|In the Best of All Worlds Musings on the Recent RFP Decisions Made by ACS|
|Saturday, 29 May 2010 05:49|
New York City’s Children’s Services (ACS) recently released its decisions about contracts they will enter into with nonprofit agencies to provide child welfare services for the next nine years. In the best of all worlds, the needs of children and families that ACS is responsible for would drive this decision making. It is certainly understood that it is ACS’ responsibility to decide what services they will contract for within the budget restraints set by the Mayor. Now that these decisions have been made, they are subject to the scrutiny of advocates and others, as well as those of us who provide these services and whose agencies have made this work our lifelong mission and commitment.
To say the least, there is shock and bewilderment at decisions that affect some agencies; there is disappointment at the drastic cuts in preventive services; and there are very serious concerns about decisions that reduce funding to foster boarding home programs and make extreme cuts in residential services over a very short period of time.
Shock and Bewilderment - There are many questions raised about the basis for ACS’ decision not to contract with several agencies – Little Flower, Rosalie Hall and Steinway. This is very hard to understand given the history and longstanding commitment of these organizations in providing these services. The recent SCORECARD evaluations by ACS of their performance also do not seem to justify these actions, especially given that the transfer of foster homes and children to another agency will be disruptive and delay permanency planning. Information about the basis for these decisions by ACS will unfold in the weeks and months ahead as some agencies are expected to pursue legal avenues to challenge these decisions.
While there may be examples with other agencies as well, it is bewildering to learn that ACS will no longer contract with Harlem-Dowling to provide preventive services in Central Harlem. ACS is confident enough with the quality of services they provide to contract with them to provide these services in Queens, but not in Harlem. This is an organization founded almost 175 years ago to serve African-American children and families in Harlem. Given how so few organizations have such a legacy and commitment to a particular community, was there no way to honor this one?
Disappointment – When the number of children involved with preventive service programs first exceeded the number of children in foster care some years ago, this milestone was hailed by ACS, service providers and advocates alike. The more we were able to work with families in a preventive mode, the more likely we were to keep children out of foster care and the trauma that comes with removal of a child from their family. The decisions made by ACS will reduce overall preventive slots from 14,060 slots to 10,795 or 21%. General preventive slots will be reduced by 30%. The expectation, re-enforced by some performance based funding, is that agencies will significantly reduce the Length of Service (LOS) they work with a family to an average of 12 months. By working with families for only 12 months, ACS argues that the “system” will technically be able to work with the same number of families as we do now even with 20% less capacity. This expectation is not based on any empirical data or experience demonstrated in any urban or suburban area in the country. While many are disappointed by these decisions, I believe the hope of everyone involved – ACS, Prevention Programs and advocates – is that some funding will be restored during the coming budget process to forestall these draconian cuts and unrealistic time frames of working with families. Without this restoration, the general expectation is that fewer families will receive these services and more children will come unnecessarily into foster care with all the financial and personal costs associated with that.
Serious Concerns – The main concern with foster boarding home services is that ACS reduced the funding to provide these services from what was offered in the RFP. With caseloads already too high, caseworkers are not meeting federal mandates for casework contacts; are not able to attend all Family Court hearings that these complex cases require; and are not able to submit Permanency Reports on time to name but a few critical activities. Given all this, is it realistic to expect that ACS’s “One Year Home” campaign will be successful when it is dependent on these same caseworkers to do even more and to do it even sooner than they do it now?
More disturbing though are the sharp reductions in residential care capacity that will phase in between now and March 31, 2011. Overall, there will be a reduction of 451 beds, or 27% of total capacity. Two-thirds of group home beds will be eliminated. Diagnostic Programs were eliminated and replaced by Rapid Intervention Centers but at half the capacity and SILP Apartments were eliminated entirely. Other types of residential care - RTC, maternity/mother-child programs, group residences; and Agency Operated Boarding Homes lost the balance. These are 451 beds currently filled by adolescents and teenagers the great majority of whom already have lived unsuccessfully in multiple foster homes during their troubled lives. Given how ACS contracts for these beds it is also quite possible that they have overestimated the residential capacity that will be available at the end of this process.
In recent years, ACS mounted two major efforts to significantly reduce the use of residential programs. In both efforts, the goal for closing beds was not reached as planned because the needs of the youth were too severe or a foster family was not available due to the severity of the youth’s trauma, emotional needs and behavior. Fortunately, in both prior efforts agencies still had contracts with ACS to continue caring for youth who could not move to a foster home. This time, however, existing contracts to provide residential services will end March 31, 2011 and agencies will not be able to care for such a child after this date and the program closes. The general feeling amongst agencies is that any residential program that closes will not re-open again and this level of care will no longer be available for children who need it.
In the best of all worlds - The rationale behind closing residential programs is a philosophical one by ACS and one that everyone agrees with to a large degree. This philosophy is based on the premise that all children in foster care should live with families, and not in residential programs.
In the best of all worlds every child that must come into foster care would be placed with a foster family capable of caring for that child’s emotional and physical needs until permanency was reached. In the best of all worlds, there would not be a need for a group home or a mother-baby residence or a RTC for an adolescent with severe emotional or behavioral problems.
In the best of all worlds no child would ever need to be placed in foster care because of abuse and neglect and the trauma that comes with it. With cuts to prevention, foster care and residential programs all happening at the same time, this situation is not even close to being the best of all worlds for our children and families.