Failure to Protect
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ASFA FIVE YEARS AFTER: What Have the Effects Been?
Hosted by FRONTLINE, Columbia University's School of Social Work, and the Institute for Child Policy at Columbia

Chaired by Jane Spinak, professor, Columbia University Law School

Jan. 22, 2003, Columbia University's Alfred Lerner Hall

Jane Spinak
Edward Ross Aranow Clinical Professor, Columbia University Law School

I'm Jane Spinak, and I'm chairing this session. ... This panel is entitled, "ASFA Five Years After: What Have the Effects Been?" I just want to give you a one-minute introduction into ASFA, though most of you are very familiar with it. ...

The Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) of 1997 amended Titles IV-B and IV-E of the Social Security Act that governed states' child protective and welfare services, including foster care and adoption. ASFA has been seen by both its supporters and its detractors as an effort to shift child welfare policy away from the guiding principles of the last major federal initiative, the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act (AACWA) of 1980, those principles including extensive efforts to preserve and reunite families, to a greater emphasis on finding permanent placements for children in foster care, especially through adoption at a more rapid and regular pace.

ASFA mandated each state to comply with its requirements, allowing some local variation, in order to maintain federal funding. While both the AACWA and ASFA were intended to stop a child's endless drift in foster care and secure a permanent living arrangement for that child, as legislative mandates they both offer limited solutions to the complexities of the child welfare system. ... The panelists today, while cognizant of ASFA's impact on child welfare systems, are prepared to discuss those greater complexities. So we will begin with Commissioner William Bell, and then go down the table as we did previously. Commissioner Bell?

William Bell
Commissioner, New York City Administration for Children's Services

Good morning. As I thought about talking about ASFA at five years after its implementation and thinking about where the system is, ... the first thought I had was to come in and right off the bat talk about the fact that if you look at the timeline of when ASFA was signed into law at the federal law and when enabling legislation was signed in New York State, and then look at the timeline for the beginning of reform in New York City, that you would have to conclude that there was a great deal occurring in New York City prior to the signing of ASFA into law at the federal level, and prior to it being enabled in New York State. I think that if you look around the country, you will find that that is true for a number of jurisdictions. So that could lead itself to a discussion of, "Well, look what we've done in New York City that wasn't necessarily driven by the requirements of ASFA."

I stopped. I wasn't sure that that was the productive way to go because while there are some concerns -- and I think over time there have been even criticisms of ASFA as a public policy and what it actually does for systems -- looking at the two major overarching goals in ASFA and looking at the principles that underlie those goals, I think that what I found is a place where what we've done in terms of reform here in New York City actually merges with what I believe to have been the intent of those who pushed for ASFA. Because, as critical as some may be, I think that what you found in ASFA was that people who had been struggling for a number of years to try and make sense of what was happening or what was not happening in the child welfare system ultimately concluded that ASFA was going to get them to a certain endpoint.

So I start with looking at those timelines as I've described them, but then I look at the motivation for what happened in New York City, motivation for how ASFA came into being. ASFA came into being because there were those who looked at the system and said there are over 100,000 children who seem to be hanging in limbo waiting to be adopted, and something needs to be done about that. There were people who looked at a system and said that there are children who were not being adequately cared for in our child welfare system and something needs to be done about that.

Motivation in New York City: In 1995, you had the death of Elisa Izquierdo, which happened in November of '95, which ironically is two years to the month to the signing of ASFA, which occurred in November of 1997. The death of Elisa Izquierdo was a motivating factor in New York City to say we've got to do something that changes the picture of child welfare. The picture of child welfare was one where you had consistently years of children coming into the system, not necessarily receiving the adequate care that everyone would agree that they deserved. You had children at that particular point in time who were waiting to be adopted and who had been waiting to be adopted for a number of years. Similar motivations in terms of why something needed to be done differently, but one started long before the other came into being.

The other overarching goal, in terms of two overarching goals of ASFA, was that you would move children who were already in foster care to a permanent placement and that you would do that in an expedited fashion. The other goal being that you would change the experience for children who were coming into the system. ... The principles that underlie ASFA, I think, are the same principles that have driven what we've done in New York City. Where I think the system has changed over the last seven years of ACS's existence and the five years of ASFA's existence, is that we've moved closer to becoming a principle-driven service system, which kind of gets at that needs-based service system that the earlier panel was talking about, but that we've tried to create a broad frame of reference for how everyone in the system needs to be thinking about serving the children that come to our care. And that first principle being that the safety of the children is the paramount driver in making decisions about children, whether that's a safety decision that's made by a CPS worker, or a safety decision that is made by a foster care worker, or a safety decision that is made by preventive services worker, that we have to be driven by the safety of children. ...

The next principle being that foster care is temporary, and that children should not grow up in foster care. [There's been] a huge change in terms of what we've seen here. We've now moved down the pathway in New York City where we're actually looking at restricting the assigning of permanency goal of independent living, so that we're saying only as a last resort should you assign to a child who is in foster care a permanency goal of independent living, because that permanency goal simply means you're going to grow up in foster care. We need to be looking at how do we make sure that we are exploring every single permanency option for children who are in our care before we ultimately say, "You will age out of the foster care system." And how do we even, in saying that, get on a pathway that ensures that when that young person leaves the system, that they're moving in a direction where they have either the capacity within themselves to make the kind of life decisions that they will be faced with, or they have a reliable resource to whom they can turn when those life decisions begin to affect their lives six months, one year, two years outside of discharge from foster care.

Another principle: That permanency planning should begin as soon as children enter the child welfare system. One of the, I think, innovations that have been implemented in New York City that has the potential for really deepening change in the system, both in child welfare practice and in court practice, is the family team conference program, where we are engaging families as partners in decision-making about the future outcomes for their children once they've been placed in foster care and before they're placed in foster care. This really creates an opportunity to reach agreements about services that we believe can have a lasting impact on reducing litigation or reducing the adversarial relationship between the child welfare agency, the lawyers involved in the cases, those protecting the children's interests, those protecting the parents' interests, and those presenting the case on the part of the city.

If we can get to a point of early agreement and early engagement of families about services, then we are in a different place in terms of not spending nine months to a year trying to reach a disposition in family court when we can immediately go into delivering services to families.

