David Hansell stepped down last week as leader of one of the nation’s largest child welfare systems, as New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio left office and newly elected Eric Adams took over city leadership.
Hansell was the second de Blasio-appointed commissioner of the city’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS), serving five years — a substantial tenure in a post considered to be among the toughest in public service. The agency is responsible for thousands of children in foster care or facing delinquency charges, tens of thousands of child maltreatment investigations, roughly 7,000 full-time staff and billions of dollars in spending of city, state and federal tax dollars.
Following the announcement of his departure two weeks ago, child welfare leaders praised Hansell’s steady and thoughtful leadership, praising efforts he and his predecessor Gladys Carrión made to shrink the number of children in foster care, lower caseloads for workers and help families avoid the system altogether.
“I have seen consistent and significant strides at ACS on a range of important areas,” Councilmember Stephen Levin said of Hansell and Carrión. Levin, chair of the general welfare committee overseeing their former agency, added: “We haven’t always agreed on everything, and there is much more work to do, but their dedication to NYC’s children, especially the most vulnerable, has always been clear.”
Others have a harsher assessment. During Hansell’s tenure, a protest movement led by parents and foster children gained strength, its leaders demanding bolder reforms than his agency was pursuing.
The number of children in foster care continued a decades-long decline from nearly 50,000 in the mid-1990s to around 7,200 today. According to city data, of the 549 foster youth who left the system as young adults in 2020 without ever finding a permanent home through adoption or reunification with parents, fewer than 24% had completed high school and 34% had a verifiable source of income. Both numbers were modest improvements from Hansell’s first year in office.
In response to those numbers, the de Blasio administration launched several initiatives for older foster youth, including the Fair Futures coaching program and the Dorm Project, which support youth aging out of the system. Children have also been placed with kin or siblings in foster care at higher rates than in the past.
Hansell took office in 2017, in the wake of high-profile child abuse tragedies; maltreatment allegations began flooding the agency his first year, and court petitions spiked to the highest numbers since at least 2007, before a steep drop during the pandemic.
Hansell, who has declined to announce his future plans, spoke to The Imprint by phone last week, one day before leaving office. He will be replaced by Jess Dannhauser, a former Administration for Children’s Services official under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and a former leader of one of the dozens of nonprofit organizations that contract with the city to provide foster care and prevention services.
“For too long, we have taken a downstream approach to children’s welfare, setting up too many kids — particularly in Black and Brown communities — for a lifetime of challenges,” Mayor Adams wrote in a Dec. 30 tweet announcing the appointment. Under Dannhauser’s leadership, he added, ACS “will take an upstream approach for young New Yorkers at risk.”
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity and length.
To start, any thoughts on the appointment of your successor, Jess Dannhauser?
I think he has a great perspective on child welfare. I’ve known him for many, many years, and I have enormous respect for him as a person and as a professional. I think he is really an outstanding choice.
Your agency just released a 14-page document outlining what you and your predecessor Gladys Carrión accomplished in the de Blasio administration’s eight years. What would you say you are most proud of?
It’s hard to identify one single thing. But, I guess if I had to identify one core accomplishment I would say it’s the way we have expanded our ability to provide services to families when they need them, and where they need them — in their homes and communities — in a way that has allowed us to reduce the need for foster care, to reduce more intrusive interventions. It’s really the expansion of prevention services, both primary and secondary prevention, and the fact that that’s allowed us to bring the number of children in foster care down to a historic low level.
What were some of the most important changes you made in the recent re-bidding process your agency completed, finalizing long-term contracts with nonprofit agencies to provide those foster care prevention services?
We were one of, if not the first, jurisdiction in the country to invest significantly in evidence-based prevention services, in the early 2010s. And then, in the new prevention portfolio of services we put in place last year, we both expanded those services to the point where nearly half of the prevention services we offer are really therapeutically based, and really provide more intensive support for families. And we are now able to provide all of the different service models that we offer to families no matter where they live in New York City.
We also have strong data to show it’s improved outcomes and reduced the likelihood of families returning to the child welfare system, or, having a child later be placed in foster care.
There are arguments out there that primary prevention — the kind of early-stage support your agency has prioritized in recent years — is not something the child welfare agency should be so focused on, given its investigative responsibilities with families.
