New York City Scrambles for Staffing, Beds for Foster Youth Amid Pandemic

new york city court youth foster plan emergency coronavirus
Family court building in downtown Brooklyn. Credit: City of New York

Panicked over looming staff shortages in foster care group homes, New York City nonprofit leaders spent the week pressuring Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Administration for help. Now, as coronavirus spreads to nearly 5,000 residents, the city’s child welfare agency says it is “aggressively” hunting for space to house youth who are sick or who need to be moved away from ill caretakers.

“We’re exploring options to provide safe placements for youth who may be displaced due to issues related to this pandemic such as group homes and residential programs,” Administration for Children’s Services’ (ACS) press secretary Chanel Caraway stated in an email Friday, a day after the agency sent an emergency memo to nonprofits. 

Nearly two dozen program administrators, attorneys and advocates who spoke to The Chronicle of Social Change this week expressed growing alarm about the ongoing public health crisis creating sudden demand for beds that are already in short supply. The concerns are myriad: If a youth shows coronavirus symptoms, they may need to be moved out of the homes of foster parents who are elderly or infirm. If foster parents fall ill, the city’s dozens of foster care organizations may need to find somewhere else to quickly move the child. 

In group facilities, the challenges are even more grave. 

“Our greatest concern is either an inability to properly staff those locations — because a mass of staff are affected with the coronavirus themselves, quarantined at home,” said Michelle Yanche, executive director of Good Shepherd Services, one of the city’s larger foster care agencies. “Or, would we need to quarantine a whole facility with youth inside?”

Organizations that run residential group facilities have been pushing for flexibility on training and staff-to-youth ratio requirements. 

“What happens if we have a cottage of eight kids and staff are sick and I can’t make the required staff ratios? Am I allowed to have that cottage with eight kids and one staff member?” asked Jeremy Kohomban, executive director of Children’s Village, a large Westchester-based human services nonprofit. “Can I send some kids home to their families if they are not sick, and if they have permission to safely go to their families and also are not sick?”

One solution was offered by multiple directors who spoke to The Chronicle. They hoped to reassign their after-school staff to group homes – employees who are now sidelined by citywide school closures, but haven’t received training now required to work in foster youth group homes. 

 On Sunday, more than 20 child welfare nonprofit leaders sent a letter to the mayor outlining the concerns, an outcry first reported by NBC News. 

It’s the next level of things we’re going to deal with,” de Blasio responded at a press conference earlier this week.

The city’s foster care system has shrunk dramatically since the 1990s — heralded as a signature accomplishment spanning from the Giuliani administration through de Blasio’s. New York’s shrinking foster care population, from 13,000 children in 2012 to 7,700 last December, stands in contrast with a recent uptick in foster care placements nationwide. 

Still, bed capacity is in short supply. The city has been particularly aggressive about downsizing its use of so-called congregate care facilities, which include group homes and specialized residential centers for young people with more intensive therapeutic and medical needs. Only 1,741 children resided in such facilities as of last December, down from nearly 2,300 children in 2012.  

Advocates for parents hope the city considers releasing children in the most precarious positions back to their homes.

“They should be assessing every child in foster care to see if they can go home to their families,” said Lauren Shapiro, director of Brooklyn Defender Services’ practice representing parents accused of child maltreatment. 

As yet, de Blasio’s child welfare agency, headed by commissioner David Hansell, doesn’t appear to be considering that option.

According to the agency’s most recent directive, authored by ACS Deputy Commissioner Julie Farber, residential care providers who have space are being asked to “isolate and care for symptomatic youth.” Providers who don’t have capacity are directed to contact ACS. In all other situations when children have symptoms of the virus, “agencies should work with foster parents to implement measures immediately to separate that individual, as much as practicable, from the rest of the household.”

On Friday, a foster parent described the scene at one nonprofit serving New York youth as complete chaos: “Just walked by an @ACSNYC foster agency and the waiting room was PACKED,” Rebecca Winkel wrote on Twitter. “Kids being moved with their Chinese laundry bags. So freaking depressing.”

Michael Fitzgerald can be reached at mfitzgerald@chronicleofsocialchange.org. 

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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.