The fourth principle is that child welfare systems must focus on results and accountability. I can run down a number of things that we've done here in the city, like the ... evaluation component that looks at all of our contract providers and actually rates them against the outcomes that we believe are the most effective for children in the system. Or even our internal accountability systems, like the child protective services management reporting system that has been able to isolate every single caseworker, every single supervisor, and every single manager in our child protective system and produce a report card on their outcomes in nine different categories, including their caseload size and including how quickly they move children on their foster care caseloads towards permanency.

Then, finally, new and innovative approaches are needed to achieve the outcomes that we're looking for. It's interesting that while ASFA suggested that is something that is required, and talks about the federal waivers as being one way of getting it, that New York State is yet to get a federal waiver, although we have been pushing hard to be considered among the numbers who are able to use this innovation. And so it raises a concern for me that while things have changed in the five years since ASFA, I think what we've done since ASFA is get to a place where the reform process that had begun prior to ASFA has now merged with some of the goals and principles that underlie ASFA and we're now, I think, at an adjoining point where we can start to move forward and see a continuation of some of the improvements that have been seen here in New York City. ...

I think that ASFA expands our environment and brings a place where the city and the state and the feds can meet and agree to disagree, because I think there are still some areas where we disagree, such as federal participation in all of the life of children in our care, and that federal participation using IV-E dollars to fund the two years after discharge where I think the real test is how effective have we been with young people who have aged out of our system.

But if you look at the foster care numbers, we've gone from over 40,000 children in foster care in New York City when ASFA was signed, down to around 26,000 children in foster care today. We've gone to a system that actually serves more children with supportive services in their homes than we actually serve children who are in the foster care system. We've gone from a system where the number of admissions into foster care each year was greater than the number of discharges from foster care each year, to a system where consistently over the last several years we've had well over 1,000 more discharges from foster care than admissions into foster care. And in fact, since 1997, we've reduced admissions to foster care by almost 40 percent.

If you look at ... the median link to reunification and the median length of time to adoption, ... you see that this downward trend started long before ASFA was actually signed, and we still have a long way to go, particularly on the adoption side, because even right now, the kids who came into foster care in 1995, their median time to adoption is still almost five years. A huge concern, but if you look at 58 months as opposed to 84 months, which is what it looked like in 1988, the progress is moving forward.

I think the last [thing] I would talk about is the recidivism rate, which breaks down into two [categories] here: ... children coming into foster care for the first time, and when they go home what percent of those kids come back into care within a year; and children who are in foster care for a second time and when they go home, the likelihood of those kids coming back into foster care. And while there is a continued decline in both of those categories, there's still, I think, too high of a number in terms of recidivism rate, which really talks about what are we doing with families during the time in foster care, and what are we doing with families after that foster care discharge, and how do we get into those ... community districts ... and really begin to understand the personalities of the families in those communities, and really build an array of support services that can continue what we started as reform here in New York City and what ASFA suggested was law in 1997.

Thank you.

[Applause]

Ms. Spinak: Our next speaker is Mark Courtney.

Mark Courtney
Director, Chapin Hall Center for Children

I'm going to start with a story that hopefully illustrates an issue, a problem that I think plagues this field. I had the pleasure of being at a conference once about eight or nine years ago at the University of Wisconsin and sitting next to somebody [with whom I] started up a conversation whose name was Bill Prosser. He used to work for the federal government. We got into a discussion about the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act, and I asked him a question. I've always wondered where this number in the act that says we have to have a permanency decision within 18 months comes from. He smiled and said, "I wrote that part of the law. I sat down and I looked at a textbook by Al Kadushin." Well, interestingly enough, Al Kadushin was my predecessor when I was at the University of Wisconsin, he was a child welfare scholar there for decades. He wrote the textbook on child welfare.

It turns out there's a little part of that text that talks about research from the '50s, ... another study in the '70s about foster care drift and how half of the kids in care were in care for more than two years. So Al put this in there and Bill said, "Well, we need to set a deadline. We need to set a deadline before that so the decision is made before that." So that's where that came from. There were marching orders from Congress. ...


Well, had [Bill] read the rest of Al's book, he would have known that that research was flawed, and in fact most kids went home within six months, and the better studies had actually approached this from looking at kids entering the system and when did they leave, and most kids exited care within six months. I'm not saying that we necessarily should have had a different permanency deadline, although I would probably argue for a shorter one, way back in 1980, but it illustrates the problem that our field has, and that is the knowledge basis is, frankly, embarrassing. ... I think it's really plagued policy development, practice development for a long time and it shows up in all the policies. I don't really know where the 15 out of 22 months part of ASFA comes from -- the idea that if you've spent 15 out of 22 months in care, there needs to be a move toward termination of parental rights. Maybe somebody else here knows that. I'd love to add that to my list of stories I use in my child welfare policy class.

I was asked to comment on the impact of ASFA. It's very difficult to do that the way I would want to do that, systematically, because of the lack of information we have. There's a little bit of data that I will share, and then I'll move on to some other indicators of the impact of ASFA. I agree with the Commissioner. I think a lot of what you might attribute to ASFA was going on in states before ASFA, had very little do with ASFA, and it'll be difficult under the best of circumstances to tease out the impact of the Adoption and Safe Families Act.

But we do have some data at Chapin Hall Center for Children at University of Chicago from the Multistate Foster Care Data Archive, which has over half the children in out-of-home care in the country, and we're able to follow their paths longitudinally. ... First of all, we know adoptions went up in the wake of ASFA, about the time of ASFA. It's not really clear that ASFA caused that. There were incentives from the federal government. President Clinton has an adoption initiative going on before ASFA. It's not clear that ASFA caused that.

And if you really look at specific states that drive a lot of that, you start seeing practices in New York or Illinois or other places that were really independent of ASFA. But the data does suggest that the passage of ASFA had an impact on the backlog of kids in the system. Kids that had been there for a while, the likelihood that they'd be adopted in the next year went up.

However, ... there's some tentative evidence -- we only have data for the first couple of years -- that the likelihood of kids coming into the system would be adopted quickly actually may have declined a little bit. We also have evidence that the rate of reunification of those kids coming in continue to decline. It was already in a downhill slope through much of the '90s and continued to decline after ASFA.

