On a recent Tuesday in New York City’s Hunts Point neighborhood, Emily Lopez directs a visitor to the “selfie chair,” a large plastic throne in this new family center’s sunny atrium, perfect for impromptu Instagramming. The walls are painted a crisp white, and sunlight slants down from wide windows near the high ceilings, landing on black-and-white photographs of protests from this waterfront Bronx neighborhood’s rich history of activism. Colorful posters urge visitors to believe in themselves and their community.
“Our space is your space. When someone walks in, we greet them. We’re not taking notes, we’re not asking a lot of personal questions or judging you,” says Lopez, director of this novel support program operated by the family and youth services nonprofit Graham Windham, which has contracted with the city’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) to help stem the tide of child abuse referrals.
ACS is mostly known to Hunts Point residents for its child abuse and neglect investigations, and citywide for a pair of high-profile child deaths in 2016 that led to the resignation of the agency’s then-commissioner, Gladys Carrión. The so-called Family Enrichment Center that Lopez is helping run, though, is a warm-and-fuzzy departure: It’s one of three just-launched, ACS-funded pilot programs that will reach deep into struggling communities to offer a friendly hand to anyone who needs it, with no strings attached.
The airy, uncluttered space is more like an all-purpose community center than the typical government social service office. The staff may offer space for block associations to hold meetings, direct single mothers to daycare resources while their babies play with toys, help semi-homeless young men fill out public housing applications on computers, or even let senior citizens doze in easy chairs. Above all, the centers aim to promote positivity, community mindedness, and family togetherness — and whatever else the community asks the staff for.
While the city has long experimented with preventing children from entering foster care after their parent has been accused of wrongdoing, this latest initiative aims to stop abuse from happening in the first place. Each of the three new sites are located in neighborhoods where families have a heightened risk of being referred to ACS for child abuse or neglect.
“Our job is just to make sure you have a place to be free, from whatever chaos,” said Leonor Solano, a Graham Windham staffer at O.U.R. Place. “We can give you whatever resource every time you come to us, but it’s not our place to tell you when to start. Whenever you are ready to do something, you’ll do that.”
Nationwide, much of the funding for the child welfare system is geared toward investigations and foster care placements. Agencies like the Administration for Children’s Services, therefore, are incentivized to prevent child mistreatment primarily by separating children from accused families — even when support services might suffice.
New York has long tried to be different: It has spent more than most states on so-called prevention services, and the city’s foster care population has shrunk dramatically — from more than 50,000 kids in the 1990s to around 9,000 today — and continues to decline now while national totals trend upward.
These centers will help the city reach struggling families sooner than ever, the theory goes — but only if they can convince communities they aren’t just another form of surveillance for poor, minority families. A key component of this work is contracting with nonprofits to do the work and keeping quiet ACS’ funding, divorcing the initiative from the perception that the agency’s child abuse investigators are “baby snatchers.”
“What makes Family Enrichment Centers special is that community members and parents decide which services they need the most. These centers are part of ACS’ mission to support families without any involvement in the child welfare system, and provide them with the services they need in order to thrive. The FECs are operated by nonprofit providers, not by ACS, and accessing their services is completely voluntary,” said ACS Commissioner David Hansell, who was appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio to replace Carrión last year, in a recent statement.
The name and design of the facility, and the services offered were conceived by members of the community. (The O.U.R. acronym stands for “Organizing to be United and Resilient.”) Like two other nonprofits that have partnered with the city to open these spaces, Graham Windham will offer an open-ended range of services — information about city services and programs, space for community meetings, computers to use, or just someone to talk to.
“We have found across all our programs that a lot of parents who get themselves in a tough situation, who are struggling to care for their children safely — they are under enormous stress alone,” says Jess Dannhauser, president of Graham Windham. “The idea is for this to be a really peaceful environment, a really attractive place to network, without feeling singled out.”
O.U.R Place is a sign of how much has changed for parents who get accused of mistreating their children in New York City. Compared to 30 years ago, there’s a higher chance that city investigators will offer families services like substance abuse treatment or parenting skills classes to help keep families together. Such programs served nearly 20,000 families last year, aiming to reach them before their situation — dilapidated housing, emotional instability as a result of past trauma — deteriorated beyond repair.
Despite ACS’ intention with these programs to reduce the number of families who become seriously involved with the child welfare system, some family advocates are still wary of the centers’ surveillance potential. Like most other social service providers, including teachers and doctors, all of the staff will be “mandated reporters,” with elevated responsibility under the law to inform the state anytime they believe a child is being mistreated by their parents.
“[Family Enrichment Centers] are just another way for the city to keep an eye on people,” says Joyce McMillan, executive director of the advocacy group CWOP, which has been a vocal force for the rights of parents under investigation by the child welfare system since the 1990s.
ACS has acknowledged the fine line the enrichment center staffers will walk.
“The goal is to not make this a place where they can drum up referrals to ACS,” said Kailey Burger, assistant commissioner for Community Based Strategies in the Division of Preventive Services, in an interview last year with Rise Magazine. “But the staff are mandated reporters. They have to report imminent risk to a child. There will be transparency about that.”
Other prominent advocates for parents who spoke to The Chronicle of Social Change had a harder time seeing much to worry about with the kind of early-stage prevention efforts they’ve always lobbied for.
“I’m not one of these people that say ACS is so tainted that it should not be moving in this direction. The agency is punitive towards families now and perceived as that, but that’s not a reason for me not to applaud this kind of important change,” said Marty Guggenheim, a Fiorello LaGuardia professor of Clinical Law at New York University, family law expert, and frequent critic of ACS.
Neighboring New Jersey created a network of dozens of Family Success Centers that served as a model for the three new facilities in New York. Diana Autin, a long-time advocate for parents rights in New Jersey and the co-director of the Statewide Parent Advocacy Network (SPAN), which helped design the Success Centers, shared Guggenheim’s enthusiasm for the general approach.
“Any government agency that funds this kind of work brings some problems with it. But if you’re funding a nonprofit organization, I believe it’s better than the agency doing it itself,” said Autin, who partly attributes New Jersey’s recent drop in child removals –a 30 percent decline between 2012 and 2017 – to the Family Success Centers.
Three nonprofits will contract with the city to conduct the pilots: Graham Windham (serving the Bronx), Good Shepherd Services (in south Brooklyn), and the Bridgebuilders Community Partnership (the Bronx). Each site will receive $450,000 in funding per year from the city, for a total of $1.35 million.