On December 12, 2017, the New York Daily News published an exclusive story of a dramatic drop in foster care numbers in New York City. Only 8,966 children were in foster care in Fiscal Year 2017, down from 2016’s total of 9,926. Moreover, New York City’s foster care rolls have been dropping over the past four years as the nationwide caseload increased.
Administration on Children’s Services (ACS) Commissioner David Hansell awarded his agency most of the credit for the decrease, telling the Daily News that “primarily it has to do with keeping families together whenever we can.” As he told the reporter, instead of immediately removing a child deemed to be at risk, ACS seeks to provide services to the family to ameliorate that risk without removing the child.
Hansell’s remarks to the Daily News can be questioned on two grounds. First, there is evidence that agency policy is not the only factor behind the caseload decline. Second, a simple decline in foster care caseloads is not evidence of progress unless we know the agency is not leaving children to languish in unsafe homes
A closer look at the numbers (contained in a Foster Care Strategic Blueprint Status Report issued by ACS on December 18), compared with population trends in New York City, reveals that more is going on than the Commissioner chose to discuss.
In New York City, according to Census data, the number of children in poverty fell from 553,499 in 2012 to 471,190 in 2016, a 15% decrease. During fiscal years 2012 to 2016 (a period that is off by 6 months from the annual data) New York’s foster care caseload fell from 13,820 to 9,926, a decrease of 28%. (See the table below for the numbers.)
It’s a well-known fact, and well-documented by research, that poor children are much more likely to be placed in foster care than their peers. There are many reasons why this might be the case, and some critics allege that some children are actually placed in foster care simply because they are poor.
Based on the decline in children in poverty, we could have expected roughly a 15% decline in the foster care rolls. The percentage drop in New York City’s foster care caseload was almost twice that, so agency policy probably did contribute to the foster care decline. But based on the percentages, demographic change may have been equally important.
Hansell did admit that there were “a lot of reasons” for New York City’s caseload to decline while the national caseload went up. But he did not choose to mention any of them.
We can’t be sure of the reasons for the decline in child poverty in New York. However, we do know of the influx of well-to-do people into many previously poor New York neighborhoods commonly described as “gentrification,” often driving poor people out of those neighborhoods.
A similar pattern may be observed in other cities experiencing rapid gentrification. For example, the number of children in poverty in San Francisco dropped from 16,000 in 2012 to 11,000 in 2016, according to Census data. And the number of children in foster care dropped from 1,073 in October 2012 to 811 in 2017 at the same time as the State’s caseload increased, according to the California Child Welfare Indicators Project.
Unfortunately, foster care caseload data is not easily available for most other cities, because the current Administration has instructed the federally funded center that houses large child welfare datasets to stop giving out this data to citizens after 20 years of doing so. However, it is highly plausible that other cities experiencing similar demographic changes also saw significant drops in foster care
There is another problem with Hansell’s remarks. A decline in foster care numbers is not in itself a reason for celebration. We must remember that the purpose of foster care is to protect children. As an important issue brief from a California child advocacy coalition argues, states which have been cutting their caseloads for years may reach a “bottom’ below which further caseload reduction is not feasible without compromising child safety. ”
New York’s foster care caseload has been dropping since 2007. To the extent that these drops are due to policy changes, the city may reach a point where it is not safe to continue in the same direction.
Hansell cheers about “fewer children removed, fewer families separated and much less trauma experienced by children.” But what about the children who are being traumatized when they are left with abusive or neglectful parents at home?
Hansell admitted that there are some cases where the risks of leaving a child in a home are too high, such as the case of Zymere Perkins, who died at the hands of his mother’s boyfriend after ACS missed numerous warning signs.
We must remember that the purpose of foster care and the child welfare system is not to reduce foster care caseloads. It is to protect children. Its success should be evaluated accordingly.
Children in Poverty and Children in Foster Care, New York City, 2012-2016
|children in poverty||553,499||522,992||523,538||508,503||471,190|
|children in foster care||13,820||12,958||11,750||11,098||9,926|
Children in Poverty: US Census Bureau, American Community Survey, http://factfinder.census.gov
Children in foster care: Administration on Children’s Services, Foster Care Strategic Blueprint Status Report, https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/acs/pdf/about/2017/BluePrint.pdf