Why might this be the case? I don't want to speculate too much, but one way to look at it is the federal government gave states marching orders in a stressed system with limited resources and they focused those marching orders on moving kids out of the back-end of the system. Basic system dynamics will tell you, when you have a stressed system, you focus on one part of it, it gives you less resources and time to spend on other parts of it. It may be that kids actually coming into the system, at least for the first couple of years under ASFA, in the states we have in the archive, had sort of a shift of attention toward the back-end. If that's true, then we would expect that to equalize over time and hopefully those reunification numbers will get better, and early movement to adoption numbers will get better.

I guess the main point I would like to make is, it's very hard to tell which aspects of federal law -- including ASFA, because there are other aspects of federal law that might impact the ... well-being, etc., of kids in the child welfare system -- actually have had an impact. As I mentioned, the number of adoptions started to go up before the Adoption and Safe Families Act and anecdotally seem more related to fiscal incentives that the federal government's created, and just changes in permanency planning and activities going on at the state level than ASFA's timelines, per se. Although that would be an important thing to look at, whether [terminations of parental rights] are going up. There's anecdotal evidence that that's true. Whether that's leading to new adoptions, we just don't really have the data infrastructure in place nationally to answer those questions. The federal data system, the Adoption Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System, is not set up longitudinally. So it's literally impossible to answer those kinds of questions with the current federal data system.

But some other things have happened that arguably may have had as much or more of an impact on the child welfare system. Welfare reform happened roughly the same time. Some states were doing that before 1996, '97, and they continued it. And there's an excellent paper by Rob Geen and his colleagues at the Urban Institute where they've gone out and talked to child welfare administrators about what's been changing. Well, one thing that's changed is child welfare agencies started using [Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)] money much more than they were before. It's one of the major funding sources for child welfare agencies going forward, something we need to worry about, frankly, given the current fiscal situation in the federal government and the states.

Another thing states have been doing much more aggressively, partly as a function of welfare reform, is diverting children and families from the front end of the child welfare system. We talk about dual-track systems, and that's going on, but there's a lot of just diversion of kids if there's a relative around, diversion of kids and families from the child welfare system, and really no provision of any help to their families, and no court involvement with those families. And that could be a very good thing, but there's clear evidence, in terms of qualitative research in the field, that a number of jurisdictions have started to do that in the last four or five years that were not doing that aggressively before. And we don't really know what impact that has on the systems in terms of what kids are left and what families are left, and what impact that would have on outcomes for children and families.

Subsidized guardianship, the waiver demonstrations that a number of states participated in. Some states didn't get waivers. California's investing a lot of California money in subsidized guardianship. And Illinois, the state that I'm in right now, that really has more to do with change in outcomes in Illinois than anything else Illinois has done. I think the leaders of the child welfare system there would tell you that. It allowed them to move lots of kids out of care into subsidized guardianship, and in the process, by talking to relative caregivers in particular about adoption, something they hadn't been doing, sort of a basic practice intervention, a lot more kids got adopted. Was that a result of ASFA? No, it really didn't have anything to do with ASFA. It's not inconsistent with ASFA, but I would argue that's had a bigger impact in some of the states that are doing that than the law has.

Funding for court improvement projects. Again, there's no real systematic research going on about that. In fact, from my perspective, it's sort of troubling that there isn't more rigorous evaluation of these "improvement" projects, but there's a lot of really interesting work going on in the juvenile court around the country because the federal government saw fit to allocate some resources to do that. There's a lot of interesting innovation going on, and there's a lot of learning. I think the network of juvenile court judges and advocates for children has been supported in a big way; it's brought people together in a number of places where they really weren't getting together and talking about these things frequently prior to that money.

With respect to ASFA generally, I guess I'm leading up to a takeaway. ... A colleague of mine, Ted Stein -- who's been around a long time [and] writes about the law and child welfare -- wrote a nice paper arguing that nearly everything in the Adoption and Safe Families Act from a procedural standpoint you could have done before. It's not as if people couldn't do these things before. And some judges were doing them before. And some agencies were doing them before. Other places were moving in this direction; there's nothing that prohibited, with very few exceptions, our child welfare systems and our juvenile courts from doing exactly what ASFA says they should be doing.

One has to wonder about whether ... it's the law or is there a change in mindset that goes along with change in federal policy, and you certainly see that. You see people [saying], "OK, well, there's been a shift now. ... We need to really reemphasize the idea of moving kids toward permanency and protecting child safety." But I think you could argue the federal framework in some ways isn't what's going to drive child welfare reform, and you've heard that from a lot of people.

One impact that ASFA has unquestionably had, it was really a sleeper issue at the time the law passed, and that's in having states focus on outcomes. There's a little blurb there saying the department has to develop outcome measures and tie that to funding for child welfare programs. Well, I can tell you, child welfare agencies around the country are paying a lot of attention to that. They've got a whole set of national standards. If you don't meet the national standards, that shows up in the newspaper and suddenly there's a real interest in developing the capacity to look at outcomes and try to improve practice in terms of outcomes. A lot of jurisdictions -- New York, for example -- were doing that beforehand, but I would say a lot of states still don't have the capacity to actually use their own data and learn from those data to improve practice.

I guess this leads to my final pitch, and that is, my perspective on the child welfare system is it's about a $15 billion experiment on children and families. While I would agree with my colleagues that, at a common sense level, we know what we need to do, there's a lot we don't know about, particularly interventions. We say we need to coordinate services. There are a lot of different models of coordination out here, and we're not comparing them, we're not evaluating the effectiveness of one versus the other. The only actual study in child welfare of multidisciplinary teams found absolutely no impact of them on practice, and found the most important contributor to outcomes for kids was just the morale of workers in the agency, regardless of whether they were collaborating with other people.

I'm not saying we should throw the baby out with the bath water. I think we do need in fact to have cross-system collaboration. The question is, how do you do that? How do you preserve families, if that's what you want to do? Families are a heterogeneous group. I agree we need to deal with folks as individuals, but can we learn something about the group of moms that come in who have a substance abuse problem who have a new baby? Which methods of intervention work best? Our field hasn't done that, and I think that it's a real problem.

People come to us all the time and say, "What works? You're researchers, tell us what works." In fact, more than that: "Tell us how much money we'll save if we do this." We can't answer that question. I think there needs to be a serious investment in helping agencies and other folks try and answer those questions if we really want to have the next round of federal policy really make sense and be based on knowledge of how the system functions.

