Working on cases of child abuse or neglect may be one of the hardest jobs in government. Managing one of the largest local agencies that employs those workers is not far behind.
John Mattingly lasted seven years in that position under former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, presiding over the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) until the summer of 2011. Under his watch, the number of children in foster care plummeted, and the agency implemented a pioneering data tracking system called ChildSTAT. ACS also assumed control of the city’s juvenile justice system toward the end of his tenure.
Before joining the Bloomberg administration, Mattingly was a key player in the reform of New York City child welfare and several other states and counties, helping lead the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s influential child welfare reform initiatives.
Mattingly left ACS under a cloud of critical press reports following the death of a child known to his agency, though there was no discernable upward trend in the number of maltreatment-related child deaths in the city. He continues to informally advise agency chiefs nationwide as an independent consultant.
The Imprint spoke to Mattingly about running a big-city child welfare system, the new federal overhaul of child welfare financing, and how New York finally right-sized its juvenile justice system.
What do most people not know about child welfare agencies that they should know?
There is a misunderstanding of what drives these agencies. I’ve mostly worked with families in big cities, but I’ve worked in a lot of smaller counties, too. What drives them is not the usual public sense of it: That there’s a liberal approach which is prevention, early intervention, family-centered work, and there is a more conservative approach — which is our first job — to protect children.
When you watch the work go on — I used to go out on weekends and do emergency calls at night — you get a different sense. These workers on the frontline are primarily trying to survive, sometimes with way too many cases. They are expected to go in, interview, get out, write it up. Make a decision. Five days per week it’s hard to do that, and you won’t get it all done.
Up the chain, think about the supervisors. They usually have six or seven caseworkers, each has 20-25 cases, maybe 35 depending on where. So when directors come in, saying there’s big change coming after a death, usually, they say they are gonna get control of this and show people how to make decisions. There are fundamental issues about child support and welfare, but you’d be wrong if you think that’s what drives what goes on. Constant turnover of the directors leads to nothing changing.
I think the general battle between these two sides is beside the point. You won’t get fundamental change and better practice if you don’t focus on that 24-year-old who has been there for six months who has to go out and convince someone who doesn’t want to talk to them, to let them talk to their kids, and who has to get information and make a judgment and write the whole thing up.
You need principles, but first you need to get the job done — hire enough workers, train them and supervise them right, and give them principles to work with, then you carefully monitor how things have going on.
That’s what ChildSTAT was about and what I hope it is still about.
Did ChildSTAT live up to your hopes?
I haven’t seen it since I left. It had a ways to go, certainly, but given who [Current ACS Commissioner] David Hansell has working on it, it’s probably progressing.
I modeled it on NYPD’s COMPSTAT. But you can’t run a child welfare agency based on police principles. Those guys would fire a captain on the spot if they didn’t like how he described a case; you can’t do that in child welfare. ChildSTAT gives you options: you look at data, gather data how a particular office is operating, then you have to figure out what the data are that are important.
We started looking at the number of investigation cases, opened up after a prior investigation had been closed. The larger the number of cases that were re-opened after you said no problem, showed you, you were wrong. That’s how you can move an agency somewhat.
One of my top deputies — we were shocked by some things, things like caseworkers thinking they had to read the complaint report from the state to the parent before they started anything — that’s how they opened anything, telling parents what the accuser said they did wrong. That is not required by the law. I asked them why they think that, and it turns out the legal department had told them that forever ago.
When they saw us, me or my deputies focusing on good practice, that was enlightenment to them; they don’t believe leaders give a damn, unless you show them.
How did New York’s focus on prevention services expand?
It goes all the way back to the 1960s. The city got funding for services for families before they got too deep into the system, and it was a lot of money — cut back periodically over time, but it was the largest public funded support work for families anywhere in the country. In the late 1960s, as you can understand, this was not really prevention, this was early intervention, if a family was referred and you found out they were neglecting their children and you felt like they could use help.
More recently, when I was on a panel closing out Marcia Lowry’s lawsuit, the nonprofit agencies didn’t much like ACS and didn’t like how they were treated or paid attention to. ACS knew that it had a number of very large agencies doing prevention all around the city that were, when they looked at a case, they weren’t doing much work at all. ACS for whatever reason very rarely took action against an agency to close them down or take all their cases away.
We closed a lot of agencies, we brought in, I hope, better agencies. Many of them were adapting to proven programs with evidence in the field that it works.
One big part of the Family First Prevention Services Act, which passed this year, is to limit federal support for congregate care settings. Is the act too restrictive in your view?
Yeah, especially about institutional placements, and that’s where the rubber hits the road. I’ve been less than supportive of many general child-care institutions my entire career, I don’t think they are the best thing for children.
But there are some very troubled kids who need intervention away from home — just far fewer of them than we’ve used. We’ve used them more than we’ve needed because those tend to be kids that are more trouble and cause more problems for a family, and if you don’t have an agency to support those families to hold onto those kids — if they call up at midnight and the agency has no one but guards on duty, then they say, ‘call cops.’
There is a whole issue with length of placement, too. Kids get sent away, but institutions hold on to them, generally, and no one is pressing hard to get them out again, no one is even showing progress or lack of progress. Kids get stuck. You’ve got kids growing up in these places, even when they are well run.
Adoption subsidies have become an issue of late in New York, with some advocates and legislators wanting more monitoring of families that get them. Did that problem exist for you?
I am torn about it. Our experience indicated some kind of review of the financial situation would have helped us determine that an adoptive parent was not caring for their kids. We found out that in trying to address this in some reasonable fashion, the adoption community was very strong.
It just doesn’t feel right to me to never look again to make sure a family is safe or spending the money on the children. But adoption people are completely against it.
A Florida case called all this — a New York City woman under various names with different private agencies adopted different special needs children, very good reputation here, known to take in desperately ill children. She got 10 of them then moved to Florida and never took care of them again, left them chained up during the day, took in substantial funds.
ACS has been overseeing juvenile justice in New York City since the beginning of this decade, and the entire state is finally about to move most of its 16- and 17-year olds to the juvenile justice system. How did New York government finally come around to this reform sought by advocates nationwide for years?
By the late 2000s, we were already sending fewer New York City kids into distant upstate facilities for delinquent kids. These were little Atticas — just about all in rural communities, usually the biggest employer in the county, and they got away with just about anything, just like at Attica. [Attica is a notorious maximum security prison in Wyoming County, New York].
Since most of the kids were from New York City, we were able to gradually bring them down here. By 2010, the upstate facilities only had two or three kids, but a lot of political clout.
Mayor Bloomberg agreed to fly his helicopter and land at one of the facilities, to point out that they were all New York City kids, and we can’t afford to spend millions of dollars sending them hundreds of miles from home. That set the tone for our initial proposal, over the course of a few years, starting with new insecure facilities, then medium security, then max security, moving kids back near their homes.
Gladys Carrion at OCFS and Governor Andrew Cuomo in the 2011 budget turned us down. When my successor Ron Richter came in, he was very committed to delinquent kids, and he proposed it again, and that time out, they agreed to allow the city to do Close to Home.