Rising Ground CEO Discusses Big Child Welfare Merger in New York City Foster Care

Alan Mucatel Rising Ground Leake and Watt

Meredith Barber, Alan Mucatel and José Martin Jara (from left to right) on the steps of New York City City Hall, celebrating the large social services nonprofit Leake and Watts changing its name to Rising Ground. Barber is the senior director for institutional advancement, Mucatel is the executive director, and Martin Jara is the chairman of the organization’s board. Photo by Erminia Fiorino

Two of the larger foster care agencies in New York City announced a merger this summer, in another example of the New York City child welfare industry’s increasing consolidation in response to the plummeting number of city youth in foster care.

The nonprofit Edwin Gould Services for Children and Families will become a subsidiary of Rising Ground, which recently changed its name from Leake and Watts. Together, they will comprise a $130 million, 1,800-employee organization serving tens of thousands of New Yorkers, including nearly 2,000 kids whom either have been removed from their homes by the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) and placed in foster care due to neglect or abuse allegations, or are at risk of being removed.

It’s high-stakes work that occasionally brings intense scrutiny. National media inundated Rising Ground after noticing that the organization was caring for some of the migrant youth who were separated from their parents under the Trump administration’s short-lived “zero tolerance” border policy. But, according to Alan Mucatel, Rising Ground CEO, the attention did little to slow down a merger process that began in earnest around a year ago.

Meanwhile, the city foster care system is moving toward a major pivot point: Many of the hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts with nonprofit service providers will be up for rebidding starting in the middle of 2019.

We spoke with Mucatel in a phone interview about the experience of bringing two major providers together.

Rising Ground Leake Watts Alan Mucatel

Alan Mucatel, executive director of the social services nonprofit Leake and Watts, speaks at the organization’s gala last year. The organization recently changed its name to Rising Ground. Photo by Lynda Shenkman Curtis

How did you end up with Rising Ground, and what’s the organization’s recent history?

I’m a native New Yorker with a 30-year career in human services. Prior to Rising Ground, I was the executive director of Cerebral Palsy of North Jersey for 10 years. But it was very clear in my mind I wanted to return to my city to work on child welfare issues in this community. So when the opportunity to join what was then Leake and Watts – our name changed four months ago – I seized on that opportunity.

We were founded in 1831 and that’s a tremendous legacy. But at the time I arrived we were in a real crisis. We had lost about 170 employees, 80 percent of our programs were in some form of significant corrective action, we’d spent down our endowment, we were in a very challenging spot.

Our turnaround, which took place over several years, is a fascinating story of change for an organization. Not only to the point where we are financially healthy and so many of our government partners turn to us to talk to other organizations that have challenges. We are partners with so many other organizations in trying to advance the work in all of these areas.

Our organization has grown significantly since that time. We were the winner of a nonprofit excellence award. Organization that has had just a huge transformation.

Fast-forward to now: We had opportunities to have conversations with folks at Edwin Gould about where they were looking to head, and the landscape for nonprofit human services agencies. We looked at how a merger may support our focus and direction. That’s a quick summary, but here we are.

How much did the upcoming Request for Proposals (RFP) process, which will have wide-ranging consequences for the system, play in your decision to merge? Is that encouraging consolidation? 

That’s a fair question. I wouldn’t say we started out thinking the RFP is coming, but I would say a couple things drew us to Edwin Gould. The ability to reinforce our commitment to the very first part of the basis of these organizations, which is our child welfare work. We’re no longer an orphanage, but today represented by our family foster care work and preventive services work.

Both organizations also have a very strong presence in services for people with developmental disabilities. Because of that, there were real synergies in those two areas that lead to this merger. That does support our thinking about what we believe the issues ARE not just in child welfare but across the nonprofit human services sector and we think this merger creates an organization that is, we think, much stronger in representing the strongest parts of our services to children and families.

Could you give me a sense of what your annual budget looked like and what it will look like as a result of this merger?

