Opinion

Zymere Perkins' case highlights harsh truths about child welfare in New York City

By Jeremy Kohomban |  

December 17, 2016 |  

Administration for Children’s Services Commissioner Gladys Carrion (left), Mayor Bill de Blasio and Deputy Mayor Herminia Palacio. (Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

This has been a week of unexpected events for the New York City Administration for Children’s Services and all of us who work closely with the agency. On Monday, Commissioner Gladys Carrión suddenly announced her resignation. Then on Tuesday, Mayor Bill de Blasio called for an independent monitor to oversee ACS while Carrión remained in office pending her replacement. We have since come to learn that New York state was intimately involved in the ACS reorganization and ordered the independent monitoring. The state concluded that ACS had repeatedly failed in its duty to protect 6-year-old Zymere Perkins, whose death and subsequent investigation was detailed in the ACS report released on Tuesday night.

I have personally known Commissioner Carrión for over two decades. I can affirm that the descriptions of her are absolutely true ­– she is a reformer who is passionate about children, families and our city. She is a true public servant, a tireless advocate who has served with honor and dignity. I am grateful for her service.

I also know that during a crisis such as this, especially on the heels of children’s deaths, it is difficult to speak about what works and what can be improved. But at times like this, we must find our voice and talk about solutions, not blame.

Child welfare most often operates at the intersection of poverty, social isolation and hopelessness. In New York City, child welfare is also known for its disparate impact on poor communities and families of color, who are disproportionately ensnared in the foster care system.

I arrived at this work in the early 1990s, when HIV, crack cocaine and a child welfare system in crisis led to over 45,000 children in foster care. Today the number of children in care has fallen below 10,000. This is the result of much-needed reform and it is an incredible accomplishment. It is also no accident, but rather the result of sustained efforts across successive mayoral administrations, all of who deserve credit for these improvements. Nevertheless, high-profile deaths of children known to the system cannot be ignored.

Despite our best efforts, children die. I know this is not what anyone wants to hear, or say, but it is true. It is also true that our system can work better and we can build in safeguards that reduce the likelihood of failures that result in preventable deaths like Zymere’s.

We will not fix this problem by going back to a time where the default posture of ACS investigators was, “when in doubt, get them out.” While it is not a simple or satisfying answer, the truth is that gaps and errors in child welfare practice can produce negative outcomes in both directions – unnecessary removals at one extreme, as well as preventable abuse or child deaths at the other. When front-line staff is overwhelmed, unprepared or inadequately monitored, these errors become a virtual certainty. We will not eliminate them through a broad change in investigative posture, but rather by making sure each and every case gets thorough, individualized attention and consistent supervisory review.

Gerard McCaffery, president and CEO at MercyFirst, wisely remarked that ACS does not need another reformer. I agree; what we need is a disciplined focus on management. Everyone wants to be a “reformer” – it is a desirable portrayal of leadership in our sector. I, too, am guilty of the same desire for adoration. But endless reform is disruptive. It breeds cynicism that places children at risk and demeans the efforts of those who have served and survived multiple well-intentioned reform mandates. In our field, overlapping initiatives and redundant reporting requirements have become the norm at every level of the system. The problem is not that there is too little monitoring – the city produces voluminous data on its nonprofit providers, and we spend substantial resources collecting, exchanging and analyzing data in response to their mandates. Rather, the problem is that reform efforts almost always add to existing requirements without correcting or reducing the old ones.

From a structural perspective, there are more resources at ACS’s disposal than ever before. The mayor has authorized increased hiring for child protective workers and allocated substantial resources to better training and workforce development. Thanks to the state’s Title IV-E waiver, foster care caseloads have been reduced and there is more flexibility to use federal funds on new and innovative solutions. The city’s expanded network of preventive services has become the largest and most diverse array of research driven family support services of any municipality in the world.

The task ACS faces is to bring a single-minded focus on management and performance improvement to this vast and complicated system, and to direct all of these resources towards keeping every child safe and supporting every family.

In child welfare it is easy to identify all that is wrong. The risks are enormous. The blame is plentiful. The task is thankless. Whoever steps in as our next commissioner should consider the following priorities:

1.  Ensure mission clarity, many on the front line are deeply committed to serving children. Their mission must be unambiguous – to keep children safe and ensure that no child grows up system dependent, but rather, is given at least one adult that provides them unconditional belonging.

2.   Invest in and support front-line workers. Both the public and private front-line workers have terribly difficult jobs and our front lines are stretched to the breaking point. On the private side, the city has ignored the front lines, refused to invest in the staff, many who are underpaid and overworked and refused to invest in the organizational capacity to care for children and families.

3.   Accountability is important. I applaud de Blasio’s investments at ACS and the 650 new staff positions created, but the agency must have a clear, dependable process to evaluate employee performance, at least annually. Not everyone performs equally and in the absence of regular feedback and documented performance evaluation, we will never know our system’s weaknesses until there is tragedy.

4.   Technology can improve the quality of investigations through tracking, monitoring and supervision of the front line. Yes, there are numerous legal and regulatory barriers to deploying user-friendly technology, but we can be creative within these limitations. A simple app that reports GPS location with photographs and brief notes of a worker’s visit to Zymere’s home may have alerted the chain of command of a problem and saved his life.

5.  Focus on efficiency within the system. New York City is a privatized child welfare system where charities like my organization, The Children’s Village, provide services and the city conducts investigations and provides oversight. Not everything can be a priority, but the top priority must be preventing needless deaths of children. Front-line practice is difficult and unappreciated, and in the absence of a commitment to streamline the multiple demands placed on workers, children will continue to fall through the cracks and we will remain one tragedy away from the next call for reform.

This last dynamic in child protective practice was eloquently summarized by the Harvard University historian Jill Lepore in a 2014 article on child deaths in Massachusetts: “Child protection is trapped in a cycle of scandal and reform.”We will not break this cycle by adding another layer of monitoring to an inefficient system or by adding another initiative to the pile of those already in progress. We will break it by making durable, focused improvements through strong management, by investing in front-line practice, and by listening to families and children to understand their needs. This work will be hard, but we can do it, and we must.

Dr. Jeremy Kohomban is the president and CEO of The Children’s Village.

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