In Highbridge, a poor, predominantly African American and
Latino neighborhood not far from the Bronx Family Court, a new program called Circle of Dreams opened in April. It is one of three Family Enrichment Centers that ACS is testing as part of its reform effort. Funded by ACS but operated by existing community nonprofits, the FECs are open to parents and nonparents, teenagers, and seniors alike, and can include food pantries, résumé workshops, parenting groups, art classes, or just hang-out spots. Circle of Dreams is managed by Bridge Builders, a local group that focuses on family preservation. ACS is providing $450,000 in annual funding for the next three years.
From the street, you could easily miss the entrance: a side door to the basement of a large prewar high-rise. Inside, however, the stairs lead to a series of bright rooms that seem to open endlessly onto one another. Chairs are clustered around a flat-screen TV streaming an image of a flickering log fire. There’s a table with orange juice and sweet rolls. An alleyway covered in paver stones leads to a patio with a child’s basketball hoop, a porch swing, and ivy-covered walls. There’s a playroom, computer stations, a dining area with flowers on the tables, and a den in the back, where, on the day I visited, women had rolled back the carpet to host an impromptu Zumba class.
The center’s programming is driven by client demand—asking people what they need, and also what existing strengths the center can tap into. (In Highbridge, the almost ponderously deliberate practice of soliciting community feedback meant that some of the center’s brightly painted walls were still bare in June; the process of polling the community on what art they wanted hadn’t yet concluded.) In its first month of operation, the center hosted a “parent café” in the dining room, gathering parents from widely different backgrounds for food and guided discussion on topics like how to help your children talk to you. Unlike the GABI centers, which are focused on parents with open ACS cases, the goal of the FECs is to strengthen the community and reduce the need for ACS interventions. “Parents are isolated,” said Alida Camacho, Circle of Dreams’ director. “If you talk with most families who have cases of neglect, you’re going to find that they’re decent parents, that in a lot of areas they do have good parenting skills. But there are some areas where they don’t.… In centers like this, we’re hoping that we’re going to hear it firsthand before something becomes an issue.”
Since the 1990s, when New York City placed almost 50,000 children into foster homes—10 percent of the country’s entire foster care population—its child welfare agency has reduced the number of child removals significantly. Today, approximately 9,000 children are in New York City’s foster care system—a sharp decline that is due, at least in part, to the aid that ACS’s existing prevention programs provide. Yet ACS’s successes have been tempered by the fact that, because many poor parents view ACS as inherently dangerous, they routinely walk away from the programs that are designed to support them, rather than invite child welfare into their lives. “So many people are scared that reaching out for help can mean ACS involvement,” said Rise’s Jeanette Vega. “So they don’t reach out, they stay in their homes, and they don’t get help for their problems.” The distrust and fear that poor parents feel are roadblocks that ACS must overcome. “No child welfare system is going to work well when parents run away from the help that they’re being offered,” Martin Guggenheim said.
Given their experimental nature, Circle of Dreams and the other FECs are still figuring out how to define success. For now, they are mostly collecting anecdotes: a mother who came in looking for assistance with an electric bill and left with money management mentoring and a prom dress for her daughter; the teenagers who enjoy free pizza after school; the women dancing in the next room. The benefits, to a certain extent, are intangible. “We can count numbers,” said Crystal Young-Scott, director of ACS’s FEC program. “But what does that Zumba mean to these women?”
The most important aspect of the centers, however, may be the fact that people can use them with a large degree of confidentiality. At Circle of Dreams, there’s no intake process, no tracking database, no case management services where ACS checks in on parents. Employees are still mandated child abuse reporters, required by law to call the child abuse hotline if they suspect that a child is being mistreated. But an explicit goal of the center is to dispel the notion that asking for help automatically triggers ACS involvement. “Everyone is so used to when you receive services, someone’s going to open a case record,” Camacho said. At Circle of Dreams, however, “when people come in, you don’t have to sign in if you don’t want to.”
Kailey Burger, ACS’s assistant commissioner for Community Based Strategies—a new division within ACS’s prevention division—worked as a lawyer in the Bronx Family Court in 2014, handling juvenile justice cases, before coming to believe that courts weren’t the solution. “By the time the kids are in those systems, so many other systems have failed,” she said. She decided to move “upstream,” to ACS, with the hopes that the child welfare agency could fix its poisoned relationship with poor communities of color and allow families to feel comfortable enough to ask for help before things reached a crisis point. In 2016, Burger partnered with Dr. Jacqueline Martin, the deputy commissioner of ACS’s prevention division, to pursue initiatives like the GABI program and the FECs. The goal, Burger said, was to help families “in a way that they retain dignity.”
