Foster Care Firewalls and Race-Blind Removals: New York Governor’s Provocative Plans for Child Welfare

Cuomo new york child welfare 2020
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo delivers his tenth state of the state address this week in Albany. The governor didn’t mention foster care in the speech, but offered a few novel ideas in an accompanying release. Photo courtesy of the governor’s office.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) delivered his tenth annual state of the state address yesterday, proposing liberal policy priorities including legalizing recreational marijuana, expanding a child tax credit, and guaranteeing paid sick leave for workers. He didn’t go into detail on addressing a $6.1 billion budget deficit, but observers expect pitched negotiations between Cuomo and the state legislature over spending cuts and cost shifts, and potential tax increases.

Cuomo also did not mention the state’s 15,500-plus youth in foster care in his speech,  but he included three child welfare-related proposals in a longer list of written proposals released yesterday.

Race-Blind Decisions on Removing Children from Parents

Racial disparities in the number of youth removed into foster care is one of the most hotly contested issues in child welfare, especially for Native American and African American families. A recent report from the Cuomo Administration characterized the disparities as “extreme” in 19 counties, including New York City and Westchester.

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Cuomo proposes a fix adapted from an experiment conducted by Nassau County officials last decade. The Long Island county’s social services agency had an especially severe overrepresentation of black children in foster care when administrators tried implementing a “race-blind” removal process in 2010.

The process required frontline child welfare investigators to redact racial data from case files they presented to supervisors, who had final say on whether they would seek a judge’s approval to place a child in foster care. The county saw a steady, modest drop in the overrepresentation of black youth in foster care in the years that followed.

The Chronicle of Social Change highlighted the idea in a feature published in partnership with the magazine Washington Monthly, after Florida State researcher Jessica Pryce further popularized the idea in a widely viewed TED Talk. The state’s Office of Children and Family Services office has also promoted the idea for other counties.

A Kin-first Firewall

This “firewall” would require an extra layer of administrative review before any county foster care agency places a child in the care of strangers. The goal would be to give child welfare supervisors a “second look” at every removal, to check that frontline child abuse and neglect investigators took all possible steps to find relatives or family friends who could care for the child.

“This simple step was tested in successful pilots that resulted in significant increases in kinship placements,” read Cuomo’s press release.

There’s a now-firm consensus within the field of child welfare that relatives and other kinds of close kin (neighbors, mentors, etc.) produce better outcomes for foster youth. There’s also been a 43.5 percent increase in kin foster care placements nationally from 2011 to 2017, according to exclusive data collected from each state by The Chronicle of Social Change.

New York State’s kin placement rate jumped from around 23 percent to 37 percent during that period, but many counties outside New York City still report less than 10 percent of all their foster youth are living with relatives and other kin. The local chapter of the national advocacy group CHAMPs* (short for Children Need Amazing Parents) has been trying to change that.

“We applaud Gov. Cuomo for his commitment to serving children and teens in foster care statewide by instituting a kinship ‘firewall’ to ensure youth in care are placed with a family member or family friend whenever possible,” read a statement from two CHAMPS New York leaders, Families Together CEO Paige Pierce and Kate Breslin, CEO of the Schuyler Center for Analysis and Advocacy.

The American Bar Association’s Center on Children and the Law has promoted the idea of a kin firewall, with 2017 practice recommendations arguing that it can “help ensure caseworkers do not bypass considering family connections and notifying and engaging all known family members before placing children outside their family network.” The federal government touted Denver’s success with such a rule in a 2018 bulletin, too.

New York State AmeriCorps Foster Care Success Program

The new program would allow 50 youth transitioning from foster care the opportunity to participate in AmeriCorps‘ service program, receive intensive and specialized job training, and “wrap-around” supportive services. The goal is to serve youth who are set to age out of the foster care system, and help at least 100 of them achieve “full-time employment or academic study” within three years.

Participants will be offered the opportunity to enroll in the state’s financial aid and school support program for foster youth, the Fostering Youth College Success Initiative (FYCSI), and can become eligible for a federal scholarship for college. Cuomo’s proposal did not detail whether FYCSI would be funded again at $6 million, which foster care agencies and child advocates have pushed hard for since the program began in 2015.

Big-Ticket Items Omitted

None of the governor’s proposals this week will likely amount to significant new, ongoing child welfare costs, which have landed between $2 and $3 billion in recent years. Meanwhile, none of the major child welfare controversies from recent years in New York were addressed, including the state’s funding stream for foster care prevention services, which was cut after the recession and has yet to be fully restored. Breslin and Pierce of CHAMPS also called for the state to continue a $4.5 million transition fund for another two years to help counties prepare for the Family First Prevention Service Act, a federal law set to take effect in New York by the end of 2021. Cuomo did not mention the issue this week.

The governor also did not mention any of several historic reform bills he vetoed last month, which had been approved by wide margins in the state legislature. His veto message on some of those bills — including one that would have made it significantly easier for parents to have their names removed from the state’s child abuse and neglect registry — promised future efforts to address the issues.

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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 100 Articles
New York Editor for The Chronicle of Social Change. Reach him at mfitzgerald@chronicleofsocialchange.org or follow on Twitter at @mchlftzgrld.