The portion of youth in foster care who are eventually reunited with their biological families has been plummeting in New York City, according to a Chronicle of Social Change review of data from the city’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS).
The city reunified 68 percent of the children who exited foster care in 2010. By 2016, 53 percent of exiting youth went back to their parents. But while the idea of fewer children returning home sounds worrisome, ACS officials say it’s due to improved efforts to keep families together in the first place, before a child gets removed due to child abuse or neglect allegations made against their parents.
Family reunification is a top priority for child welfare advocates. Policymakers and experts mostly agree that the sooner foster children can be safely returned to their original families, the better.
But the decision is rarely clean cut. Children are only supposed to be removed from their homes if a caseworker can convince a judge there’s credible evidence the child is in danger at home.
The number of youth in New York City foster care – one of the country’s largest – has declined dramatically and steadily since the late 1990s. Yet, the decline in family reunification appears to have outpaced that number. In 2010, 5,410 foster youth were reunited with their parents, out of 6,797 kids who left foster care overall. In 2016, only 2,465 kids were reunited with parents, out of 4,632 kids leaving foster care. That’s an almost 54 percent decline in the number of foster youth reunited with parents, compared to only a 38 percent decline in the number of youth in care (from 14,439 to 8,877).
Most youth who exit care without being reunified are adopted are taken in by close relatives, or age out of the foster care system at age 18.
ACS leadership says the lower reunification rate can be traced to better efforts on the part of the agency to help families without relying on foster care.
“A big piece behind that change is a reduction in very short term-removals — meaning, children who were just removed [from their families] for a few days or few weeks, then returned to their homes, said Eric Ferrero, a Deputy Commissioner for ACS. “In 2010 and years before that, there were large numbers of short-term removals. Children who have issues that can be resolved quickly are being removed less often — those issues are being resolved in other ways — and therefore the reunification numbers are also going down.”
Those “other ways,” Ferrero explained, included so-called preventive services his agency offers struggling families.
Given the stakes for everyone involved, states and counties that administer foster care almost always offer training and resources to parents they’ve investigated for child maltreatment. For example, a parent with an opioid problem might be offered addiction treatment, and enrollment in a parenting skills training course. The goal is to help those accused of exceptionally bad parenting to meet the government’s standards for “good parenting” as soon as possible.
“This is a reflection of our increased investment in preventive services over the last several years, more than anything else,” Fererro said. “Kids and families receiving preventive services who, prior to 2010, were more likely to have their child removed.”
Under New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year, state funding for those services — would be capped for the first time since the state started its match program in 2002. The State Assembly and Senate are currently debating the proposal, which advocates in New York City have sharply criticized.
On the other hand, the Family First Prevention Services Act created a new option for states to access federal funds for some preventive services in time-limited circumstances. The state has opposed the law due to other provisions, and may seek permission to delay implementation, stalling its access to those funds.
The state’s budget will be settled in the coming weeks, while the Family First Prevention Services Act would begin to go into effect in October of 2019.