[Applause]

Ms. Spinak: Michael Wald will address us next.

Michael Wald
Senior adviser on policy, evaluation, and children and youth, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation

... In light of what's been said, I'd like to make what may be a few disjointed comments, part of which will be about the child welfare system, but part of which will be more broadly about where we are and what we may be, or where maybe we should go. ...

It's now about 50 years since Moss and Engler published their paper about children adrift in foster care. To have a whole series of speakers get up and say we're not making much progress, terrible things are still going on ... has to leave one somewhat depressed. At least it has to leave me somewhat depressed, having spent the last 40 years of my life on these sets of issues, trying to draft legislation.

We also know that there's enormous variation in what goes on within states, between states, that we don't understand and that when we try and describe what ASFA is, well, Illinois was having twice as many kids going to foster care as Michigan. Well, what do you do about that? Why were those kinds of differences? We don't know most of those things. We've just begun. ...

But, at core, let me make a suggestion that perhaps we have been off for the last 50 years in what we are doing with the child welfare system, and that Moss and Engler, and I might say some of my work and some others, put us off in this base. We have tried to think about the child welfare system largely in terms of permanency, not largely in terms of child well-being. The fact of the matter is that we don't measure any of the kinds of outcomes of how kids are doing in school, how kids are doing emotionally, how kids are functioning in all sorts of ways, who come into this system, who we are trying to do something for. We began to define permanency and not being killed as the end goals of the system for children. That's a rather limited set of things and we haven't gotten there for 50 years in terms of those sets of goals.

We're even mistaken if we think that by returning kids home that we are giving them permanency. We are often giving them safety, which is good, but these are kids that bounce between family members, bounce with relatives, do get some replacements. ... They don't have permanency in their life. Even when they're not bouncing between their parents and another setting, their parents are bouncing between four different living environments, they're bouncing between schools, their lives are not permanent.

At a very core level, the workers who work with them under enormous pressure don't think about these sets of issues in children's terms. When I started running the San Francisco Department of Human Services, I asked my workers to not remove any kid without taking their teddy bear or their blanket with them. That caused an uproar. "We don't know what's their favorite toy or blanket." I just said no child should be removed with less information than I give my grandparents when they stay for a weekend. But we don't do any of that. We have superficial measures of children's well-being. We go in and we pull kids from school in the middle of their classes to interview them about whether they were abused or not, and they have to go back and explain to the other kids in school why they were interviewed. We do things because it's of a convenience of the system and workers and resources, not because it's child-oriented in its fundamental way.

That is not going to change by legislation. It may change in part by getting at the kind of best practices and nitty gritty, ground level stuff ... But that micro level has to be about family systems and dynamics that we don't get at.

In the meantime, we are in a context in which 15, 20, 25 percent -- it's hard to say -- of kids in urban school systems are dropping out of schools; where 25 percent of African American males, 18 to 24, are in the criminal justice system; where all kinds of things are not happening. The child welfare system is not alone. We can look at the school systems; they are seen as a failure for low-income kids. If we look at the juvenile justice system, nobody would pick out a juvenile justice system that was working well. If we look at mental health system, nobody would suggest that any mental health system in the country is adequately serving the needs of children in those mental health systems.

These are issues that Congressman [George] Miller [of California] has been thinking about for years, almost alone in Congress, and you can't find the state equivalents putting them on the national agenda. The national agenda cannot turn around whether concurrent planning is good or bad. The national dialogue cannot turn upon whether home or foster care is the way to keep people from being killed.

The national dialogue, which has gotten fits and starts with things like the National Commission on Children, has to focus on why somewhere around 10 to 12 percent of our children and families are doing incredibly poorly and what it will take in a concreted sort of way to reach those 10 or 12 percent of families.

I believe there are ways to get at that. That's beyond the time limit that I have here, but if the national dialogue only stays on how do we improve the child protection system, we will never have a child welfare system.

[Applause]

Ms. Spinak: Before questions begin, Jane Waldfogel is going to have a response to these speakers, and I guess the earlier ones as well.

Jane Waldfogel
Associate professor, Columbia University School of Social Work

... What I want to try to do is underscore three points that were made by these speakers.

For the first one, ... I want to put the New York City experience in context. ... You can see the New York foster care numbers going up through the late 1980s, as many of you know from first-hand experience, and then coming down right through the 1990s. ... These numbers are very impressive. There's been a big decline in foster care numbers in New York. It's been driven by a fall in admissions, which is really very striking. What makes these all the more striking is what's been happening nationally.

What's been happening nationally is a steady increase in foster care numbers where we're now at an unprecedented number of children in foster care. We're approaching 600,000 children in foster care. I don't think anybody really understands why the numbers are going up like that, but it makes the experience of a place like New York all the more striking. And it kind of reinforces the idea that it can't just be ASFA, it can't be a federal law that's driving the decrease in foster care entries and foster care numbers and the increase in adoptions, because if it was ASFA we'd be seeing it across the country, and we're not. The experience of states is very divergent.

My second point is that there's a host of other factors that affect the foster care system, and Mark and Michael named several of them. So I'll just go over them quickly. There are changes in related policies, things like kinship care and subsidized guardianship, which are an increasingly important part of the child welfare system, and an increasingly important part of the experience of children outside the child welfare system. We don't understand very well about how many children are being diverted from the child welfare system into placements with relatives that are done on an informal basis outside the child welfare system. But if we really want to get a full accounting of where children are and children not living with their parents, we have to think about not just children living in foster care, but children living with relatives or in other settings not as part of the foster care system.

Another important set of policies that have to do with children in the child welfare system is, of course, welfare reform, and that's been tremendously varied across the states. As Mark said, researchers at the Urban Institute have gone out and talked to child welfare administrators about their experiences with welfare reform, and it's been a real mixed bag. What most child welfare administrators say is it's really too soon to tell what the impact of welfare reform is going to be in the long run on the child welfare system.

Now, there are a couple of studies that look across states over time and find that as states implemented welfare reform and especially tougher welfare reforms, numbers of children not living with their parents increased. So there is some associational evidence across states over time that as welfare reform has been implemented, and especially tougher version of welfare reform, more children are living in out-of-home settings. But we need a lot more work on this.