Rising Ground’s budget most recently was $100 million and the budget of Edwin Gould was $30 million, so we’ll be a $130 million organization. It’s across a wide range of services: child welfare, juvenile justice services, services for people with developmental and intellectual disabilities, special education school programs, residential treatment center, mental health services, and a wide array of early childhood services, and services for unaccompanied minor children. It’s a diverse portfolio of services.

What will be the most “new” with Edwin Gould? What component of their work will have been the most unfamiliar to you? 

They have a tremendous presence, a well-regarded body of work in the area of domestic violence – intimate partner violence. Their work there, we are very excited about. First because … the issues around intimate partner violence are so prevalent in the lives of families we support across other work, but also because they are doing such tremendous work on that area. Not only clinical work with survivors, but work with youth in schools helping them to develop long-term positive relationships with others as well as being advocates for themselves as they mature into adulthood.

They do work as well with individuals who have found themselves connected to or engaged with the criminal justice system – not as batterers, but as survivors of intimate partner violence. Folks who survived and then in their defense found themselves in the criminal justice system. It’s a lot of interesting work.

How does the funding picture change? Could you characterize the mix of sources you’ll rely on? 

Already as an organization, Rising Ground’s sources are city contracts in our child welfare work and the like, state funding as well, Medicaid dollars supporting services for people with development disabilities, and direct federal support for our Early Head Start programs or work with unaccompanied children.

What Edwin Gould does – their funding sources are New York City and New York state – proportionately increases that source for us. Of the $30 million, roughly $26 million is foster care and preventive services or services for people with intellectual or developmental disabilities. The new funding source for us is just the intimate partner violence funding.

Obviously the firestorm around the families separated at the border brought tremendous scrutiny. Did you have to delay the merger as you dealt with the merger?

No, actually, honestly not at all. There was a lot of attention paid to us and we welcomed that. We are grateful for the support we received from local government officials, from the community, from our federal partners of course. We were grateful for everybody’s connection and trying to understand the work that was going on and ultimately in terms of new donors and supports.

But in truth, there was a lot of attention paid, media attention that certainly kept us busy for a period of time. But that didn’t change this merger.

The federal funding is much more lucrative for unaccompanied minors than the typical foster care placement, is that right? And is that a growing or shrinking share?

It’s a fully funded program, which we appreciate, and it’s what we always look for: Government to not only be good partners in developing strong partners but also to fully fund the work they are asking us to accomplish. We are grateful to the federal government in that regard.

But I’d be cautious about using the word lucrative. I don’t understand that term. We can’t use those to do something other than the provision of services to unaccompanied minor children. What we are looking for is not having to supplement that funding ourselves, and financially it’s a stronger program in that sense.

What are the key challenges in melding two organizations with such long histories and embedded cultures?

We have been working toward this partnership since almost two years ago and the pace picked up about a year ago. With the formal change of the control where Edwin Gould becomes a subsidiary of Rising Ground, we begin to put in place all the things we talk about.

The work begins today. With everyone to be transparent, to be clear about why we’re doing this, to set a vision for the individual that’s gonna have to happen in terms of our foster care work or work with people with developmental disabilities. We want to appreciate the concerns that primarily staff but also people we support may have about change and make sure we are communicating and listening along the way.

I’ve already started … very focused meetings with staff about where we’re headed, and I’ve been greeted with questions but also excitement. But we’re embarking on a new day for venerable organizations and people are generally excited.

But there’s all the technical stuff – changing domain names on the email addresses and signage to do. There’s so many little things to do from forms that have to be matched up to policy and procedures and contracts that have to be moved and that’s just gonna take time. We just have to log all those things.

[Ed. Note: Redlich Horwitz Foundation, which provides grant support to The Imprint, also contributed $45,000 to the integration of Edwin Gould and Rising Ground. Per our editorial independence policy, the foundation had no role in this story.]

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