Bill Baccaglini spent 20 years working in New York’s state government before taking the helm in 2003 at the New York Foundling, a 147-year-old nonprofit and one of the city’s longest-running providers of youth and family services.
He inherited an organization that had been founded as an orphanage, and was still deeply rooted in congregate care services. Today, Foundling has shifted almost entirely to a focus on home-based services and foster care.
Under Baccaglini, it has shed itself of nearly all its residential care beds in child welfare. While dabbling briefly in the city’s push to keep incarcerated juveniles within the city limits, Foundling’s juvenile justice arm now operates only alternatives to incarceration.
Baccaglini sat down for a phone interview with The Chronicle to talk about Foundling’s changes, foster home recruitment, federal finance reform and the future of juvenile justice in New York.
Chronicle of Social Change: You inherited a $7.5 million deficit when you joined Foundling in 2003. How did you get out of it?
Bill Baccaglini: We had done lot of institutional care. Quite frankly, from a business standpoint, institutional care was really where the money was. Then it found itself in such a predicament, because St. Agatha [its largest institutional setting] was hemorrhaging money.
It provided me with an opportunity, because I always thought congregate care was overvalued. I think in New York State, it’s particularly overvalued. We got out of residential care. We had 240 beds, now we have 20.
CSC: How much cheaper is it for your organization to deliver mental health services in a home setting versus a residential one? You called it “a fraction” in a column you wrote for us, I’m wondering what fraction?
BB: I’d say it’s about 25 percent of the cost.
CSC: And your next priority for Foundling is to improve educational outcomes?
BB: Foundling will engage in nothing going forward that is not related to getting kids educated. The fact that I can keep a kid fed, clothed and housed doesn’t deserve three gold stars.
If they leave our care uneducated, shame on us. They’ll be back in another system or their kids will be.
It borders on criminal, the number of kids discharged from care without a formal education. The only thing sadder than that is the number falling out of college.
CSC: Do you have things already in the works?
BB: We’re opening up a middle school for youth in care, and a high school soon to follow.
We have a million in tutoring services in the city through the Hilton Foundation and some of our own money. And hopefully soon we’ll be operating the first-ever, 40-bed dorm for current and former foster youths on the Queens College campus.
Foster Parent Recruitment
CSC: Has recruiting foster parents in New York become harder, gotten easier or stayed the same?
BB: I think it’s gotten more complicated. We probably have gotten better at matching kids with families, and I think our expectations have increased somewhat. And that has resulted in it being more difficult.
I’m pretty sure of this: Foundling has a higher percentage of foster kids in kinship care than any other agency in New York.
CSC: What are the biggest challenges your staff report in selling people on providing foster homes?
BB: The concerns of a relative foster parent are, ‘What might this do to my relationship with my sister, or daughter or niece?’ That’s always a big consideration.
And another consideration, more so than it is for non-related foster parents, is wanting to know, ‘What’s the end game?’ Because they have some skin in the game if it’s a reasonably intact family.
For non-relatives, it’s no shock to you that today, recruiting for teens is more complicated than it is for toddlers. And I would say that for foster parents, you have to convince them you’re gonna be there for them. They want to be able to believe that someone has got their back.
CSC: National Foster Parent Association Chair Arnie Eby said at a Congressional briefing last week that many foster parents feel stigmatized these days, that “It’s thought of as stealing someone else’s kids.”
That caught me by surprise. Does that resonate with you in New York City?
BB: No. I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around that. I’m as surprised are you are.
CSC: He also said foster parent access to child care should be a top priority of child welfare policy in the country. How do families in your network fare on that?
BB: It has gotten a bit easier in New York, but I share his concern on that. Because most of our foster parents work, most have other jobs. They’re not paying the rent on what we pay them.
CSC: Do you have some ability to fast-track some child care if it’s needed by one of your families?
BB: I could pick up the phone, find out the area, and then find another agency that provides daycare. I wouldn’t say I have a fail-proof way, but yeah, I have some routes.
CSC: What are the one or two things that most need to change about the way the federal government contributes to child welfare funding?
BB: Title IV-E funding needs to be revisited. It is very limited, and it doesn’t pay for services. At all. I just don’t think that’s right.
