Children are spending weeks and even months in New York City’s foster care facilities designed for temporary stays, according to statistics discussed at today’s general welfare committee meeting. But proposed legislation being considered by the City Council would take aim at the problem, by first measuring its scope.
A bill introduced by Councilmember Nantasha Williams would require the city’s Administration for Children’s Services to provide quarterly reports on the amount of time children spend in temporary foster care placements and the Nicholas Scoppetta Children’s Center in Manhattan.
The legislation would also require the data be assessed to “truly evaluate” if there are troubling trends or patterns that the city’s child welfare agency needs to be accountable for fixing.
“We obviously don’t want children lingering in these facilities for a long amount of time,” Williams said at today’s public meeting.
The hazards of institutional care for children removed from their parents’ homes following allegations of abuse or neglect is widely documented.
“The placement itself, regardless of amount of time,” a 2018 Child Maltreatment journal article notes, “negatively impacts children.” There are many potential impacts, including “an appraisal among youth that they are not wanted or loved, leading to a sense of rejection and isolation,” and children feeling “that they were a burden to foster parents.” Research findings also show “youths experienced anxiety about the placement due to a sense that the milieu appeared ‘chaotic.’”
According to New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services, the Children’s Center temporarily houses children of all ages who just entered into foster care. The facility serves almost 1,700 children each year.
It is widely considered one of the most sensitive and complex government facilities in New York City, responsible for housing children that may arrive tired and traumatized in the middle of the night, often with complex medical or behavioral diagnosis, and speaking an array of languages. The Center opened in 2001 with a promise that it should rarely hold any child for more than a day. But its population and average lengths of stay have fluctuated dramatically depending on foster home availability and child maltreatment reporting rates.
High-profile problems, frequent 911 calls and pointed public scrutiny have erupted repeatedly over the past decade. In 2019, former Administration for Children’s Services Commissioner David Hansell announced new leadership of the facility and a $1 million overhaul to reduce the number of foster children sent there.
The most recent data discussed by city officials this week shows that in the last year, 35% of children resided at the center for 11 days or longer. Currently, there are 72 children housed at the city’s Children Center and the average stay was 18 days. Forty-five percent stayed less than three days.
But at least 40 children now in the children’s center have been there for more than a month, Administration for Children’s Services Commissioner Jess Dannhauser said today.
He also described the steps the city is taking to correct the problem, including working with city contractors to expand placement options.
“We are taking a number of steps to reduce both the number of children at the Children’s Center and the lengths of stay,” Dannhauser said.
He added that his agency has made improvements to the living conditions at the Children’s Center, which now has therapeutic staff on hand 24 hours a day, biweekly “action plan meetings” with foster care providers and an on-site youth advocacy program.
“There’s been a lot of work to make it a safer place,” Dannhauser said.
Under the city’s proposed legislation, Dannhauser’s agency would be required to report on the number of days children spent in a facility, the type of facility, the age of the child, the level of care recommended, the number of children placed in a facility for the first time and the number of children placed on two or more occasions. The data collected would be given to the mayor’s office and the speaker of the City Council.
To date, such detailed reporting has not been required.
Short-term placements are used in foster care systems to house children removed from home who can not go directly to relatives or foster homes. They can be some of the most vulnerable children, those with mental and physical disabilities, as well as teenagers with high needs.
But housing children in emotional distress in a group facility — without a clear treatment program or motive — is widely considered to be a harmful practice. In California, for instance, temporary shelter facilities can house foster youth for no more than 10 days without special permission and reporting on what is known as an “overstay.” Los Angeles County has a 72-hour rule.
In an annual report to the Legislature, the California Department of Social Services opened its data findings noting that state law is “grounded in the understanding that children who must live apart from their biological parents do best when they are cared for in committed nurturing family homes.”
In late 2017, The Imprint reported on one teenager who spent over a year at the Children’s Center. He was struck by a car at age 14, leaving him with traumatic brain injury and spinal cord injuries. The boy entered foster care at 17 with difficulty walking and speaking. But at the facility designed for temporary stays, his basic health needs were not met, his attorneys said. A judge in his case ruled that the teen’s treatment involved “substantial systemic problems” and “inadequate management, training and supervision” at the Nicholas Scoppetta Children’s Center in Manhattan.
Attorneys who testified today said that lengthy placements in temporary foster care facilities can have significant impacts on children’s mental health, leading them to experience increased anxiety, harm themselves and become increasingly withdrawn.
Betsy Kramer, the public policy and special litigation director at Lawyers for Children, said this is an ongoing issue in New York City, and too many children are left in these facilities for “far too long.”
But she added that the proposed legislation — which is subject to future votes before passage — could help identify these ongoing issues, and lead to plans for more appropriate alternative placements for foster youth. That starts with a quality accounting of the problem, Kramer said.
“If we don’t have an accurate picture or know who it is then it’s hard to address the issue.”
Michael Fitzgerald contributed to this report.