An influential child welfare foundation has a new diagnosis for what ails New York City’s foster care system. It explains one of the most vexing issues facing youth who have been removed from their parents’ homes due to child abuse or neglect: years-long waits to transition out of foster care and back into a permanent home.
A report released in late May by Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) and the Washington-based Casey Family Programs identified the root of the so-called permanency problem: Paperwork burdens, indecision in the courts, inadequate efforts by nonprofit foster care agencies, and the resistance of parents who have had their children taken away due to mistreatment allegations. New York State ranks near dead last nationally in achieving permanency for youth who have been in foster care at least a year, which has helped prompt intense criticism from public officials, including Letitia James, a state Attorney General candidate and rising star in the Democratic Party.
Usually, the city’s Administration for Children’s Services tries to support families in crisis without putting their kids in foster care. But when the agency does place children, it struggles to find many of them a permanent home quickly, whether that means reunifying with parents, finding an adoptive home, or placements with relatives. The slow pace has created a tier of long-stayers who remain in foster care for more than two years. About half of all New York City foster youth, more than 4,000, are still without a permanent placement after 24 months.
According to ACS officials, the new review with Casey played a significant role in the development of a recently released five-year plan for foster care. Improving the permanency process came in at the top of ACS’ priority list.
At least one longtime ACS critic who played a historic role litigating against the agency feels its plans are not enough.
“I think the city is not headed down the right track talking about these significant steps they need to take,” said Marcia Lowry, founder of the nonprofit litigation firm A Better Childhood, who has spent the past three decades suing state and local child welfare agencies nationwide, including New York. Her organization continues to pursue a class-action suit against the city and state on behalf of 19 foster children, alleging failed oversight throughout the foster care system.
“They are looking around the edges but aren’t confronting it. That’s what our litigation hopes to do — prevent kids from staying in care too long,” Lowry said.
For the new review, Casey and ACS both contributed around 20 staffers to examine case histories for roughly 2,200 kids, in an effort to understand the challenges faced by over 5,000 “long-stayers,” defined as children in foster care for at least two years as of September 2016. The teams discussed cases with the staff of nonprofit family support organizations that handle foster care placements in New York City, and ACS caseworkers and their supervisors.
In New York City and most jurisdictions, foster youth face increasingly negative outcomes in terms of employment, and educational attainment the longer they stay in care. That’s why finding permanent homes for foster youth is a top priority for many advocates and policymakers nationwide. Casey Family Programs has conducted similar studies with the cities of Philadelphia and Houston.
About 41 percent of the cases examined by ACS and Casey, or around 900 young people, had a case plan with a goal of reunification. According to the authors, safety concerns about parents who had mental health or substance abuse issues often prevented reunification in nearly a third of those cases. In nearly 100 cases, parents failed to participate in support services like addiction treatment or parent training offered by ACS.
Roughly 1,100 youth had a case plan with a goal of adoption by either their foster parents or other non-relative adults. Among those cases, incomplete documentation was the most common challenge, entirely in cases where a child has already been legally freed from a biological parent. According to ACS, “the median wait time from freed date to adoption petition filing date is six months, and for some children, it is over a year.”
Many foster care agencies, claims ACS and Casey, are also filing to terminate a parent’s right a child “later than federal guidelines require.” Since the Adoption and Safe Families Act passed in 1997, states are required to file for termination of parental rights (TPR) if a child has been in foster care for 15 of the previous 22 months, although most states have failed to meet that standard. (ASFA does allows states exceptions to the 15-month deadline, which New York has used frequently, with the support of parent advocates who say extended delays can benefit the goal of reunifying biological families.)*
Slowdowns in the parental termination process in court are frequent, the report said, with scheduling conflicts, or judges sometimes requesting delays. For nearly a third of the 600 cases the review examined where parental rights had been terminated, nonprofit foster care agencies were blamed for lengthy delays in completing paperwork — a median of six months.
Youth who are due to be placed with close relatives or family friends, known as kincare arrangements, frequently suffer a similar fate at the hands of nonprofit foster care agencies. It took an average of six months for ACS to receive a so-called kinship care Guardianship Assistance Payment (KinGAP) application–for reimbursements to the relatives who take a child into their home–after the KinGAP plan was decided upon. That was by far the most common delay (42 cases reviewed) to permanency for the 200-some youth with such a plan.
Not everyone agrees permanency is the biggest challenge facing New York City’s child welfare system.
“I understand the handwringing that goes on about permanency from a policy and fiscal perspective, but from what I know, in New York we rank low partly because we try hard to make sure that the only children adopted are the ones who really can’t go home safely,” said Michele Cortese, executive director of the Center for Family Representation, a New York City nonprofit legal defense firm for parents. “There’s a lot more up-front work happening here to safely reunite families whenever possible.”
For other prominent city officials, though, permanency has been a top issue. Letitia James, the New York City public advocate and current top contender to replace ousted State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, significantly raised her profile in 2015 when she partnered with Lowry on the lawsuit against the city and state. Among that group were children who had remained in foster care for several years.
James and Lowry reached a settlement with New York State on the case, but a judge rejected it in 2016.
*This post was updated on Friday, September 21 to include context about New York’s use of exceptions to the Adoption and Safe Family Act’s 15-month deadline.