Under David Hansell, New York City’s ACS Banks on Role of Data in Child Safety
This March, former Obama administration official David Hansell took the helm of New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS), an agency that had found itself again in turmoil after two high-profile child deaths last year.
In one of the deaths, case workers had searched for two days for a 3-year-old Brooklyn boy, Jaden Jordan, who’d been the subject of an anonymous child abuse report, but whose address they couldn’t find. By the time they located him, it was too late: the child was unconscious and died a short time later. In the second, 6-year-old Harlem boy Zymere Perkins was fatally beaten, although ACS staff had repeatedly visited the child’s home.
Jordan’s death, which the NYC Department of Investigation attributed to inadequate staffing and technology training, wasn’t the only controversy facing the agency in December. During the same month, the state government ordered the city to hire an independent monitor to review ACS’s practices and then-ACS Commissioner Gladys Carrión abruptly resigned.
A lawsuit – initially filed in 2015 by the national child welfare watchdog group A Better Childhood, charged that ACS runs a “dangerous” foster care system — continues to move through the courts. And by February, relatives of one of the children who had died announced their intention to sue.
So when Commissioner Hansell took over in March, he faced an uphill battle in restoring both public confidence in the agency and his staff’s morale.
“I came into this agency after a very difficult period, in the wake of a couple of very tragic and very well-publicized child fatalities last year,” Hansell said. “I felt that my immediate actions here had to focus on restoring public confidence in ACS as an agency that is functioning well … and also reassure the staff that they were operating within a strong organization that had their back, that was stable and that would allow them to do their jobs as professionally as we know they want to.”
Before coming to ACS, Hansell served as acting assistant secretary of the federal Administration for Children and Families under President Obama. Prior to that, he was New York State’s Commissioner of Temporary and Disability Assistance – the first openly gay commissioner in the state.
As he set about trying to restore trust in ACS, Hansell ordered a top-to-bottom management review of the agency. To that end, he drew in part on an assessment of the agency and its child safety practices already underway by Casey Family Programs, the nation’s largest operating foundation focused on foster care.
The Casey report, released this May, counseled strongly against judging an agency’s overall safety on the basis of the number of child fatalities that happened on its watch.
“As often is observed,” the report’s authors wrote, “reactive and punitive action following high-profile tragedies contributes to fear-based decisions and an increased number of children removed and placed in foster care. In addition, it overloads the system and the staff, leading to poor staff morale and high turnover rates.”
Casey found that ACS was performing well on a number of counts, particularly its data collection and utilization practices — an area where the report called ACS “a national model.”
That’s a strength Hansell seems determined to cultivate further, particularly by strengthening the agency’s CHILD-STAT program, a data system inaugurated more than a decade ago after another high-profile child fatality. It includes weekly review sessions where ACS staff look in-depth at a single, randomly selected high-risk case.
“I’m a big believer in using data to support program improvement,” said Hansell, who has used a similar program at the NYC Human Resources Administration. “And for me, CHILD-STAT is one of the most powerful mechanisms we have for doing that.”
Under Hansell’s predecessor, some reports indicated that the program’s prominence had lapsed. A New York Post series citing three anonymous city officials charged that Commissioner Carrión had failed to attend most case review meetings since she began her tenure in 2014. At the time, an ACS spokesperson said that Carrión only “rarely” had missed such meetings.
But in his first months, Hansell had staff overhaul the system, selecting elements from past iterations of the program and developing new practices. The new CHILD-STAT includes a particular emphasis on the weekly review sessions of high-risk cases; the regular participation of executive leadership; increased focus on accountability throughout the agency; follow-ups to ensure that meetings result in real change; and ensuring that all borough offices are able to participate in the meetings by broadcasting them via closed-circuit video.
“Out of all those elements we came up with a model that I think balances well the need to be rigorous about how we use data to drive our thinking, analysis and performance improvement, but not [to use it] punitively — not use data in a way that results in punishment or disciplinary action,” Hansell said. “That’s not what CHILD-STAT is about.”
Hansell said that caseworkers whose investigations are under review will not be singled out for criticism — something he described as part of creating a “safety culture” at the agency, where staff members feel secure enough to discuss what is and isn’t working.