And, Mark, I won't go over his whole list, but he mentioned a number of other systems change pieces, like the court improvement projects and other related reforms, and as the Commissioner indicated, there are a number of other reforms that happened at the state level that in many instances preceded ASFA. And I agree with you, many of them were consistent with ASFA and so it's hard to separate out.

The third piece I want to highlight is really the importance of frontline practice in making changes in the foster care system, and it's one of the points that Michael was making in his remarks. As the Commissioner pointed out, the two goals of ASFA were to move children who were already in foster care into permanent settings more quickly -- that was one goal, so that's sort of the back end of the system, the backlog -- and a second goal was to change the experience of children coming into foster care, to change the permanency process and make it work more quickly.

ASFA doesn't really say anything about reducing the numbers of children coming into the system, yet if you look at a place like New York City, their success in reducing the numbers of children in foster care in large part is because they've been able to reduce the numbers of children coming into the system. Now, that's an interesting lesson for us, and I think it has a lot to do with the type of systems reform frontline practice changes that have happened in New York City, and that's very interesting.

When the reforms started, this most recent wave of reforms, in New York City, there was a really crystal clear focus on child safety, and I think many people in the city were concerned that this was going to lead to an increase in children being in foster care, an increase in removals. That would have been the prediction, and, in fact, just the opposite has happened. So that's interesting.

I'm really delighted that the two panels link a conversation about changing frontline practice in really fundamental ways. Remember what Paul Vincent said, it's changing the experience of one child and one family at a time through changing the behavior of one worker and one supervisor at a time. Really fundamental changes in frontline practice. I think it's great that we're linking that with changes in the foster care system, because often these are disconnected dialogues. ... I think the missing piece in some of the foster care dialogue has been this very clear focus on changes in frontline practice. So I'm emphasizing it because I think it's great to see the two linked together, but also because I want to issue the invitation and the discussion that follows. You should feel free in raising your questions and comments to comment or ask questions about both the first session and the second session. So if there are questions that remain about the first panel and frontline practice, feel free to raise those, or to make a connection with the questions that you have about this panel.

[Applause]

Ms. Spinak: Before I open it up, I'd like to be able to start with a question that perhaps one of the panelists would like to address. One of the things that was raised over and over again this morning is the complexity of the current system, the complexity of the systems that exist around it, and the difficulty in creating the right kind of political will to address the needs of the people who are involved in those systems. One of the aspects of the program today and creating the dialogue this afternoon is to try to introduce better to the public what some of that complexity is about, but many of you talked about the kind of quick response, the silver bullet, the expectation of the public that there is going to be a way to fix this.

So one of the things I would like you to address is, if that isn't true, as we've all said today it isn't, what are the kinds of steps that those of us who care deeply and have spent ... much of their lives doing this work, what are some of the ways in which we teach the public, we teach community leaders, we teach politicians to accept that this is a complex system that needs change and that there aren't easy solutions? I'm opening it up to any of you to respond.

Commissioner Bell: ... Just to run down a list in terms of the number of different entities that would be involved and have been involved in making change, you've got the family court system. You've got the child welfare system which is looked at as the child protective arm of that system, the foster care arm of that system. You've got an array of contracted providers; in New York City, 90 percent of the foster care in New York City is delivered by contract agencies. You've got the lawyers who represent the parents' interests; you've got the lawyers who represent the children's interests; you've got the lawyers who represent the child welfare agencies' interests. Then you've got systems that might not traditionally be looked at as child welfare systems. You've got the Department of Education. You've got the State Department of Mental Health Services. You've got the State Department of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disability. And the list could go on and on and on. And you've got the State Office of Children and Family Services that works in an oversight function over the ACS office here.

So when you look at a system that has that many different voices in it, you've got to come to some place of collaboration. Then what I haven't mentioned, which is probably most important, you've got the communities where these children and families come from, who see themselves as, in some situations, helpless against this outsider who's coming in, not a part of the decision-making process about what's happening in their environments.

I think that is the framework for trying to explain why this is a complex response, why this has to be multifaceted, why it has to be a multiyear response when we're talking about making changes. I think that the way we go about doing that is by having an open dialogue with communities.

We're right now, for the first time in the city, I think on Friday, going into the community in Harlem, which is the highest placement rate in New York City and has been for as long as I can remember in recent memory. We're going in with the top people in ACS, sitting down with the contract community and the providers in that community saying, let's talk about what we're doing and let's figure out how to change what we're doing so that we do a better job for the children and families in the community.

I think you've got to bring the media into this conversation. If the only thing that the public reads or hears on TV is a listing of the failures of a system, then what you create is a sense of public distrust of the people who are charged with delivering the service. So we really have to, I think, really begin to think about balance in every conversation. We have to get to a place where, when we talk about failures, let's talk about successes. When we talk about successes as a public agency, you also have to talk about your failures and where you're continuing to struggle.

I think that just as the reform in New York City has taken some time, changing this perspective is also going to take some time.

Mr. Courtney: I would agree with everything there. ... Just as an aside, there's a little debate or conflict in Chicago between the child welfare agency and the Chicago public schools over the fact that maybe kids in [Department of Children and Family Services] care are not doing well in school and maybe that contributes to making it difficult to improve test scores generally. We're beyond this, but it basically started with a shouting match of, "Well, DCFS is making the Chicago public schools fail." The other side said, "Wait a minute, aren't you supposed to educate the kids in foster care?"

So you get this kind of dialogue going. Now we've moved beyond that. But it needs to go even beyond that, to the point where these children and families need to be seen as fellow members of our community. These children have to be seen as our children, more broadly. And that's the problem. They get seen as the system's children, the system has failed them some way. No, we have failed them. Society has failed them. And, in fact, they're involved in all these systems. ... There is research coming out on welfare reform. We've done a study in Milwaukee, half the people who applied for public assistance in Milwaukee in 1999 were known to the child welfare [system] -- had been involved at least at the level of investigation with the child welfare system in Milwaukee. So why does the welfare agency somehow treat parenting and child well-being as not its job? But that will require a shift to really thinking about child welfare, as opposed to just child protection and permanency.

