New York City Councilman Stephen Levin (D) is an unlikely foster care system watchdog. His council district encompasses upscale Brooklyn enclaves like Williamsburg, Brooklyn Heights and DUMBO – neighborhoods that send relatively few children into foster placements – yet he chairs the council committee with oversight of the city’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS), one of the largest local child welfare agencies in the country.
As chair of the General Welfare Committee, Levin helped create a task force that produced more than a dozen recommendations earlier this year for improving the quality of foster care. In the wake of a late-November hearing on the increase in emergency removals of children from their families, Levin sat down with The Chronicle in his lower Manhattan office. We discussed his role overseeing an intensely scrutinized, widely misunderstood government function, reforms he’d like to see to the child welfare system, and his evaluation of the performance of ACS’ leadership, including Commissioner David Hansell, who was appointed in early 2017 by Mayor Bill De Blasio.
Unlike some of Levin’s colleagues in city government – now-former Department of Investigations (DOI) Commissioner Mark Peters and Comptroller Scott Stringer both recently released criticism of ACS – Levin praised Hansell’s leadership. But Levin also said he believes the agency needs to be in a state of constant reform: He’d like to see earlier support for parents who are accused of child abuse and neglect, in the form of guidance from peers who have been through the investigative process, and expanded housing support for youth aging out of foster care.
ACS is responsible for the well-being of more than 8,000 foster youth, and answers to many other institutions: the state’s Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS), the OCFS-appointed independent monitor Kroll Associates, the city Public Advocate’s office, the city and state comptrollers, the city’s Department of Investigation. Not to mention the mayor, and the federal government’s Children’s Bureau. Where does your General Welfare Committee fit in all of this, overseeing ACS?
We do it through hearings – we don’t have a team of investigators like DOI and we don’t have auditors like the comptrollers’ offices. So we have at least one, if not two, hearings per month, focused on either ACS, the Department of Homeless Services, or the Human Resources Administration.
One thing that is a challenge with overseeing ACS: It is hard in a city of 8.5 million to guarantee there will never be a tragedy. We try not to conduct hearings that are meant to bring attention to us at the council, or seek attention for ourselves. At the same time, when there are high profile child fatalities in New York City, often in the wake of those tragedies, major case practice or policy issues arise. The Jaden Jordan case – a child that was killed [in late 2016] by his caretaker – exposed that the overnight and weekend CPS office that handles emergencies was understaffed. We want to make sure we are examining what’s happening and where the gaps are, but at the same time not seeking to exploit any of these tragedies. I want to be very clear about coming in and making sure we don’t do that.
Do you think that other actors in the system do exploit those tragedies?
No, I just wanted to make sure we didn’t do that. That doesn’t mean we won’t have a hearing in the wake of a tragedy around the circumstances. But ACS has to be in an almost constant state of reform. They should not just be reactive to those tragedies. There should be a mechanism in place – and I think Commissioner David Hansell has done a pretty good job with this – of constant rigorous self-examination as an agency around case practice, and minimizing making the wrong decisions.
What else is Hansell getting right?
One thing I was happy about was David Hansell bringing back CHILD-STAT, which is designed to present a random real-life case for scrutinized review. Not in a punitive way, and without adding new stress for caseworkers. But to use a teaching example in a rigorous way. I think that’s very good and can be useful.
Have you ever done a ride-along with a caseworker who is investigating a child abuse or neglect allegation?
I have not, but I probably should.
How often do you visit Family Court to hear a proceeding against a parent formally accused by ACS of child abuse or neglect?
A couple times each year. I’ve recently gone to a case where the parents invited me. I was there last week.
My big takeaway is the level of passion. The parents, lawyers, everyone in the room – the volume of voices was actually striking. This was not a detached academic exercise. This was very passionate arguing. My sense is that’s the case most of the time.
I hear a lot of stories about teens leaving foster care, aging out of the system without finding a permanent home, and ending up homeless or in a food pantry. What can we do for them?
One thing we fought for last year, and ACS ended up doing through a rule change: Youth that are aging out of care should be able to count their time in foster care as time living in a shelter, so they can qualify for housing vouchers. ACS just implemented this rule, and I’m giving them a little bit of time to implement it.
