The tragic death of 6-year-old Zymere Perkins put the spotlight on the New York City Administration for Children’s Services and their practices related to investigating reports of child abuse. A recent article by Jack Krauskopf in New York Nonprofit Media stressed the critical role that caseworkers play in investigating abuse reports and correctly compared their work to what is done by police officers and firefighters. Unless someone has walked in their shoes, it is difficult to fully appreciate the challenges and dangers that first responders face every day dealing with life and death decisions. No excuses; just reality.
In response to the high profile death of Nixzmary Brown in 2006, then ACS Commissioner John Mattingly said, “the death of even one child is unacceptable.” No one can possibly disagree with this. Recently, ACS Commissioner Gladys Carrion reiterated this same point but also said what no one ever says in public which is that it may not be realistic to think we can keep every child safe. Each of us wants to believe we can protect every child’s life because we truly believe every child’s life is precious. The reality is that with the myriad of incredibly complicated issues facing many families and children in New York City, being 100 percent perfect when making these decisions is our goal, but probably an impossible one to achieve.
It was Nicholas Scoppetta, the first ACS Commissioner who said, “Our work is judged by our failures, not our successes.” It is an unfortunate thing to say, but also true. Back in 1996 when Scoppetta was commissioner, the number of children in foster care increased to over 43,000 because caseworkers were trained to err on the side of the child’s safety. And yet with so many children removed from their home, there were fatalities. Today, with less than 10,000 children in foster care, there are fatalities. I am not saying we should just accept child fatalities, or that they are acceptable – because they are not.
We need to continue to build on what Commissioner Carrion has done in reducing caseloads, increasing training and improving retention of caseworkers to achieve better outcomes for children and families. We need to do our best to keep families together whenever possible and provide them with the support they need to do this. There is nothing romantic about a child being in foster care, but for those who are we must provide the best possible care. Sometimes foster care is the best and safest place for a child to be, but whenever possible, a child should be with their family – and be safe.
While we have the best police force in the world and crime has dropped, we still have homicides. With the best fire department in the world, the number of fires has decreased but people still die in them. We also have an incredibly competent agency serving and protecting children but we cannot expect it will be perfect all the time. When anything goes wrong we must make an honest and transparent assessment of what happened, address it and then strengthen the safety net we have in place however possible. Our goal must be to keep every child safe. But, we must also be realistic or we will never appreciate what has been accomplished – even as we work to make improvements.
Gerard McCaffery is the President/CEO of MercyFirst which provides an array of residential and community based programs in NYC and Long Island to children and their families involved in child welfare, mental health and the juvenile justice system.
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