» Steve Christian
National Conference of State Legislatures

... There was some talk in your earlier panel about the drawbacks of categorized funding. I wanted to follow up on that and ask the panel to comment on what they consider the pros and cons of going from an open-ended categorized federal funding scheme to something more flexible, including a block grant for child welfare.

Mr. Courtney: I think the concern about a block grant in child welfare comes from our experience with other block grants; that the Social Services Block Grant maybe, once upon a time, that was a good idea, but in reality it's lost half of its value since it was created. And there's a real concern that ... the number of kids in foster care [is] going up in spite of a good economy. Why is that happening? Well, if there had been a block grant, if the original HR4 version of welfare reform from the Republican Congress had passed, you would have had a block grant during much of that period of growth and states wouldn't have been getting more money to fund out-of-home care.

So that's the concern. I would say two things. I think maybe we need to think about a different kind of block grant that isn't just a fixed block grant but is in fact an entitlement based on, say, the number of poor children, the number of children in a state, that's indexed so that as costs of providing services go up, states are protected in some way from an increase in demand for their services.

The other thing I would say is, what are we going to block grant? If you look at the work of the Urban Institute in terms of where child welfare funding is coming from, so much of it's coming from TANF these days, Medicaid, the Social Services block grant. If I were a child welfare administrator, I would want to have a broader discussion about what exactly we're talking about block granting. Title IV-E at this point drives a lot, but it's not the only funding stream. It is a big player at the federal level in funding child welfare programs.

Commissioner Bell: In New York City, we've lived with a child welfare block grant since 1995, and since 1995 the city and the state have been arguing over who's paying their fair share. I think that the block grant is generally a government response to a request for flexibility.


ASFA speaks about the need for innovations and approaches in order to meet the goals of ASFA, which then suggests flexibility. If we can create a system where implementing a flexible spending, a flexible program environment means that you are looking at appropriations on an annual basis and the government at every level, the state and the federal government, are not reducing their contributions to the delivery of services and then calling that flexibility, if we can create a system where there is an honest look at the cost of services and an appropriation on an annual basis that absolutely reflects what the government should be paying at each level based on agreed-upon methodology, and then you step back and allow the localities to be flexible in how they spend that in order to meet the needs of the children and families coming into care, then I'm all for a block grant. Absent that, then we're talking about having localities bear a greater sense of the burden for meeting the needs of children and families in their system and that doesn't help localities, and in the long run I don't think it helps children.

» Question from audience

One of the things in listening to both panels we hear about [is a] focus on the role of the caseworker. ... The entry level job ... isn't seen as "I'm going to stay here, I'm going to make this my profession." Look around and see how many masters degree folks stay and remain after a year or two as a line worker and I think we start to see some of the problems that we experience with the system. I think we have to make that position a valuable position. I think we have to make that position and raise its self-esteem. Folks don't stay in that position, and the reason they don't stay in that position is that they don't get the self-respect, they don't get the self-worth in that position that they really should. ... I think it's a point that warrants discussion.

» Olive Taylor
New York City ACS

I'd like to respond. ... I'm an employee of ACS and I've been with the agency for eight years. Four of those eight years were spent frontline staff, actually more like six of those eight years, as a frontline caseworker. Since 1996, things have gotten extremely better in terms of helping families and helping children with the recreation of the agency as ACS, with the initiatives that former Commissioner Scoppetta and our current commissioner have put into place, with the initiatives that have been spearheaded by Zeinab Chahine.

Things have gotten increasingly better for caseworkers. You will find a lot of turnover, but you'll also find that it takes a special type of individual to work with the families, to be willing to go out and come in at 2 a.m. and have to be in work the next morning to file a case because you had to remove children, because there wasn't an initiative.

Contrary to what you may believe, you have a lot of workers that are not so concerned about getting a masters degree in social work as they are concerned about getting services in the field office so that they can make a difference in the families that they serve.

So there is a lot being done, and a lot of the workers aren't really trying to go anywhere, because they do love the job that they do.

Ms. Spinak: Can you stay there a minute, because I'm curious if you'd talk a little more about what you think some of the changes are that have made people want to stay in their job.

Ms. Taylor: The major thing has been the Connection system. It wasn't perfect, but when I came into this agency, we were handwriting cases. In court, you'd see a worker with two and three cases waiting to get called, on the train, going in the field. That has made a tremendous, tremendous [difference]. And not only that, not only can you record cases now via computer, but the Connection system itself, it has streamlined paperwork and it's mass management. There's so much more accountability.

There's also something called the Uniform Case Record, better known as a UCR. I just came out of the field office in January to come to neighborhood-based services, but when I came back, that document is one of the most comprehensive documents that the workers have, and it's the most comprehensive I've seen. It is true accountability. There's nothing -- the online case narrative that the worker has to record everything -- that doesn't capture or doesn't tap on some aspect of a family's well-being. So that's one of the things that's made a great difference.

Also, there have been other things, like all of the training that the workers are getting. It used to be where workers had to go out of the office to do a lot of training, but now, because we have community-based trainers, and office-based training, you can have a lot of training in the field office and you don't have to worry about, well, I can't go to training because I have to see this family or I have to go in the field.

Also, with all of this, overall, the number of cases that have been coming into the field office have been lower, the outcomes have been higher. We've been doing less placements, less court intervention, and more preventive work. And a lot of that's due to the family team conferences, which I can say really work.

I'm not standing up here to get brownie points, I was a frontline caseworker and one of the things I can say is that the agency has come a long way. I remember sitting in supervisory meetings looking at the stats that Commissioner Bell was talking about. Now I'm over to the flip side of neighborhood-based services and now I'm like, wow, these programs, these initiatives really do work.

[Applause]

Commissioner Bell: One point I would want to make on the caseworkers on the frontline and the relationship between schools of social work. First, I'd like to thank Ms. Taylor for those comments. For me, that's the worth the price of admission because if a commissioner says it, then that's the commissioner touting himself. If someone from the frontline says that, for me, I don't question it.

I think there's a long conversation around what we have to do to elevate what we think of the position of caseworker. I look at it from the perspective of the trauma associated with the work that many of our staff do. I just draw comparisons to what the response is when a police officer is subjected to trauma, when a firefighter is subjected to trauma, and the supportive response that comes to that individual. Then I look at the response when a caseworker has something traumatic happen to a child on their caseload and the punitive response that comes from that trauma.

