Years before New York State Attorney General Letitia James sued President Donald Trump over his charity’s alleged misdeeds, she was an ambitious New York City watchdog pressuring the city to do more for foster youth. James was especially concerned about the length of time youth were spending in foster care, waiting for a permanent home.
“I am here for the residents and for the young people who I constantly meet in shelters, on the street sleeping, in New York City, who unfortunately are lost and have aged out of the foster care system,” she told New York City council in a 2016 hearing, in her previous job as the city’s elected public advocate.
One of the former foster youth who testified to the council later that day drove home her point:
“It is virtually impossible to focus on getting a job, ascertaining some form of education, if you are stuck on survival mode, if you have no idea what you’re going to eat today, and where you’re going to sleep for the night.”
Now, in a report soon to be released by the city’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) – prompted partly by James’ prodding and a bill introduced at the time by City Councilman Stephen Levin – the child welfare agency says it has “significantly improved New York City’s foster care system,” with dramatic reductions in the time youth are spending in care.
“We are continuing and expanding the strategies that have proven effective – including our major initiatives that are reducing length of stay in foster care, recruiting high-quality foster homes and improving the experience youth have in foster care, and implementing new strategies and expanded services,” writes the Mayor Bill de Blasio-appointed ACS Commissioner David Hansell, in the report.
According to the report, a third-year update to a 2016 strategy document, the number of youth in care reached an all-time low of 8,300 at the end of the 2019 fiscal year, down from 9,900 three years ago and 16,000 a decade ago. The number of children in care for two years or longer has dropped by 22 percent since the 2017 fiscal year.
Overall, the report points out, youth are spending about 50 fewer days in care, a finding that first appeared in an independent evaluation released this summer by the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall. Meanwhile, the number of foster homes newly certified by ACS this year marks a 50 percent increase from 2017, reversing a six-year decline.
The report presents a stark contrast with some outside evaluations of the agency’s performance since 2015, beginning with James filing (and eventually withdrawing from) a class-action lawsuit against the city and state on behalf of foster youth. The Department of Investigation and the City Comptroller have also released reports sharply critical of the foster care system, and a family court judge held Commissioner Hansell in contempt over the treatment of a disabled foster youth living in a troubled short-term intake center. Advocates for parents involved with ACS, meanwhile, have criticized the agency’s significant expansion of court-ordered supervision for accused parents.
Yet Hansell, who was appointed in early 2017, has initiated or continued efforts begun by his predecessors that target some of the issues raised by outside parties. That includes implementation of a federal waiver that allowed foster care agencies to hire more foster care case planners, lowering caseloads; and a foundation-funded effort to train foster home recruiters, which an independent evaluation says dramatically increased foster home recruitment. Hansell also hired specialists in recruiting relatives and family friends to care for youth who are removed from their parents.
“When we put out this blueprint a few years ago, it outlined the key objectives we were striving to hit and the strategies we were going use to hit them. In the big picture, the data shows we’ve been successful,” said Julie Farber, an ACS deputy commissioner overseeing foster care, in a phone interview with The Chronicle of Social Change.
The number of youth in foster care with ACS plummeted even as the number creeped up nationally, driven in part by the opioid crisis. (2018 was the first year since 2012 in which the number of youth in care actually declined, according to federal data.)
Asked if ACS had an explicit goal to reduce foster youth placements, or specific population size goals, Farber replied: “There’s no magic number. What is most important and the way we approach this work is keeping children safe at home with their families whenever that is possible. And when it’s not possible, making those decisions to remove when safety is at risk … All of our work is driven towards seeing how low we can get the foster care population to safely go.”
The new report arrives as the agency is about to re-bid all of its contracts for nonprofits serving foster youth in New York City.
“During the next two years, we will re-vision, re-procure and re-contract the entire foster care system, and will utilize this transformational opportunity to achieve the best possible outcomes for children, youth and families,” wrote Hansell.