Federal Dollars That Are About to Disappear Helped New York City Get Kids Out of Foster Care Much More Quickly

A family walks in New York City. Photo: New York Family Magazine.

Enter the terms “languish” and “foster care” into Google, and you get more than 40,000 results. It’s one of the most common critiques of the foster care system: Many youth spend too much time within it, waiting for stable, permanent family homes. The portion of foster youth spending more than two years in foster care is growing nationwide, a trend policymakers across the country are scrambling to reverse.

According to a new evaluation from a top research institute, New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) may have figured out one way to do that: Hire more case planners for foster youth.

Youth were able to leave foster care in 50 fewer days after the city paid to boost staff count and lowered caseloads beginning in 2014, according to the evaluation conducted for ACS by Chicago-based Chapin Hall. Specifically, the study said: “The median length of stay for children admitted to [foster] care after the caseload reduction was 475 days; median duration for children admitted to care before the caseload reduction was 525 days.”

There were other positive findings associated with the decrease in caseloads, but the city’s top child welfare official emphasized the value of reducing time in care for kids.

“Reduced length of stay [for foster youth] was most significant. To have seen on average reduced length of stay of about 50 days or about 9 percent for young people … in relation to those who were in foster care before — that’s quite a dramatic change across our entire foster care portfolio,” said David Hansell, the Mayor Bill de Blasio-appointed commissioner of ACS. “It’s good news for kids, it’s good news for families, obviously, reunifying faster.”

Before the caseload reductions, many workers in New York City’s system were juggling 15 to 18 kid’s education, housing, mental and physical health care, and personal development needs, while often trying to do the same for struggling parents. After ACS began passing extra federal dollars to 17 nonprofits that it contracts with to serve foster youth, who then used the money to hire more workers, caseloads fell to around 12.

“One of the things that is most difficult is building a rapport with the children and families that we serve,” said Meridith Sopher, vice president of foster care for the nonprofit Sheltering Arms, in an interview with The Chronicle of Social Change. “Having fewer cases allows our case planners to really take time to build those relationships, which I think leads to better outcomes for children and families.”

“It may not be easily quantifiable,” she said, “but it enabled case planners to slow down and meet families where they are at.”

One of Chapin Hall’s authors praised ACS for choosing this approach.

“ACS should be given credit for looking at the problem squarely and asking the question — does this make a difference? That’s a contribution to the field if we can build sustained momentum around this kind of thinking,” said Fred Wulczyn, who oversaw the team that conducted the research. “We’ve got to get out of the situation where every time a county or state tries something and it doesn’t work, they get scolded, by the press, the advocates, whomever. Yes, there are lives at stake, but influencing child outcomes is far more complicated than putting a person on the moon.”

David Hansell, director of New York’s Administration for Children’s Services, said he is pushing for renewal of the federal waiver that allowed for the effort to lower caseloads. Photo: NYC.gov

An obscure federal funding stream known as the Title IV-E Waiver helped ACS lower caseloads. Created under President Franklin Roosevelt’s Social Security Act, Title IV-E is the pot of money that funds the bulk of foster care work nationwide. Under a special waiver program created in 1994, the Department of Health and Human Services approved plans for dozens of states, including New York, to spend those funds on innovative ways to improve child welfare practice.

New York’s IV-E waiver project, called Strong Families New York City, focused on hiring more case planners and supervisors as a principal driver of lowering foster care caseloads. The waiver also helped pay for attachment therapy for youth in care, to train case planners to incorporate trauma therapy techniques, and a new needs assessment tool for youth in care longer than 30 days.

The waiver program is set to expire at the end of this month, an outcome Hansell is fighting. A cost analysis by Chapin Hall found that if caseloads reverted to their pre-waiver level, it would cost the city $90 million over five years in increased costs related to foster care.

“We want to continue all the interventions under the waiver. But without the waiver, we’ll have a shortfall in funding to do that,” he told The Chronicle. “That’s why we are advocating with other jurisdictions whose waivers are also expiring at the end of September, advocating to Congress for funding that would allow us to continue the interventions that have been so successful.”

The city, though, has made substantial investments in its child welfare system, beyond what many jurisdictions can afford. Would the de Blasio administration help maintain the caseload reductions if the federal waiver does expire?

“Our intent is to maintain the caseload reductions because it has proven to be so positive in terms of outcomes for young people and families dealing with the foster care system. So we plan to do it, and our hope is we’ll be successful in getting Congress to identify continuation of funding that will allow us to do that,” responded Hansell.

Despite the lower caseloads, the Chapin Hall evaluation wasn’t all positive. As caseloads fell during the waiver, surveys of case planners and supervisors suggested that their sense of being overburdened actually increased.

“Across the board, case planners reported feeling more overwhelmed … [they] were less likely to hold favorable views of their supervisors as educators, administrative champions and emotional supports,” wrote the Chapin Hall team. The response rate to the satisfaction surveys was low, the authors caution, and aggrieved employees may have been more likely to respond.

Sopher wasn’t surprised.

“Case planners still feel as though they have too much work to do because it’s a very difficult, emotional job,” she said. “Having 10 to 12 children on your caseload doesn’t mean that you have time sit at your desk without any work to do. It means you want to do more work and better-quality work. And deeper work for each family.”

Anthony Wells, president of Social Services Employees Union Local 371, which represents ACS’ child protective specialists who investigate child abuse and neglect allegations, suggested these experiments also generally tend to ratchet up stress for everyone involved.

“I could see how the pressure would hit the private agencies,” said Wells. “I could see the workers felt pressured to reduce caseloads. I have no actual knowledge of the operation but efforts to reduce caseload can mean more pressure, generally.”

In the first year of Strong Families, 2014, the city’s Title IV-E spending under the waiver was about $35.8 million, according to data tracked by the nonprofit Child Trends. By 2016, it had reached $250 million.

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Michael Fitzgerald, New York Editor, The Chronicle of Social Change
About Michael Fitzgerald, New York Editor, The Chronicle of Social Change 104 Articles
New York Editor for The Chronicle of Social Change. Reach him at mfitzgerald@chronicleofsocialchange.org or follow on Twitter at @mchlftzgrld.