New York City's Child-Welfare System Under Scrutiny

New York City announced reforms this week following the death of a 7-year-old girl allegedly killed by her stepfather. Some experts are voicing concerns about the city's emphasis on keeping families together. Cindy Rodriguez of member station WNYC reports.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

We're going to look now at breakdowns in two different institutions. In a moment, we'll hear about problems in the criminal justice system in one Californian county. First, we have a report on the child welfare system in New York City.

Officials there announced reforms this week, following the death of a 7-year-old girl, allegedly killed by her stepfather. Now, some experts are voicing concerns about the City's emphasis on keeping families together. From member station WNYC, Cindy Rodriguez reports.

CINDY RODRIGUEZ reporting:

Since the late 90's, New York City has tried to keep children with their biological parents by providing struggling families with services like counseling and parenting classes. Most of the work is contracted out to nonprofit agencies that are supposed to prevent child abuse before it happens, or at least stop it before it gets worse.

Ellen O'Hara supervises prevention workers at Good Shepherd Services, which counsels families who've been investigated by child protective caseworkers.

Ms. ELLEN O'HARA (Bronx Director, Good Shepherd Services, New York City): Over the years, the paperwork has kind of increased, the caseload has increased, what you have to work on with the family has increased. You're often the only one working with a family.

RODRIGUEZ: O'Hara says she's uncomfortable with the number of high-risk cases referred to her office. A 50-year old woman with serious psychiatric issues and a drug problem stands out in her mind. The woman had ten children, some had already been taken away from her, and others were adults. One six-year-old was in her care; that child as found alone, in Manhattan, by Police. O'Hara says child protective caseworkers investigating the mother told her counselors to provide parenting classes for the woman.

Ms. O'HARA: It's just so, mess, the complexity of this. And I was really upset. It just really felt like we were by ourselves being given, like, a loaded gun.

RODRIGUEZ: Between January and October of 2005, city child protective caseworkers substantiated about 13,400 reports of abuse. More than 30% of those families were referred to programs like O'Hara's, and 12% to 15% were sent to foster care. Complaints that cases are too high risk have been echoed by a group representing all major nonprofits in the city that provide prevention services. O'Hara says these organizations need city child protective caseworkers to stay involved.

Ms. O'HARA: We need to take them with lots of other supports in place. Where we're not the only ones monitoring, are they going for their medication, are they going for their drug treatment, are they going for their psychiatric appointments?

RODRIGUEZ: O'Hara says city child protective caseworkers should force families to attend programs, because right now, a family's participation is generally voluntary. Marsha Robinson-Lawry, the head of Children's Rights, Inc., a national child advocacy organization, says most prevention programs across the country work closely with agencies that investigate child abuse.

Ms. MARSHA ROBINSON-LAWRY (Executive Director, Children's Rights, Inc.): In most of the systems, there really is a link, and there's continued accountability with regard to whether a family is cooperating, because sometimes, of course, a mistake is made, and the system needs to know that very quickly.

RODRIGUEZ: The bigger question, though, is whether child protective caseworkers are overlooking serious problems, and are sending families to prevention programs, rather then placing them in foster care. The number of children in foster care has dropped by nearly 50% since the year 2000. Robinson-Lawry and other experts say city officials who tout this as a major accomplishment are sending the wrong message to child protective investigators working out in the field.

John Maddingly is the Commissioner of the Administration for Children's Services, the city agency that oversees the child's welfare system.

Mr. JOHN MADDINGLY (Commissioner, Administration for Children's Services, New York City): I am convinced, and I've been here sixteen months, that there has been no direction given from the top of this agency to emphasize one decision over the other.

RODRIGUEZ: But to be sure that no child is currently in danger, Maddingly says a review of every open case will help determine whether child protective caseworkers have veered too far toward offering services to families, instead of removing children from their homes.

From NPR News, I'm Cindy Rodriguez, in New York.

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