Accountability is one thing, but not supporting an individual in the work that they do and not recognizing the impact on them and their families, I think is something that we have suffered from as a city and as a country for far too long. And I think that on the education side, we need to start at the academic level telling people that you can use your social work degree as a caseworker. You can use your social work degree as a casework supervisor. But you can use it in other areas as well. But there's no greater arena to practice social work than in the public child welfare environment. There are no greater challenges than I think you're ever going to experience in practicing social work than practicing social work in the public child welfare environment.

But I think there is a dialogue that we've got to engage in with academia with the public system itself, and just the public at large as to how much we respect people in this field. Turnover in this agency before ACS was created in child protection was over 50 percent. That has been cut in half. We've increased salaries, we've increased academic requirements for caseworkers, but we've also increased the amount of attention that we pay to supporting the needs of the frontline staff, and not setting them out as being individuals operating in isolation, but as being members of a team that together has to meet the needs of the families that they serve.

» Joe Semidei
Committee for Hispanic Children and Families

My question is for Michael. You reflected on 50 years of efforts in child welfare and you mentioned that maybe the core value of permanency might be reconsidered, and you mentioned well-being as a possible substitute. Can you elaborate what that would mean in terms of program strategies and frontline practices if we shifted to that value?

Mr. Wald: My sense is that it's some of what William and the staff have been talking about here. I think that we really do need the equivalent of individual education plans, individual service plans with children and with families that look at where they are, what their level of functioning is, and how they're functioning a year or two later. If we're going in, our purpose is not only to prevent them from having a broken bone. Most of the people we're going in [to see] don't have broken bones. They have bruises, they have other things. The real damage to them is emotional and intellectual and social sets of skills. That's the threats to the children that are in our system and to lots of other children in the same communities who are not in the child protective services system. It still remains almost random whether you hit the child protective system.

I think in the past we focused on parental behavior, we focused not on the children, and we thought that a lot of it could come by changing the parent without changing the family system. A good example is a case that came up just very recently in San Mateo County, right below San Francisco, where everybody has a MSW. [It's] a pretty well-functioning system where a child died. The child had been badly injured at 12 weeks of age. They couldn't tell whether it was the parents or the grandparents. The child was put in foster care, came out, had an unsupervised visit, was bruised, came back. A series of supervised visits, was sent back again, and in another unsupervised visit was killed.

In that context, the parents went to parenting class. They went to parenting class without a child. Didactic parenting classes, particularly with very young children, have just been proven time and time again not to be very effective.

Secondly, they had supervised visits, but supervised visits were in the agency, in a room like this, with other sorts of families. You're not going to see how parents act under stress when they are doing it in a room with supervision. You see parents under stress with trained people observing in parks, in home settings, in other kinds of things to be able to make the judgments. It's looking at interactions between parent and child, and then coming back and talking to the parent in that context.

That is the level of resources that we don't dream of for the systems to really come in and function at a child well-being and family well-being level. That's what I mean in terms of all of that. Smaller things, any time the child leaves you'd know all of their food habits, their allergies, their medications, their parents would go with them into the placement to help with the setting. There are many ways that we could design a child-oriented system.

Mr. Courtney: I know we're talking about ASFA, but I think there's another piece of federal legislation that's instructive at a system and policy level, and that's the Foster Care Independence Act, because it is the first piece of child welfare legislation that actually said and specified that child welfare agencies are going to have to track and ultimately be held accountable for well-being outcomes. The Adoption and Safe Families Act said you need to set up these outcomes, and, by the way, some of them should be in this child well-being area, and I think it's instructive that the federal government has yet to create any of those child well-being outcomes. But they didn't really have that option in the Foster Care Independence Act that says you have to follow these kids, you have to see whether they have jobs, whether they're engaged in risk behaviors, are they homeless, etc.

I guarantee you, once that data starts becoming available, in fact before it becomes available, what's happening in states and localities is you're starting to have a dialogue about, gee, how can we be held accountable for that? Well, weren't you taking this money to do that for the last 15 years? Well, gee, there's a lot of other systems, there's the education system, there's the housing system, etc., that need to be involved. It's starting a dialogue about this broader set of issues, if we really want to be concerned about child welfare and child well-being.

I think at the federal level, if we want to see that happen, we need to get a little more specific about what those outcomes should be. Kids in foster care should be doing reasonably well in school. They should get healthcare, they should get mental healthcare. When we really start tracking those things, I think you'll see some changes in the system.

Mr. Wald: Can I say one other thing on that? We also talk about this system as if it's all one set of kids, thinking maybe infants or whatever. Obviously, we all know that the needs of teens are very different than the needs of babies, the 6- to 10-year-olds who come in. William talked about that they're creating consultation teams that can help with substance abuse, but also ... we may need specialists that are really focused on infants and their sets of needs in families, and specialists with teenagers, because the developmental needs, the knowledge base are very different. In other professions, we have differences of people working at those levels. The child welfare/child protection system needs that.

Now, this is very hard to put on to a system that's just getting to its basics and to say, "Let's move on." But if we don't have the right set of aspirations and ultimate goals, even as we move up, we're going to settle for far too little.

» Jorgelina Karner
My Sister's Place

... I'm a counselor advocate for the domestic violence agency and I work out of a contract from Albany with our local child protective services. I sit in one of the units from Monday through Thursday. I have the honor to go into our fields, initial [investigations] and home visits. ...

Commissioner Bell mentioned the importance of the social work role on CPS workers. However, I have heard, and I see at the state level there is a great number of CPS workers, frontline supervisors and managers, who probably are not in favor of that. They believe the numbers should be turned around. Instead of having the 70 percent versus 30 percent social work type of job, ... they should be more investigative, like 70 percent or 80 percent. And the rest -- the social work part of it -- should be taking care of another agency. I'd like the panelists to comment on that one.

Ms. Spinak: Just a quick comment about that. I think any proposal that tries to divide the work of the agency and say, "We're going to have some investigators over here and we're going to have social workers over here," runs into the problem that families don't fit neatly into any one category. And I really think we'd do better to move towards the more professionalized model that gives social workers more responsibility, more discretion, more training, so that they can make case-by-case decisions; depending on the particular case and the moment in the life of that case, that worker can be more of an investigator, or more of an assessor, or more of a treatment worker.

