New York City Council questioned the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) this week about a teenager who was left living in a broken wheelchair in a short-term home for foster youth for more than a year. The case resulted in a judge holding ACS Commissioner David Hansell in contempt and ordering his agency to pay the teen over $17,000. As first reported by The Chronicle of Social Change earlier this month, the case also resulted in a confidential state investigation that found signs of systemic neglect at the facility.
On Monday, during a discussion about issues at the Nicholas Scoppetta Children’s Center where the youth was held, Hansell pinned some responsibility on state-run mental health and disability agencies.
“Many of the young people who are [at the Children’s Center] have needs that really should be addressed by other service systems. Some of them have severe mental health or behavioral needs that really ought to be served in programs operated by the state Office of Mental Health (OMH),” Hansell said. “There are some young people there and actually throughout our foster care system who have developmental disabilities, who at the age of 21, are supposed to be the responsibility of the state Office for People with Developmental Disabilities (OPWDD).
“We’ve historically had a difficult time frankly getting those state agencies to take responsibility for young people that really should be served in their systems and not ours.”
In the recent contempt order, the judge states that ACS repeatedly missed deadlines for submitting applications to OPWDD for the youth, identified only as “Kenneth R.” OPWDD and OMH responded to Hansell’s remarks in a joint statement e-mailed to the Chronicle of Social Change:
“In New York City, it is the responsibility of the Administration for Children’s Services to provide residential supports for children in foster care, including those with developmental disabilities and behavioral health issues,” reads the letter. “OPWDD and OMH have been working in collaboration with other state agencies to create a cross-system program for children, including foster children, which will expand access to a wider array of services beginning next month.”
The public city council hearing mostly focused on significant budget cuts to ACS proposed by the mayor, but the chair of the council committee that oversee ACS also announced there will be hearings next month focused on conditions at the Children’s Center. He noted other recent reports of issues at the facility.
“There have been reports of physical fighting and overcrowding at the Children’s Center in Manhattan. Employees have said they are particularly concerned about a dangerous mix of young children and babies with special needs living alongside teens and in some cases even young adults,” said Councilman Stephen Levin, who has led the Committee on General Welfare since 2014. “What’s the status right now? Is there an additional budgetary need here we should be looking at?” Levin went on to ask.
Hansell, in his first extended remarks on these issues, said changes have been made at the facility: Two new higher-level administrators and new security personnel are now working on site, and security protocols were revised. ACS, he said, has also reallocated some foster care slots from standard foster homes to specially trained “therapeutic” foster homes for youth with higher needs. Kenneth R., the youth from the judge’s contempt order, suffered severe spinal and head injuries after being hit by a car several years ago and is reportedly now living in a family home outside of New York City. His court case is ongoing.
Hansell pointed out the agency in litigation with OPWDD over its responsibility for New York City foster youth. (OPWDD declined to comment on the ongoing litigation.) ACS, he said, also is negotiating with OMH and OCFS “to design some new service systems for young people with serious and complicated mental health and behavioral health issues.”
“[The Kenneth R. case] was very concerning and we have done an intensive review of that child’s situation and are developing recommendations for changes in policy and protocol to make sure that never happens again,“ said Hansell, who was appointed to lead ACS in early 2017 in the wake of two child deaths that led to the resignation of his predecessor.
A spike in child and neglect allegations following those deaths continues to stretch the agency’s resources, even as the agency has managed to prevent a decades-long decline in the foster care population from reversing. The city also continues to have a much lower percentage of youth in group homes for foster youth, known as congregate care, which Levin praised on Monday. Hansell suggested youth may be getting stuck at the Children’s Center in part because of the closure of some congregate care beds in the past year and a half.
City councilmembers also frequently praised the agency during the roughly five-hour hearing for significantly decreasing caseloads for caseworkers who investigate child abuse and neglect. The numbers is now down to around 10, below the recommended caseload of 12, according to the most recently available city data.