
Many of the goals match those from a previous plan, released in March of 2016 under Hansell’s predecessor, Gladys Carrión. But the presentation under Hansell looks radically different: This latest blueprint is a spiffy 13-page document with big, bright pictures, large fonts and relatively few acronyms. The priorities are explicitly ranked. Increasing communication with and education for investigated parents figures much more prominently. The first few pages brag about the dramatic decline in foster care placements in the city since the early 2000s, which cuts against a nationwide upward trend in the midst of an opioid crisis.
Hansell recently made comments to the New York Times’ Nikita Stewart that he would place an emphasis on presentation and visibility. “When things got bad, [Carrión] had no public image and there was nothing else to give any context to what was happening … That also sort of framed for me the importance of being out there as a visible symbol of the agency,” Hansell told Stewart, referencing the crisis that engulfed Carrión’s agency – and the entire city government under de Blasio – after the 2016 deaths of two children whose families ACS had been previously warned about.
Hansell’s tenure has been marked by more media interviews and shinier public documents like this new plan for the foster care system. His new five-year plan now offers the clearest sense yet of where his foster care policy priorities lie.