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In Foster Care Review, Vows of Help and Vigilance

November 7, 2007

John B. Mattingly became New York City's child welfare commissioner aiming to bring accountability to the dozens of private agencies the city paid hundreds of millions of dollars each year to care for foster children.

Mr. Mattingly also brought to the job a long history as an ardent supporter of the idea that endangered children would fare best if the people in the neighborhoods they came from were involved in their care and protection.

And so in the spring of 2005, Mr. Mattingly found himself faced with a delicate and complex challenge. Evidence of fraud, mismanagement and the mistreatment of children had led him to end contracts with two of the city's largest neighborhood-based, minority-run foster care agencies. Those, he acknowledged, were the easy calls.

But he had also put six of the eight remaining minority agencies on notice that they would be investigated and perhaps closed, as well. Their performance in recent years had left them ranked near the bottom of the roughly 40 agencies the city entrusted with its most vulnerable children, and he wanted to be sure there were not other disasters looming.

Mr. Mattingly and his staff realized that what they were contemplating - all but ending a 20-year experiment in allowing minority agencies to care for many of the city's thousands of abused or neglected black and Latino children - could be divisive, and they prepared themselves for the backlash.

Brenda Hart helped provide the passionate resistance. In recent years, Ms. Hart's Bronx agency, Family Support Systems Unlimited Inc., had been identified by the city as troubled - allowing children back into abusive homes only to see them returned to foster care, for example.

Ms. Hart was upset by Mr. Mattingly's action, and determined to resist it. She and others argued that the city's system for evaluating its foster care agencies was flawed, and that the city was failing to acknowledge that agencies like hers - started from scratch in the burned-out Bronx of the early 1980s - were often left to deal with the most challenging and unwanted children.

Churches, local politicians and families rallied to save her organization. As she pressed ahead, the five other minority agencies under review made their own efforts to persuade Mr. Mattingly's staff to keep their programs alive.

"I felt people had negative opinions without really taking a look, and I am not sure that wasn't solely because we were minority," Ms. Hart said. "I can't even understand that we were on a list."

Mr. Mattingly said he was open-minded, but sent in a city team to examine Family Support and the other minority agencies. He had also placed three white-run agencies under review.

The city's evaluations had provoked genuine concern about just how well the agencies were protecting and providing for several thousand children. The poor scores were no mere bureaucratic accounting. They reflected problems across more than a dozen measures - from the levels of abuse in foster homes to adoption rates to how well the agencies kept track of whether children were being fed and clothed, attending school and receiving medical care.

Along with his review, Mr. Mattingly and his aides pledged to study the experiences of the city's minority agencies, and to consider the recommendations of a task force he had set up to explore ways that such agencies could be preserved and supported.

"We wanted to confront their perspective and come to understand it," he said of the minority agencies. "I am reasonably confident that we were in the position to make some judgments about quality of work. I did not need them to tell me about that.

"But since I was new to New York, I sure needed some help figuring out how we ended up where we were. And what we might do to save the good things while at the same time not jeopardizing quality."

Making a Change

On the afternoon of May 16, 2005, about a dozen people convened in a conference room in the Park Avenue offices of the United Way of New York City, which provided grants, training and other support to minority foster care programs.

This was an early meeting of the special task force on minority agencies, which Mr. Mattingly had appointed after the criticism from Ms. Hart and others.

To some on the panel, his decision to place six of the city's remaining eight minority agencies under review was brazen and insensitive. And they felt that the move, which he announced publicly, had imperiled a modest network at a time when almost all of the 18,000 foster children were black or Latino.

"We do not believe that any foster care agency of color can be lost," Ralph Dickerson Jr., then chairman of the Black Equity Alliance, wrote in the New York Nonprofit Press, an influential trade publication.

The task force members, who came from diverse racial and professional backgrounds, were largely in agreement on the unique attributes of minority agencies: their cultural sensitivity and their locations in needy neighborhoods, as well as their struggles for money and survival.

If there was one characteristic the agencies all shared, one witness told the task force, it was this: "They were all founded," he said, "on a wing and a prayer."

In meetings over the next several months, the members traced the history of the minority agencies in New York, and what they saw as the inequities in the system, the task force's minutes show.

In one presentation, Alma J. Carten, who teaches social work at New York University and was a child welfare official under Mayor David N. Dinkins, described what she saw as the "second-class treatment" of minority children in the "white-led child welfare system."

She said there had been a "persistent lack of understanding" of the "culture, needs, and strengths of children and families of color." Yet minority agencies, Dr. Carten added, still represented only a small part of the city's foster care network at a time when "children of color constitute the overwhelming majority of the clients in this system."