Through these pilot programs, Martin and Burger have been rethinking the role of ACS. “What if families could really pursue their potential? What would they need to do that?” said Martin. “What if race and ethnicity didn’t matter? What kind of child welfare system would we need?” And more than anything else, they believe that ultimate success depends on ACS overcoming its toxic history with the families it wishes to serve. “We want this to be a new way of work,” said Burger. “Not working on or for a family, but partnering with them for as long as they want. And then we’re gone.”
Reformers who have spent years fighting for parents condemned
by the system are still cautiously optimistic. ACS’s new initiatives are only pilot programs, and they involve a fraction of the families that the agency works with each year. And if ACS’s goal is to reduce its presence in parents’ lives, statistics suggest that the opposite is true. From 2005 to 2017, the number of cases ACS has substantiated annually has grown from 33 percent to 40 percent. And the number of families ACS has placed under court-ordered supervision has increased from 1,947 to 7,490 per year over that same period. “The presence of ACS in neighborhoods is higher, and that’s a bad change,” said Nora McCarthy, the director of Rise. “If they’re really committed to changing dynamics, they need to change the dynamics in which they’re hauling so many families into court.”
“On paper, ACS’s heart is in the right place,” said Ginelle Stephenson, a social work supervisor at the Center for Family Representation, which provides lawyers to parents with ACS cases in Manhattan and Queens. But the new approach doesn’t seem to be trickling down to the ACS rank and file. In meetings with caseworkers at foster care agencies, she said, well-intentioned bromides about not blaming or shaming parents tend to be forgotten by ACS workers loading up case plans with more services than parents can manage. “A lot of what we do is say, ‘She doesn’t need that right now,’” said Stephenson. “It’s supposedly voluntary, but there’s a lot of undertone that, ‘If you don’t, we’ll be watching.’”
And there’s still a concern that, despite their stated goals, the new pilot programs could become avenues for more ACS involvement in families’ lives, rather than less. “A really key test of whether there’s a shift is when families go into FECs and see what’s offered, how often is there going to be a report called in to a hotline,” said Chris Gottlieb. “I hope these will be helpful enough that they will outweigh that risk, but the more the staff sees themselves as monitors of the poor community, the less helpful it will be.”
Burger said she understands the skepticism, given the way ACS has traditionally worked with poor communities, and the footprint its other divisions still have. “Every time I go out and say I work for ACS, people say this is pie in the sky,” she said. But she hopes the new programs will demonstrate ACS’s commitment to a new way of doing things. “It’s on us to continue keeping our word.”
The pilot programs may be small in scope, but they could have a far-reaching impact on the child welfare landscape. Over the next year and a half, most of ACS’s existing contracts for foster care and prevention programs will expire, providing the agency with an opportunity to implement its reform agenda on a wider scale. The programs that ACS works with going forward will determine the values and direction of the agency for at least the next decade. To Martin and Burger, it’s a chance to create a more socially just child welfare system.
The ultimate challenge, though, may not be whether ACS can develop more supportive programs—or even whether it can get poor families to trust the agency again. It’s whether society as a whole can stop criminalizing poverty and embrace the idea that poor families are worthy of compassion. Even the best preventive services will flounder if they continue to be surrounded by a broader landscape in which caseworkers, investigators, attorneys, and family court judges treat poor parents as criminals. Even the most generous of programs cannot make up for government policies that force poor children to live in unsafe housing, drink lead-poisoned water, and go without adequate health care and education. “The whole existence of ACS lets us pretend that we’re protecting children,” said Emma Ketteringham, the managing director of family defense at the Bronx Defenders, a legal nonprofit that represents parents with ACS cases. “But if child protection was at the center of our priorities, that would require the government to rethink its relationship vis-à-vis children.”
On the whole, however, government policy continues to adhere to the Social Darwinist conviction that the wealthy are most deserving because they are wealthy, and the only reason poor people are poor is because of some personal flaw. The overarching narrative, Martin Guggenheim said, is that “the only thing wrong with poor children is their parents.” Overcoming that ideology will require us as a society to confront a harsh reality. “The truth about what’s wrong with poor children,” Guggenheim said, “is they were born in America, in a system that doesn’t care about them.”
This article was written with support from the “Reporting Vulnerable Children in Care” program, a journalism skills development program run by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, in partnership with UBS’s Optimus Foundation.
Kathryn Joyce is a contributing editor at The New Republic and author of The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking and the New Gospel of Adoption.