The flags flew at half mast in New York City last week for Nicholas Scoppetta, who died at the age of 83 after a long career of public service to the city in which he was born and the place he entered foster care at the age of five.
You can read the excellent New York Times piece about his impact on the city. Youth Services Insider wanted to note, in particular, Scopetta’s impact on the very system he grew up in.
One of YSI‘s first major feature stories was a piece on the many class-action lawsuits filed against child welfare systems by the nonprofit Children’s Rights (CR). Scoppetta had been in charge of New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services for three years – he was recruited to lead the agency by get-tough Mayor Rudy Giuliani – when the city settled with CR in 1999.
Within the child welfare industry, the lawsuit strategy was gaining a reputation for being punitive without delivering results before Scoppetta and CR developed an independent panel concept to oversee reform. CR stepped aside, and the panel funded partly by the Annie E. Casey Foundation worked with Scoppetta to address the settlement compliance.
It was viewed by some advocates and experts at the time as the first meaningful reform achieved through class-action. And it is certainly the reason that the independent panel model became a staple of the settlement process elsewhere.
Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, said in an email to YSI today that the partnership between ACS and the panel made Scoppetta a better leader:
Scoppetta is proof of one of the fundamental tenets of the family preservation movement: People can change.
When he began at ACS, Scoppetta advocated a take-the-child-and-run approach and entries into care skyrocketed. But he saw that this was hurting the children he wanted to help, reversed course, and entries declined significantly. As he was leaving the ACS job he told The New York Times: ‘I’m absolutely convinced we have too many children in foster care.’
Part of the reason for the reversal was the influence of an advisory panel named as part of a lawsuit settlement.
Perhaps nobody has a better view of the ground level of New York child welfare than Keith Hefner, head of Youth Communications, which helps system-involved youth write about their experiences.
Hefner, like Wexler, credits Scoppetta with steering the city’s foster care caseload back to a rational place. It could not have come at a more important time, said Hefner, who was no fan of Scoppetta’s boss. From an email to YSI today:
Nick Scoppetta was appointed near the peak of the crisis in the New York City foster care system after the crack epidemic (unprecedented numbers of kids in care and a hidebound, secretive system unable to cope with the increase). In addition, he was appointed by Mayor Guiliani, whose administration was secretive and punitive towards its critics, e.g., by cutting contracts.
In the face of all that, Scoppetta opened up the child welfare agency. He collected and shared all kinds of data about system performance with the public, including the press and agency critics. Once everyone was looking at the same data, many of the advocates and agency staff realized that they cared about the same issues.
Scoppetta made it clear that if your goal was to help improve services to children and families, he didn’t care if you were a critic or advocate. As long as you had your facts straight (which he made possible) he would work with you.
His stance, of openness, of providing the data and working constructively with advocates, set a standard that every commissioner since has followed. That is a big part of the reason that the system has gone from nearly 50,000 youth in care down to near 10,000.