In New York, the foster care dollar is about 50 cents federal, 25 cents state, 25 cents local. For preventive services, it’s 62 cents of state, 37 cents local, and a penny on the dollar from the feds.
When I was in Albany, we loved IV-B. There just wasn’t much of it! And IV-E is terribly, terribly restrictive.
I also believe, and this is more for CMS [Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services]. As we move more to managed care, they need to get a much deeper appreciation for the chronic users of the system, the most inefficient, chronic users of systems. We keep serving them, but just not enough. We don’t throw enough at it.
CSC: What do you think of the Family First Act, the federal bill that would carve out some funding availability within IV-E for services?
BB: I am hard-pressed to imagine how anyone concerned about making this system more effective and efficient could object to the vast majority of what is contained in the bill.
My concern, and geography often plays a role, is that the treatment of “kin” with respect to the eligibility of service and usage will get compromised as will the rigor in the current language regarding evidence-based practices. As regards kin care, given usage patterns, one might conclude that it is “policy” not to pursue kinship placement in rural and suburban areas.
As regards evidence-based practice, I think we already see the degradation of the concept in many areas. Now, in many areas a pre and post client satisfaction survey constitutes evidence!
In fact, I would shorten the timeframes , increase the incentives and be more restrictive in “allowable services” in an effort to accelerate their adoption. Too often, preventive services are not embraced in suburban/rural areas and, depending upon the service delivery model, funding decisions are impacted by political considerations.
This is not to suggest that urban areas are immune from such practices but their sheer size most often requires that “objective rules” be established to govern most funding decisions.
New York City Child Welfare
CSC: Do you sense a changing nature in the underlying reasons why children come into foster care in New York? Is drugs a bigger or smaller role, violent abuse, etc?
BB: Our foster care numbers haven’t been this low in 40 years. We’ve never seen numbers this low. We’ve just gotten better at preventive services.
Substance abuse and mental illness are the two major drivers of abuse and neglect. Probably more so than in the past, only in terms of the percentage of population.
CSC: What do you make of the recent reports about the Administration for Children’s Services? [Note: A city investigation found that case workers for ACS, which oversees child welfare and juvenile justice in New York City, failed to react appropriately in two cases where children were left with parents and later died.]
BB: I know there are people in the city who think that we should go back to doing quicker removals. I don’t share that opinion.
Any child’s death is a tragedy, and we should not sit idly by. Having said that, it’s a complicated business. What goes unreported are the tens of thousands of children who would have been in foster care.
It’s much like the juvenile justice thing around lowering incarceration. People tend not to focus on the thousands of kids we don’t remove from families.
New York Juvenile Justice
CSC: Speaking of juvenile justice…how much, if any, interaction does your juvenile justice staff have with your child welfare programs? Is there a lot of crossover there?
BB: Constant, because our juvenile justice focus is on alternatives. The populations do not look that dissimilar. We use the same interventions – functional family therapy, multidimensional therapy – in both.
Both groups report up through the same hierarchy here.
CSC: You guys pulled out of a contract with Close to Home, the city’s initiative to keep juveniles who are committed to secure custody within the city limits, or at least nearby.
Would you ever consider getting involved again? Do you have concerns about the idea itself or are there fixable concerns you have with it?
BB: Yes, the problems are addressable and no, we would not get involved again. It’s just not consistent with our culture. We’ve become a community services-based agency. But I think Close to Home is a great idea, and I’m convinced they’ll iron out the wrinkles.
CSC: Do you think New York will raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction in the next five years? You and North Carolina are the only ones left at age 16.
BB: I’ve been so disappointed and frustrated at even the level of discourse on this. If you have a reasonable argument that’s one thing, but the discourse on this thing stinks.
The governor supports it, the Republican Senate doesn’t. It really comes down to how important it is to the governor. I’d like to think he feels strongly enough about it.
CSC: When former Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman presented a plan to raise the age to 18 with the exception of 16- and 17-year-olds accused of violent offenses, many in the advocacy community fought it as not going far enough. Were they right to fight that?
BB: I’d have been more aggressive [than Lippman]. Is it the way I’d have gone about it? No. But that doesn’t mean I was going to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Once it was out there, that’s what we had. I don’t think advocates carried themselves as well as they might have. They take some responsibility for this not having been accomplished yet.