Opinion

An ambitious reform agenda for keeping New York City's children safe

By David Hansell |  

August 2, 2017 |  

ACS Commissioner David Hansell. (Ed Reed / Mayoral Photography Office)

As the new commissioner of the Administration for Children’s Services, I, too, want to be sure our agency is keeping New York City’s children safe, and is also aware of how our child welfare system interacts with families. With these concerns in mind, ACS has begun an ambitious reform-focused agenda in recent months.

We have re-launched our CHILD-STAT program, a quality improvement tool that reinforces the importance of conducting every investigation of abuse or neglect with both speed and rigor. We have also created an Accountability Office, which will help us ensure that we are consistently meeting our own performance standards and the public’s expectations of us. Through public education, our aggressive Safe Sleep outreach campaign addresses the tragic and unnecessary loss of infants. And we’ve expanded our prevention services that support parents and help keep families strong, including opening a brand-new therapeutic center for parents and kids in Queens, alongside First Lady Chirlane McCray.

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Our mission is clear: to keep children safe and strengthen families. It’s a personal one for me. I’ve spent my life – from my beginnings as a teacher, to my years as an attorney on the frontlines of the HIV/AIDS crisis, to my position overseeing social services for the Obama administration – serving our most vulnerable. I am proud to work with thousands of ACS colleagues who share this commitment, who are first-responders on the front lines of child safety and who reflect the diversity of the city and families we serve.

Our reform efforts are paying off. We should all be proud that the number of New York City young people in foster care today stands at a historic low point of less than 10,000, when there were more than 40,000 twenty years ago.

This turnaround is a result of ACS focusing on family stability and keeping families together. We continue to expand our preventive service programs, geared towards addressing underlying family issues before they become critical. The recently-enacted city budget allocates an additional $40 million to grow and strengthen these services. This means more family-focused therapy, more support for survivors of domestic violence and more mental health and substance abuse support for families in need. Last year alone, more than 20,000 families were helped through these services.

While our goal is to keep families together whenever possible, we must remove children in situations where they face imminent and serious harm. We know that separation is traumatic for both parents and children, and that factor must be weighed in making difficult judgments in dangerous situations. 

While the number of abuse and neglect investigations being conducted today is higher than it was a year ago, the number of “emergency removals” (removing children immediately from home environments where there is a clear and imminent threat to health or safety) has remained about the same as last year. This supports our analysis that we are being judicious in taking this extreme – but sometimes essential – step. 

But we must remain self-critical of our work. For example, we want to be sure that we are treating every family we encounter equally – regardless of race, socioeconomic status, or community – and making decisions about how to respond to them based on objective investigation and established procedures. ACS investigations are driven by reports to the state hotline. Anyone may call, even anonymously, to submit a report, and we are legally obligated to investigate all reports the state refers to us. A disproportionate number of these reports involve children who are black or Latino, and that a disproportionate number of young people in foster care are black or Latino as well. This is a reality we’ve faced in New York City for decades, and one we must tackle.

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As we bring on new caseworkers, we are now training them to recognize “implicit bias”, which might lead them unconsciously to treat some families differently from others. They learn to deal with families from different cultural backgrounds, and how to encourage families to share information that can help identify the specific services they need. They learn about the effects of trauma on brain development and children’s behavior. All of this, of course, is on top of basic and essential training on how to conduct safety assessments and protect children. 

We are heartened that national child welfare experts like Casey Family Programs view ACS as having a strong safety culture, and as a national leader in providing preventive support services. But we can always do better, and we won’t stop looking for ways to improve our efforts to keep children safe and families strong.  

And keeping kids safe is not work we can do alone. We are doing our part through implementing key reforms around child welfare, engaging experts in organizational management as we do internal reviews, coordinating with our partner agencies to increase the effectiveness of our work and leveraging technology to keep both our staff and the families we serve safe. We extend our hand to partner with all New Yorkers to support this vital work, because our kids deserve no less.

David Hansell is the commissioner of the Administration for Children’s Services.

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