Another member, David Tobis, executive director of the Child Welfare Fund, said he was not initially convinced of the need to keep every minority agency. "My view was, you look at the performance of the agency, and you keep the agencies that are performing well," he said.

But he said he came to agree that the minority agencies were critical to the system "even if they are not the peak performers." He also concluded that the city's evaluation system had its own problems.

For example, the system awarded points to agencies for the number of adoptions they completed and how fast they were done. Yet minority agencies argued that black and Latino children sometimes benefited from staying in stable long-term foster care with a relative, rather than being placed for adoption with a stranger. That philosophical choice could cost an agency points.

"In this field, as in many other fields, numbers do not always tell the story," said one task force member, Megan E. McLaughlin, former executive director of the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies, which has long offered training and other support to the minority agencies.

When the task force ultimately issued its recommendations, one was that the city modify its scoring system to better capture the virtues of minority agencies. The task force also urged the city to create a pool of public and private money for grants to minority agencies.

Some of the recommendations spurred debate among executives of the established organizations about their fairness.

Poul Jensen, president of one of the oldest agencies, Graham Windham, which has some 900 foster children, circulated a letter about 10 months ago to industry colleagues and to Mr. Mattingly in which he enthusiastically supported the task force's recommendations. But he opposed "a publicly financed special fund for this group."

"In my view," he wrote, "it would not be a good idea to treat minority agencies as a special, protected class so as 'to insure that these agencies will survive.'"

He said the "public good will be best served" by fairly holding all agencies to account, and by having every agency try to incorporate the special benefits seen in well-run minority agencies.

Fighting Back

Mr. Mattingly's rigorous review of Ms. Hart's agency, Family Support, turned up some worrisome findings. An audit, for example, concluded that the agency's finances were in danger.

City child welfare workers in the Bronx, the ones with the most contact with the agency, complained about Family Support's performance. Their assessments were often scathing: "There seems to be a lack of leadership," one wrote; "Foster parents are not always bilingual and yet they foster English-speaking children," read another; yet another concluded that the entire agency did not fully understand the policies of the child welfare system.

But the city investigators also listened seriously to Ms. Hart's defense, and considered what she said was Family Support's crucial role in the community. Her argument, in many ways, offered an intensely personal and specific portrait of the kind of experience the task force had looked at more broadly.

Ms. Hart, a black social worker with a master's degree from Columbia, founded Family Support in 1982 in a distressed section of the Bronx, and she said it had been a labor of love.

She said that when she opened an office on the Grand Concourse, she had money only for raw space. She begged at local banks, which donated used copying machines and furniture. She said she got painters from a local job-training program to work for nothing.

Over time, her agency grew to have nearly 1,000 foster children, but there was never enough money, she said. For years, the city paid Family Support, like many of the newer agencies, less for each child than it paid the more established organizations - the result of a longstanding reimbursement formula that rewarded the agencies that spent the most and raised the most private money. And for an agency deep in the Bronx, fund-raising was not easy.

"Minority agencies, for whatever reasons, seem to have a more difficult time gaining access to some of these resources," she said.

The city's criticism was particularly galling, she said, because for years she had taken on any child sent her way, regardless of their challenges, handicaps or history of mistreatment or violence.

"We did not follow the money; we followed our hearts and our souls," she wrote to Mr. Mattingly at one point. In an interview, she later added, "We always wanted our own."

Supporter and Sheriff

As he considered what to do with the minority agencies under review, Mr. Mattingly had to reckon with his own personal loyalties.

Before his appointment in mid-2004 by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, he had spent much of his career supporting the idea of minority foster care programs. As director of child welfare in Toledo, Ohio, just as that city was being hit by the crack epidemic of the mid-1980s, he had seen the shortcomings of a system largely overseen by traditional foster care agencies.

"We were staffed by all these white women from Bowling Green University," Mr. Mattingly recalled of the city's child welfare operation. "They were lovely and well intentioned, but had no more idea about the neighborhoods that they were going into than the man on the moon."

And so during the decade he later spent as an executive at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, one of the most influential child welfare organizations in the nation, he put the foundation's money where his heart was. He gave grant money to agencies in dozens of cities to help them develop a local system of care that would draw upon the wisdom and commitment of local communities. New York was one of those cities.

But now, in 2005, he found that New York's experience had been mixed. He said he felt fully empowered by Mr. Bloomberg - a mayor committed to the strict measurement of outcomes and the meritocracy that implied - to be tough if that was warranted.

