NYC stalled on educational neglect pilot program
By PAIGE RENTZ
With budget season underway and funding cuts looming, a potential pilot program that would provide alternative ways of dealing with educational neglect charges against parents of teens is being put on hold by the New York City Administration for Children’s Services (ACS).
In New York City, educational neglect charges can be filed against parents for failure to enroll a school-age child in school, allowing unexplained absences from school, refusing recommended remedial services without good reason or failure to respond to schools’ attendance questions.
In six New York counties and several states across the nation, an educational neglect report for teens does not automatically trigger an investigation by child welfare agencies. According to a study by the Vera Institute for Justice, an alternative response that offers counseling and other services to families before they have to undergo an investigation has worked well in these areas. Jessica Gunderson, one of the authors of the report, said that as she and her colleagues progressed with their research, the New York City administration became more interested in, and committed to, piloting a program to deal with the special issues involved in charges of educational neglect of teens.
According to Jessica Jean Hu, chief of staff for the Child Protection Division of ACS, the agency intends to pilot such a program, but its plan for doing so is still under development and therefore, no logistical information for the potential program is available. Even a time frame for its implementation is likely to be affected by impending budget cuts, she said. Gap-closing measures included in the May 2010 budget cut 202 caseworkers from the agency.
Richard Wexler doesn’t buy that. Wexler, the executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, sees the budget cuts as a potential out for an administration that has resisted the use of methods that bypass a full child services investigation for some time. “It’s something they never really wanted to do in the first place, and now they have an excuse not to,” he said, noting that diverting cases from the mainstream investigative track and keeping them out of court would probably save ACS money in the long run.
A study of Minnesota’s system for handling reports of educational neglect found that although the system was initially more expensive, over time fewer investigations led to reduced costs for participating families. The Vera study indicates that though there is no breakdown of services, part of the cost reduction could be connected to the finding that the alternative system reduces the number of children placed in foster care. “The great paradox of child welfare is that the worst options are the most expensive,” he said.
In its study, Vera identified further research into educational neglect in New York City as one of its next steps, and Gunderson believes that case file reviews of a significant sampling similar to those conducted in other locations could play a large role in the development of the pilot program. She hopes that Vera, and the city, will then have better data on what cases would be referred and could more easily predict which cases could go into a non-investigative response system.
Under the present child protection system in New York City, when a report is made to the state child abuse and prevention hotline, or State Central Register, a child welfare investigation is automatically triggered and must be completed within 60 days of the initial report. The child protection worker who conducts the investigation can decide to either “unfound” (determine the allegations are unsupported or untrue) or “indicate” (find that there is sufficient evidence to support the allegations) the case.
In unfounded cases, if case workers decide the report wasn’t true but the family under investigation could still benefit from some help, they can refer the family to preventive service agencies to provide the family with support. In these instances, it is up to the family to use the referral. When a case is indicated, explained Hu, there are a variety of interventions that are on a spectrum of increasing restrictiveness, the most restrictive being placing the child in foster care. “Before we get there, there’s also preventive services, and we could offer the same kinds of services we would offer in a case where we unfound,” said Hu. These include preventive case management with one of the administration’s contract service provider agencies, referral to community-based organizations and legal interventions like court-ordered supervision.
Wexler acknowledges that the ideal response will vary from case to case. “There are plenty of cases where an investigation is warranted, and there are those cases where there is no case,” he said. It is those cases that fall in-between where an alternative advocacy approach would be most beneficial. Currently, the only way that a family can become involved with ACS through an advocacy case rather than a child welfare case is to approach a preventive service agency before coming into contact with ACS.
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The preventive services offered teens through city contractors are as varied as the agencies that provide it. According to the ACS Preventive Services Directory, out of 149 preventive services providers across the city, only 11 are geared especially toward teens. One such provider, Good Shepherd Services in Brooklyn, works directly with teens to deal with issues that affect their academic success and often lead to truancy and other risky behaviors. The staff also realizes that a lot of the work they do with students isn’t reinforced at home, so they try to engage parents and families to help keep the students on track.
In preventive service agencies like the Brooklyn Bureau of Community Services, the agency will provide support services to any family with children under the age of 18, but only if the entire family is willing to participate in family counseling with one of the agency’s therapists, said assistant director Jodi Querbach. “We try to find out how the problem was created and how it is maintained.” Often the focus of the services provided are on the child having difficulties to the exclusion of everything else, she explained, adding that every family member can play a role.
Charles Barrios of Good Shepherd said the ultimate goal is to “catch families before they come into contact with child welfare.” The key to doing that, he said, is through relationships, both with the students themselves and also with principals, department administrators, teaching staff, even some of the parent associations.
“Local school staff would sometimes call us before they call SCR [State Central Register for Abuse and Maltreatment hotline],” Barrios said. “By calling us first, it gives them the opportunity to flesh out some of these complex issues.” Barrios said the key is to start the process through these relationships, which counselors or therapists can build on. “When these youth see an organization or a person available to them and who believes they can do something with their lives and who also provides something concretely, you see a sudden shift in their attitude and motivation,” he added.
The now-uncertain future of the city’s pilot program means that agencies like Good Shepherd will have to continue to race ahead and reach families in need before ACS becomes involved in order to resolve the problems before they become investigations. This year, though, they will face doing more with less. More than $3.6 million in cuts to the agency’s preventive services will result 600 fewer spots for those seeking non-mandated help. “It means New York City will continue to lag behind the rest of the country,” Wexler said. “Even if they are going ahead with it, it’s too little too late.”
Paige Rentz is a reporter for a chain of community newspapers in Westchester County. As a part-time M.S. student at Columbia, she is covering Educational Neglect and LGBT student issues in the New York City school system and is embedded in Urban Academy, a transfer high school in the Julia Richman Educational Complex. She graduated in 2007 with her B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College, where she studied literature and creative writing. She can be reached at email@example.com.