You put families into categories and then you discover more information about the family and their category changes. Families disclose things as you get to know them, and as you develop the kind of trusting relationship that we've been talking about. So I think the challenge really comes back to the remarks that Brenda McGowan was making. The challenge really is to give workers a wider span, more discretion, more professionalism so that they can handle a broader range of cases.

» Lawrence Aber
Columbia University Institute for Child and Family Policy

I wanted to pick up on Gail Nayowith's point that the failure to protect is often a failure to invest, and respond to two things. One is, what do we know about the level of ACS investments and the other service investments over the period of time of this decline? How can we make that concrete enough so that the public and other politicians understand what the nature of investment is to get to that point?

The second one has to do with the issue of race and making the children our children. We know that disproportionately African-American and Latino kids are in the system. The whole public dialogue about race in the country now and whether we're supposed to be race-conscious or we're supposed to be color-blind, and the current way that those issues are being thought about, in terms of development of public will to address this, the racial issues related to the development of public will.

Commissioner Bell: I think, quite simply, on the investment side, when ACS was created in the beginning of '96, the child welfare administration, which preceded ACS, was severely underfunded and under-resourced, even on the staffing side. From '96 through the end of 2001, over $600 million dollars was added to the child welfare system here in New York City.

Mr. Aber: From a base of?

Commissioner Bell: It went from a base of about $1.7 billion dollars to about $2.3, $2.4 billion dollars.

Mr. Aber: [So, with a reduction in the caseloads, the investment actually increased?]

Commissioner Bell: Well, I think that what I would caution on simply drawing that conclusion is understanding where the investment went and understanding what actually resulted in the caseload decrease and the improvements in the agency. Money alone doesn't change the dynamics of what you see as outcomes in systems. I think quality management, a clear plan of where you're going, and a time to implement that plan and to rethink that plan as you go along are the things that really create the opportunity for change.

One of the things that we've had in New York City [that] was unprecedented in this city -- where you lived in a city where every two years you had a different commissioner -- we had an opportunity to go from 1996 through 2001 with the same commissioner, and then we've had the opportunity to have a deputy from that administration to take over as commissioner following that. That's unprecedented in this system and probably in many other systems around the country.

So I think that while I would be the first to say that investment is necessary in order to achieve the outcomes, investment alone in terms of dollars won't do it. You've got to create an environment where there's time.

Mr. Aber: I completely understand. ... [But] unless we develop some public understanding about the level of investment required...

Commissioner Bell: Exactly, and I would absolutely agree with that: that this is ... a time where we've got to make a commitment to continuing investment in the lives of the most vulnerable children in our system, because that's actually the children who come to the child welfare system.

On the second point, with respect to race, I think we should probably schedule another one of these symposiums to delve into that. There's absolutely no conversation about race that is not a very complex discussion about the impact of race on all that we do in this country. I think you begin though with that discussion in the child welfare system, particularly on the child protection side, and you have to begin with that child protective agencies don't go out and choose who they're going to investigate. They respond to reports that come in from the community. So you then begin by looking at if a disproportionate amount of those reports from the community are coming in on families of color, then where is the impact of the history of race relations in this country on that reporting process? Then you have to being to think about how we respond to those reports when we actually get them, and whether there are any implications in terms of whether or not there are any race impacts on the decisions that we make once those cases come into our role of responsibility for deciding on those cases.

But I think we have to look at this as not just a cut-and-dried, there are a disproportionate amount of children of color in the system and therefore the system in and of itself must be racist in its undercurrent. I think that we need to really examine what's happening from a broader community perspective when we really begin to examine that particular subject matter.

Ms. Spinak: I'd like to respond as well to this second part, though expand it a little. One of the things that has been talked about a lot today is changing the way in which we engage with families, and I think that the more the child welfare system and its other component part thinks differently about who they're engaged with and what the goal is of building together with the families better outcomes, it is much easier then for these systems to turn to the politicians, to turn to the larger society and say, "These are part of our community, these people are part of who we all are." But if the systems themselves are not doing that, it's very easy for society at-large to just say, "These families we can throw away, because even the people who work with them don't have enough good to say about them."

So I think that we also have an obligation, those of us who work within these systems, to see the families as our partners, and not only our partners in the work that we do with them, but our partners in convincing the larger society that society has this responsibility. I think we haven't gotten there yet.

Mr. Courtney: Just as a matter of information, the federal government sponsored a two-day meeting on racial disproportionality in the child welfare system back in September, and there's a volume of the research that was presented there that's going to be coming out in June or July in Children and Youth Services Review. It was a very helpful discussion that we had. We didn't answer the question, but I would say there are two things.

One, there is some evidence that some things that go on in the system, both the practice and policy level, may contribute in ways that we wouldn't want that [contribute to] disproportionality, although a lot of it looks like it happens before ... we even get there.

I think with respect to making that case, we know there's housing discrimination based on race; we know that the failed schools in this country are disproportionately in neighborhoods where children of color are. I think that we need to get the folks involved in that discourse; we need to ally ourselves with them, to say they are part of the community, and they're part of the community that a number of institutions have failed in a variety of ways. That makes a stronger case than just thinking about the child welfare system.

The other question, Larry, I'll go back to my soapbox, if we want to justify investments, I think we have to show that they're effective investments. I can give you an anecdote. The only thing standing between ... the Safety Services Program in Milwaukee County right now [and its] losing all of its funding -- because those programs were funded out of TANF money by the Department of Workforce Development in Wisconsin -- is an evaluation we just happen to have done in a timely manner that looks like these programs are actually effecting change in families; families like them; the placement rate out of these programs is much lower than found in other research; it's not an experiment.

It makes it very difficult right now in the politics of that state for the Department of Workforce Development to take that money away from the child welfare agency. Had that evaluation not been there, it would be a tough case for the child welfare folks to make. So I think we need evidence that our investments actually make a difference.

Ms. Spinak: I hate to bring this to a conclusion, because as in the earlier panel we're all getting warmed up. I am encouraging you to watch the film. I think that you will enjoy the dialogue this afternoon, those of you who are participating in it, in part because it takes many of the questions that we've raised here this morning and looks at them through the lens of an individual case, and the struggles that the people go through in working on that case.

Thank you for joining us this morning.

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