Simply looking to high-tech solutions isn’t enough to address all of the needs of the agency, Hansell acknowledged. In CPS agencies around the country, over-quota caseloads and harried caseworkers is a perennial problem.
“It’s not a substitute for addressing some of the underlying issues that affect the ability of the frontline staff to do their work well,” he said.
After shadowing frontline CPS workers — at town hall meetings, in borough offices and through investigations — Hansell said the agency has made “major investments” in new technology and is considering changes to staffing, organizational structure and training programs. To that end, Mayor Bill de Blasio has heavily reinvested in ACS, adding $122 million in funding, which allowed the agency to hire 600 new caseworkers last year.
A broader part of his approach, Hansell explained, is making sure that stakeholder communities are represented in discussions about their needs. That is a lesson he learned from the earliest days of his career as an activist with the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, where he worked with the neglected victims of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in 1980s and 1990s New York.
“What I bring to this from the HIV days was a real appreciation of how important it is that government respond well to the needs of vulnerable communities, having worked on HIV at a time when government did not do that,” he said. “That stamped me indelibly with an appreciation of how important it is that government learn from communities about what their needs are and making sure they’re responding in a way that’s helpful.”
One example of that approach, he said, is in the new foster care task force that ACS launched in the last week of June. The group is a collaboration between the city and city council, and includes foster care providers and former foster children.
Casey’s report suggests that the agency’s efforts at inclusion must go farther. Its “paramount recommendation” to ACS was to “develop an all-out cross-agency effort to improve child safety” by better integrating ACS’s work with other city agencies and programs, such as collaborations with public nurses and healthcare providers to be alert to child safety warning signs.
While Hansell was unable to comment on the lawsuit ACS is currently facing from A Better Childhood, he disputed the characterization of the agency as dangerous. He pointed to the dramatic reduction in the foster care population over the last 25 years — a decline from some 45,000 children in 1993 to around 9,000 today — and the successes of its robust preventive services.
That’s another area where Casey Family Programs acknowledged the agency as a national leader, as ACS funds more than 200 preventive services programs that reach more than 46,000 children and 22,000 families each year.
“We have a larger array of service interventions available to respond to situations in which children may be at risk than we did 10 or 20 years ago, so we have a much better-developed system for dealing with safety and risk than we did,” Hansell said.
But the drop in foster care population is also considered to be at least partly due to a lawsuit brought in 1995 by Marcia Lowry, the current founder and executive director of A Better Childhood, who then headed the legal advocacy group Children’s Rights. Lowry’s lawsuit identified a number of problems at ACS, including failures in abuse and neglect investigations, lacking preventive services and long delays in reunifying children in care with their families or settling them into adoptions. A settlement agreement reached in 1999 provided for the establishment of an independent advisory panel tasked with monitoring the agency’s efforts to reform, and in 2002 that panel recognized the city’s efforts to reduce the foster care population.
“There has been a shift in thinking since the  Marisol lawsuit,” Lowry said, indicating in particular that ACS has “tried to close the front door in some respects with regards to taking children into care.”
But while the number of children entering the system may have decreased, Lowry said, the kids already in the system have remained in care for some of the longest periods in the country. Moreover, she said, “What ACS has really not changed is the issue of accountability.”
Lowry said that as A Better Childhood has recently obtained documents from ACS during the discovery phase of their lawsuit, they have begun to see indications that the agency is responding to both external and internal scrutiny of its practices.
“There’s a lot of conversation going on at the agency.” But, she continued, “Whether it will amount to anything is too early to say.”
Hansell acknowledged that despite the agency’s strong record on preventive services and its progress on promoting kinship guardianships (which increased 25 percent last year) there’s more work to be done.
“That’s not to mean there aren’t places where we have opportunities to improve our program,” said Hansell. “We absolutely do. But I think the direction in which we’re moving is the correct one and I think the data supports that.”
Kathryn Joyce is the author of The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking and the New Gospel of Adoption and Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement. Her work has appeared in Highline, Pacific Standard, The New Republic and many others.