I rarely lose my temper, but when I do it’s about this issue – someone being told they aren’t homeless enough, because they are sleeping on the floor somewhere – whether they are foster youth are not. That makes me pretty mad. We have been their guardians for however long they were in foster care, and we have a responsibility to them.
ACS is preparing to reissue its contracts with nonprofits, system-wide, for the first time in many years. Dozens of agencies serving foster youth, or families at-risk of losing their child to foster care, will be re-evaluating how they do this high-stakes work for ACS. Is your committee involved in how ACS is preparing the request-for-proposals? How is that process going?
It seems to be going OK in terms of the feedback I’m getting from ACS’s nonprofit providers – which is in contrast to what I hear from homeless providers [overseen by the Department of Homeless Services]. We had this “model budget” exercise with nonprofits, where they detail what they expect their budgets to look like, and each city agency had its own way of doing this. I uniformly heard from ACS-contracted agencies that it was a good process last year. And I heard almost universally the opposite from agencies working on homelessness.
What I will say about Commissioner Hansell – he’s very good at system management, and I think that’s been really good for the agency. He’s been good at keeping what’s a very large bureaucracy moving in a balanced way.
Others in the city have had much sharper comments for ACS lately. Where do you see the most room for improvement or reform?
An area I think we can do a lot better is engaging with parents in the child welfare system in meaningful ways earlier on in the child abuse and neglect investigative process.
As it is now, it’s not very effective. Many accused parents don’t have a parent advocate with them at their first “safety conference” with ACS.* That’s an issue: Parents need to know their rights. The level of panic that would come upon me if someone called New York’s child maltreatment hotline on my daughter and had ACS knocking on my door asking questions about my parenting – I don’t know if I’d be able to function properly.
At the legal aid firm Brooklyn Defender Services for example, as I understand it, you can tell their social workers something, there’s some confidentiality. If you tell a parent advocate who is contracted through a nonprofit like JCCA [which contracts with ACS to provide parent advocates] you don’t have the same level of confidentiality. You might not be able to admit you went downstairs to pick up the paper and ran into a neighbor and left your child alone for 10 minutes. That’s the kind of thing you couldn’t tell a parent advocate and expect it to be held in confidence.
*[Ed. Note: Parent advocates, sometimes referred to as peer advocates, have experienced an ACS investigation themselves and offer guidance and support to parents currently under investigation. ACS currently contracts with nonprofits to provide this service to some parents. Some of the city’s legal aid firms provide clients with this service.]
Is that something you would push for legislation around? A mandated peer or parent advocate that is independent of ACS?
We’ve talked about doing an initiative out of the council as a pilot. But I don’t know. The City Council has a limited jurisdiction, and we are often preempted by state legislation, or curtailed by the city charter in our relationship with the executive branch [where ACS resides]. There’s things we can’t do by legislation, but maybe this is something we can do, like how we established a right to counsel in Housing Court.
The number of [child abuse and neglect allegations] has gone up, and the number of cases that have been referred to Family Court has gone up significantly. Beyond the legal representation parents get, there’s a gap in engagement and level of service before they get legal representation.
I think there’s a lot more to do there. It’s a difficult conversation to have with ACS. But it goes back to that constant self-examination, in a way that is both centered around data but also talking about some things that aren’t data quantifiable. If you are looking at data you will absolutely miss real-life stories. We are talking about people’s lives.
Taking a big step back, ACS has among the most awesome powers in city government. Beyond arresting or incarcerating people, removing your child from you is a frightening level of power. Not that ACS misemploys that, but the level of power itself is pretty staggering, if you think about it.
It’s 2050, Chuck Schumer is 100 years old and has finally retired, and you’re the new United States Senator for the State of New York. Have you thought about what kind of change you would seek to the whole system, nationwide?
We really need to make sure that whatever great ideas are out there – new programs, identifying where needs are, mental health services, counseling and therapy – if those are just ideas because they can’t get funded, they won’t make any impact. So, ultimately, we need the federal government and states do these things on a big scale. New York City can do a lot of that because we have a budget bigger than most states. But in other places, the only way you can bring a lot of this to scale is with federal support.
I’ve gone through this Bloomberg-era, data-driven, austerity-light. We were cutting funding all over the place. We need to hear from providers who are doing the work about what could actually have a meaningful impact on the children we’re working with, and have more of an organic way of figuring out what ideas are worth pursuing. Data doesn’t necessarily see the whole picture.