We certainly don’t want families to have to get involved with the child welfare system in order to get the things they need. In my view, there’s a lot of reasons why it really should be a part of some of these services, not all of them, but some of them should be a part of the child welfare system.
I know there’s been some concern among some folks — and I appreciate it’s a significant concern — whether some of these services really reflect surveillance by the child welfare system. I think that’s actually a somewhat misplaced concern.
With regards to the family enrichment centers, for example, none of them are or will be run by ACS. They are run by nonprofit providers who have roots in their communities. And their obligation to report when they see abuse or neglect, that’s not determined by who funds the program or runs the program, it’s determined by the professional status of the staff member.
So the issue of mandated reporting is a very important one. And I do think it’s important for us to continue to focus on making sure the mandated reporter system in general is not overburdening families, and is not bringing families unnecessarily into contact with the child welfare system.
Regarding that surveillance argument — that advocacy movement seems to be increasingly setting an agenda at hearings, at city council and at the state level especially around racial justice and racism in child welfare, and due process issues.
What have you learned from this movement, which seems to have taken on new force during your tenure, particularly since the protests over the murder of George Floyd in 2020?
I think we’ve learned a tremendous amount and I’ve learned a lot from the advocates for parents who have lived experience in the child welfare system, and speak from that experience. And I think it’s had a huge impact on our programs.
This has to be a core focus for all child welfare programs. It’s undeniable that there has been a sorry history of racial inequity and racial disproportionality in child welfare, this goes back decades if not centuries. It’s true all over the country and it is true in New York City. And so it has to be a core focus for us, and I think it has been at ACS, and it certainly has been in my tenure. Early after I started in 2017, we created an office of equity strategies to make sure we had a focal point within ACS for overseeing all the work we’re doing across the agency around racial disproportionality.
We’ve created a parent advocacy council, we have a parent engagement specialist for the first time, a full-time staff person at ACS who focuses just on parent engagement. I think we have to listen to the voices of parents who have lived experience in the child welfare system — and youth as well.
But as far as I know I don’t think the racial disparities you mentioned have really budged during your tenure. So what should the next generation of leaders at ACS think about doing if they want to change that?
I don’t think we really have good data yet on what the impact of some of the changes we have made is.
What we have tried to do and what I hope ACS will continue to try to do is to look at the trajectory of a child or families’ involvement with the child welfare system and where we can really impact that. I think the most important place, and the place where we can have the biggest impact is right at the front door. Right at the point where families are reported to the state child abuse hotline, which intiaties the process, because as you know, if the state accepts it and refers it to ACS, we are required to follow up. We don’t have any legal discretion about that.
But there’s still a lot more room to move forward, and I hope that will continue to be a focus of ACS and its leadership going into the future.
Something else you’ve touted that a lot of stakeholders were glad to see ACS do, you’ve presided over a very steep increase in kinship placements rates. Talk about how you got there.
We know from the research, children who are placed with kinship resources experience less trauma when they enter foster care. They are more likely to leave foster care more quickly, and have better outcomes when they do.
Through that work and concerted focus we’ve increased the proportion of children in foster care who are placed with kin from about 32% five years ago to about 43% overall. Of children who came into foster care over the last year as a result of abuse or neglect, more than half of them were placed in kinship settings.
We’re very proud of that, but it’s an area I hope ACS will continue to focus on.
There’s a tension here, though: The Legal Aid Society is also currently suing Children’s Services in federal court over some of its kinship practices, arguing among other things the agency unconstitutionally denies foster care certification to relatives who are potential kin caregivers.
With regards to the litigation, I can’t comment on it. The litigation was directed both at the state and the city. The state, with regards to some of the categories in state law that are called mandatory disqualifiers, categories of past criminal offenses that would prevent somebody from being a foster parent.
But without regards to the merits of the litigation itself, I very much hope that ACS will look for every opportunity to expand placement of children with kin. And I hope the state will support that work, by permitting kinship placements to be made in any situation where that can safely be done.
Would that include limiting some of those disqualifying categories? Do you see the need for legislative changes?
There are some provisions in federal law that apply to all states that preclude people with certain kinds of offenses on their records from being certified as foster parents. But I certainly hope the state has and will in the future apply this as narrowly and strictly as it possibly can, to allow the largest number of potential kinship resources to actually serve as foster parents.