And he knew he had a rare chance to further justify any unpopular moves. The city's foster care population was in steep decline - the crack crisis had ended, and as a matter of policy, the city had been trying to keep children in their homes. Agencies, then, would have to close. The city just did not have business for them all. It was a once-in-a-generation opportunity to preserve the best and start weeding out the agencies that had consistently performed poorly.

Still, he and his aides could not help but be uncomfortable even considering terminating Ms. Hart's agency or any of the other minority operations.

Anne Williams-Isom, an African-American lawyer and one of Mr. Mattingly's top aides, felt the gravity of what they were contemplating.

"I am thinking of black and brown high school students brought into a predominantly white school through a program meant to encourage diversity, and then it turns out most of them are struggling and on academic probation," she said. "It's not about giving them a pass, but wouldn't you want to make sure they had the skills and resources to be competitive with their white counterparts?"

By May 2005, Mr. Mattingly had decided to continue the foster care contracts of five of the six minority agencies that had gone through reviews. Two of the agencies, he found, were so new that they deserved more time, and the other three, including Family Support, were showing improvement. Indeed, in an evaluation a few months later, another of those three, Edwin Gould Services for Children and Families, ranked first among all the city's foster care agencies.

Mr. Mattingly also chose not to close any of the three white-run agencies that had been placed under review.

Later, he said he would try to put the task force's recommendations in place.

"I don't want to be the commissioner who walked in here and wiped off a majority of the minority-led agencies," he said.

An Uncertain Start

Today, some 2,400 children remain in the care of seven minority foster care agencies. But more than two years since Mr. Mattingly formed his task force, its recommendation for better evaluating minority agencies has yet to be carried out.

The question of how to revamp the city's performance scoring system for foster care agencies, in fact, is still the subject of study and debate among child welfare officials.

Some of that discussion has centered on the difficult question of how much to credit agencies for what is known in child welfare circles as "cultural competency."

It can be a hard thing to define, and to measure.

At its most basic, it is an agency's ability to bring a special understanding and sensitivity to the question of how different communities - black or Jewish, Latino or Russian - raise, discipline and provide for their children.

City officials concede that they are still struggling with questions as fundamental as how such intuitive skills can be measured in concrete, trustworthy ways. Toward this end, they have sent out teams to investigate cases in which an agency has succeeded in this regard. And they have hired a Hunter College professor as a consultant.

Mr. Mattingly is firm in his belief that cultural strengths can and must be measured. His staff, though, still has not settled on how much cultural competency will count, especially when compared with critical measurements like safety and the ability to find permanent homes for children.

The other major recommendation of the task force - that the city create a public-private fund that would support minority agencies - also posed a problem because of questions about how the city could participate in a fund that gave grants exclusively to minority-led agencies.

One consultant, Eric Brettschneider, a child welfare official under Mayor Edward I. Koch, wrote to Mr. Mattingly that the city could define the fund's potential beneficiaries not by their "status as a minority-governed" agency, but by other attributes that applied, like being "truly embedded in the community," offering "culturally competent" services, and having leadership that reflected "the people that they serve."

In the end, the city decided not to create or pay into a fund, but said it would provide a staff member to work at a fund administered by United Way of New York City.

Mr. Brettschneider, who now works at United Way, said the funding criteria are still being worked out, and the plan is to seek money from private, federal, and state sources. Some private foundations have already contributed money, he said.

Recently, the fund made grants to several minority-led agencies, including some that had been under review by the city. One of them was Family Support, which was given about $22,000.

The grant was aimed at improving the agency's ability to track and document the care children were receiving.

But the problems at Family Support still run deeper than such basic concerns.

The city, for instance, has met recently with lawyers for foster children in the Bronx who have been troubled by the agency's handling of cases. And in September, Ms. Hart and her staff were called in to meet with the family court judges of the Bronx to hear criticism about the agency's continued poor performance. Ms. Hart, for her part, said she had her own complaints about the judges.

As for the city, a recent examination conducted by the Department of Investigation found substantial failings in the oversight of many foster care agencies, minority or otherwise. Mr. Mattingly, though, said his office was positioned to keep closer track of the foster care providers.

The reason, he said, is a series of reforms he enacted this year that include sending teams of child welfare staff members into the agencies themselves to conduct checks and provide regular feedback. This means, he says, that the city will identify and fix problems more quickly.

But Steven Banks, attorney in chief of the Legal Aid Society, whose lawyers represent 90 percent of the 30,000 children who appear in family court each year, said there was a "significant gulf between excellent policy initiatives by the city and the day-to-day realities of suffering by children and families in the foster care system."

Mr. Mattingly said he would not be afraid to act. "I don't care who is running the agency or what the purpose of any program is, if you don't do the basics, you can't do the work," he said. "And I don't back off that at all."

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company