By Gianna Palmer
New York City’s foster care system is getting revamped.
Until now, foster care in New York City has operated using best practices guidelines—but few specific requirements—for everything from how to engage birth parents to staff qualifications. The result, foster care workers and child welfare experts say, is that the nonprofit organizations that provide foster care in New York City tend to vary widely in the type and quality of services they offer.
“They come with their own particular reputations for how they treat families and for how effective they are in working with families,” says Emma Ketteringham, managing attorney at The Bronx Defenders, which represents parents with kids in the child welfare system.
Now, New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS), in coordination with state’s Office of Children and Family Services, is planning a change. For the past year, ACS has piloted a set of child welfare initiatives known collectively as ChildSuccessNYC. The initiatives provide foster care agencies with specific methods to be used for recruiting and training foster parents, working with parents, and preparing teens in foster care for adult life on their own, among other things.
Five New York City foster care agencies took part in the pilot; together they serve 20 percent of the foster care population. Thanks to a recent Obama administration waiver that allows for more flexible use of federal child welfare funding, ACS plans to roll out ChildSuccessNYC citywide by 2015.
The waiver allows ACS (and other New York state child welfare agencies, if they choose) to use what are known as ‘Title IV-E funds,’ which are normally restricted to paying maintenance costs such as food and clothing for foster children, to cover ChildSuccessNYC services like classes for parents of foster children and “aftercare” programs that support families after they’ve been reunified.
ACS and other ChildSuccessNYC proponents are thrilled that the program will expand, and say it is off to a promising start.
“It is a much more intensive model than we have ever had before,” says ACS Commissioner Ronald E. Richter. “What we have seen with the five pilot agencies is that parents and foster parents and young people are feeling a lot more supported.”
Richter explains this is due, in part, to more one-on-one attention for parents and youth, as well as reduced caseloads for foster case workers and their supervisors.
Sylvia Rowlands oversaw the ChildSuccessNYC rollout at The New York Foundling, the first of the five pilot foster care agencies to implement the program. She says ChildSuccessNYC has so far enabled much better communication and accountability between families, children and agency staffers.
“There are a lot more resources and a lot more intersection points,” Rowlands says, adding, “There’s a lot more opportunities for people to say, ‘How’s that going?’
ChildSuccessNYC has injected much-needed structure into every aspect of foster care, Rowlands says. “All of the tools that have been offered, that we’ve been trained on, are very prescribed and proscribed,” Rowland explains. “Do this, don’t do that.”
Not everyone in the child welfare community thinks this is a good thing, however.
“That takes us back to what we have been doing all along in child welfare, which is really dictating to families what services and what programs they’re going to be involved in,” says Sandra Killett, executive director of the Child Welfare Organizing Project.
Killett believes there should be room for families to decide for themselves what services are appropriate for them. She says that, to her knowledge, no parents from the child welfare system were involved in deciding which program models to incorporate into ChildSuccessNYC.
The disparate models that make up ChildSuccessNYC are evidence-based; that is, a version of each of them has been previously tested in controlled trials. Child welfare workers describe this as part of a cultural shift toward evidence-based foster care service delivery.
However, none of the program models that ChildSuccessNYC draws from have been fully tested in New York City, and this particular combination of models has never been tried together, anywhere.
Richter says he isn’t concerned that programs that make up ChildSuccessNYC represent a “unique, New York City model of care.”
“While it is true that they haven’t been tested in New York, part of the point of using evidence-based practices is there is a certain reliability that these models will, in fact, perform,” says Richter.
Just how ChildSuccessNYC has performed remains to be seen. Researchers from the University of Chicago have been evaluating the five ChildSuccessNYC pilot programs since they began, but their preliminary findings won’t be available until early 2014. By then, a second round of foster care agencies will have already begun adopting the ChildSuccssNYC programs.
Despite Richter’s optimism for ChildSuccessNYC, he readily admits, “There’s no question that there are going to be parents for whom these models, or part of this model, won’t work,” he says.
Even with prescriptive evidence-based models, Richter says, when problems arise, “You figure out how to work with that parent to develop a plan that makes them comfortable, and that is tailored to them.”
There is, therefore, at least one thing that ChildSuccessNYC supporters and skeptics alike can agree on: there is no foster care model that will fit everyone.