City Child Welfare System Continues to Reform, Causing Layoffs

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The city’s child welfare agency is planning a major restructuring of the way it oversees foster care agencies and child abuse prevention programs which serve troubled families. This is the second phase of reforms. Last year the Administration for Children’s Services hired hundreds of caseworkers to investigate abuse and neglect allegations. Now its focusing on kids who’ve already been taken out of homes or who may be on the verge of removal.

The change will mean hundreds of layoffs and the union representing caseworkers is vowing to fight the plan. WNYC’s Cindy Rodriguez reports:

REPORTER: The plan calls for eliminating the jobs of 650 case managers who currently do paper reviews of cases involving children in foster care or families attending child abuse prevention programs. These workers make both big and small decisions about a child’s future such as whether a foster child may go on an out-of-state vacation they also decide whether its time for a child to be put up for adoption. But often these decisions are made without face to face meetings. ACS Commissioner John Mattingly says it’s time to end that practice:

Mattingly: We will sit with the family and the private agency and draft together the plan for the future safety of the youngster. That’s a lot stronger we think than simply sitting at a desk and reviewing more paperwork.

REPORTER: Mattingly plans to hire 500 new staff that would attend conferences every six months with children, their parents, foster parents and foster care workers. The new positions will be higher paid jobs and half of them will require Masters degrees. Mattingly says the current system is too slow to act which means kids stay in foster care too long – an average length of four years. He believes face to face meetings will cut out red tape and move cases along more quickly. Local 371 represents the current case managers. Union Representative Faye Moore says the union only found out about the layoff Tuesday and the city has violated labor laws by not informing them sooner.

Moore: That’s completely, completely wrong in the labor management process. They have an obligation to meet with us anytime they have an initiative that will impact our workers and ACS has done reorganizations with this union before. They know that. They know they are supposed to meet with us before. It’s not an FYI. It’s not a courtesy call.

REPORTER: ACS says the current labor contract gives them the right to manage the agency and no collective bargaining violations have occurred.

Moore says in addition to violationg labor violations the plan is a bad idea because its decreasing the number of people overseeing private agencies. She says case managers at the current levels are already overworked.

About 17-thousand children are currently in foster care in New York City Another 27-thousand receive services through prevention program. The new 500 positions will oversee both groups. ACS says the new system cuts out redundancy and paper work and will save workers time. Andrew White, Director of the Center for New York City Affairs at the New Schoo.l edits a publication called Child Welfare Watch. He praised the new plan and criticized the current system:

White: It’s always been micromanaging the system from a desk. Not from a point where you sit down with the families and talk it through with them.

REPORTER: White says for too long bureaucratic regulations and funding streams from the federal and state government have dictated the way child welfare agencies deal with families:

White: This really is a step away from a bureaucratic driven system to a more flexible creative on the ground kind of system.

REPORTER: In addition to more hands on work. The city is also changing the way it will fund agencies. Its offering them more flexibility. In exchange it wants them to move children out of foster care faster and reduce the number of children it sends to residential treatment centers that offer psychiatric help and other intensive services. The city says these centers which are located outside the city are very expensive and teenagers who are typically hard to place in foster homes are being sent there needlessly. ACS wants foster agencies to try to keep kids in foster homes by providing at home mental health services, tutoring and whatever else might ease the burden on a foster parent struggling with a child. Jim Purcell, from The Council of Family and Child Caring Agencies says doing that will be challenging:

Purcell: I think some kids are very troubled and need the structure of residential care and they will have to continue to get it and that will be one of the key tests of this new plan is whether or not agencies can in fact find ways to reduce those numbers or reduce the time that kids have to be at that higher level of care.

REPORTER: Purcell’s agency represents nearly all privately run foster care and child prevention programs in the city. He says members are cautiously embracing the new plan:

Purcell: The devils in the details and the question of whether the agency can look at these proposals and budgets and find enough money in there to change the way they do some things without taking too much of a risk.

REPORTER: ACS says it will to phase in the changes this summer. Job postings for the new positions will go up soon. The city says case managers will receive lay off notices but will be able to apply for other jobs within the agency or elsewhere within the city.

The Union is exploring options to stop the plan from moving forward.

For WNYC, I’m Cindy Rodriguez