New York City Overhauls Short-Term Foster Care Shelter After Judge’s Contempt Order

The Nicholas Scoppetta Children’s Center in New York City, where a high-needs teen lived for more than a year. Photo by Pavel Bendov.

New York City Council confronted the commissioner who oversees foster care again yesterday over his agency’s temporary intake center for foster youth, after news reports described child neglect and chaos at the facility. David Hansell, who leads the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS), announced a slew of changes to try to improve conditions, including 95 new personnel for a facility that houses around 80 youth per night.

ACS is also adding more uniformed security staff and moving $1 million toward programming for youth at the Nicholas Scoppetta Children’s Center in Manhattan.

“Here we are, 18 years after the Children’s Center opened … [and] the Children’s Center is currently under a cloud of scandal and litigation and has become, as advocates feared in 2001, a place where children languish for too long,” said General Welfare Committee Chairman Stephen Levin, citing reports of missing children, assaults, thefts, overcrowding and sedated children at the facility.

Those reports began after The Imprint and other media outlets discovered a judge’s order holding Hansell in contempt over his agency’s treatment of a wheelchair-bound youth identified only as Kennth R. The late January ruling revealed that Kenneth had been held in in the Children’s Center with a broken wheelchair and ill-fitting clothes, and without needed physical therapies, for more than a year. The facility was originally designed to house youth for a day.

ACS repeatedly blew off the judge’s previous deadlines for addressing each issue, and now owes Kenneth a bond worth over $17,000. In response, says the order, the state also opened a confidential investigation into signs of systemic neglect at the facility. The average daily foster youth population has more than doubled from 30 foster youth in 2013-2014 to 80 more recently.

Pressed to allow council members to visit the facility, Hansell declined to commit, citing privacy concerns for youth. (Legal aid attorneys for children, though, pointed out to The Imprint that they are regularly allowed to visit their clients in other, similar foster homes with other youth present.)

Councilman Levin also asked about the use of psychotropic medications on foster youth at the Children’s Center and throughout the foster care system. At the urging of children’s advocacy groups like Legal Aid Society, a bill has been introduced requiring ACS to report data on the use of medication on foster youth.

“Currently, ACS does not have access to the data that the council is requesting, but we are advocating for access,” said Hansell, who explained that the data is collected by the state’s Medicaid program within the Department of Health. “Once we have access to the information in this system … we believe that we would have much of the information the city council is looking for.”

The last time city council confronted ACS over the Children’s Center, Levin asked about the unusually high volume of youth residing in the Children’s Center for longer periods. Hansell argued then that state agencies serving people with serious disabilities or mental illness were declining to accept eligible New York City youth. (The state’s Office of Mental Health and the office for People with Developmental Disabilities pushed back in a joint statement e-mailed to The Imprint.) ACS has also attributed the increased census to high-profile beating deaths of two children in 2016, which caused a spike in calls from the public to the state’s child maltreatment hotline.

Yesterday at the hearing, ACS suggested another possible source of the surge: juvenile justice reforms that have led to fewer incarcerated youth.

“We have very successfully — and we’re very proud of this — reduced the population in our juvenile justice system,” as well as in the adult system, said Hansell. “Some of those younger individuals who might in previous years have been in juvenile system or in detention in the adult system and no longer are — some of them don’t have families. We think there may be more of them who are coming to the Children’s Center,” he continued, pointing out that ACS houses youth in foster care up to age 21, like many other child welfare systems.

Retention of foster parents, and the closure of several group institutions for foster youth have also been cited as factors in the Children’s Centers issues.

Hansell announced a new assistant commissioner for the facility, David Bauer, who previously spent decades working for the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services’ foster youth treatment facilities, with a focus in trauma-based services.

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