ACS aims to change image by telling caseworkers’ stories

Citywide Week of Appreciation for Child Protective Specialists
Citywide Week of Appreciation for Child Protective Specialists
Zach Williams
Mayor Bill de Blasio thanked ACS staff on June 4 as part of the inaugural Citywide Week of Appreciation for Child Protective Specialists.

ACS aims to change image by telling caseworkers’ stories

It’s the first Citywide Week of Appreciation for Child Protective Specialists.
June 5, 2018

New York City Child Protective Specialist Adam Vega tried to stay calm as he knocked on the door of a Brooklyn home earlier this year. He had received a report of alleged child abuse and he knew what he said next could make all the difference in keeping the family together.

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New York City Child Protective Specialist Adam Vega
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New York City Child Protective Specialist Adam Vega
Caption: 
New York City Child Protective Specialist Adam Vega
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Zach Williams
When the door opened, a teenage boy thought he was a cop at first so Vega quickly showed his Administration for Children’s Services ID and said that he was there to help. There had been a report that the teenager had been missing school and Vega had to get to the bottom of it.

“Tell me what’s going on,” he told the youth. “Why aren’t you going and be honest about it.”

Soon he found out that this was a case involving much more than just a few missed classes. There were health issues. There were mental health issues. The struggles of a single-parent household were also at play. But a bit of patience began to pay off in the following weeks as the young man headed back into the classroom and began taking part in a jobs training program, according to Vega.

“This agency has taken on some of the hardest realities in our city and in our society … but this generation is doing this work better than anybody ever has done it before." - New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Each case requires that same kind of initial approach, he added.

“You never make assumptions about it, you go directly to that home, meet up with that parent and from there you’re able to assess what actually went down,” Vega said. “(But) there is definitely a stigma and a stereotype. I’ve had families say ‘I don’t need ACS to take my family away.’“

The case is just one among 60,000 investigated by the more than 2,000 child protective specialists who work for the city’s Agency for Children’s Services. ACS is highlighting their work this week as part of the inaugural Citywide Week of Appreciation for Child Protective Specialists, which aims to showcase their work. Commissioner David Hansell and Mayor Bill de Blasio began the festivities with a June 4 press conference where Hansell elaborated on ongoing efforts to reshape the agency and how it works with families and the public alike.

ACS will stage additional events in each borough as part of the effort which also includes an advertising blitz and social media campaigns featuring staff. The cost for this public relations campaign was not available by press time.

“Unfortunately there is all too often a misconception that CPS are workers who only separate families and that is simply not true,” Hansell said. “In fact, many of them of course are mothers and fathers themselves … often knocking on doors not knowing what’s on the other side.”

The mayor popped in unexpectedly following Hansell’s remarks. He presented a proclamation establishing the appreciation week and shook hands with ACS staff assembled beneath the City Hall Rotunda. 

Bad press has followed ACS throughout the years, including several high-profile child deaths that led to the resignation of previous commissioner Gladys Carrión in December 2016. By presenting the experiences of child protective specialists, New Yorkers can see that they represent what is good rather than bad about the child welfare system, said de Blasio.

“This agency has taken on some of the hardest realities in our city and in our society … but this generation is doing this work better than anybody ever has done it before,” de Blasio said June 4 at the event. “There’s never a headline when you save a life.”

Providing additional support to ACS staff has been one way that Hansell has shaken up the agency since he took over for Carrión. This has included reducing caseloads as well as hiring an additional 600 CPS in 2017 with 400 more expected to be hired in upcoming months. The agency has also released a new five-year plan as well as a first-ever survey of foster youth.

“This agency has taken on some of the hardest realities in our city and in our society … but this generation is doing this work better than anybody ever has done it before."

Other new initiatives include the hiring of retired NYPD detectives to assist with abuse investigations and a new partnership to provide dental care to foster care youth. A less-public idea allows staff to now use a car-share program to follow up on reports, rather than risking delays by taking public transportation, according to Joan Cleary, an assistant commissioner in Brooklyn.

Yet, racial inequities persist in a foster care system that overwhelmingly engages Black and Latino children – approximately 90 percent as of 2015. Hansell said initiatives are ongoing to curb this, including upcoming implicit bias training for ACS employees, an ongoing study of equity in the child welfare system and efforts that put the agency “on the verge” of establishing an internal office dedicated to countering the historical imbalance.

Hansell’s acknowledgment of racial inequity and the need for implicit bias training contrasts with de Blasio’s much-disputed assertion last year that there is no racial bias in the child welfare system because many agency employees are black and Latino.

Joyce McMillan, director of programming and parent advocate at the Child Welfare Organizing Project thnks an even bigger shakeup is needed. 

“The fact of the matter is that I think (CPS) have a difficult job and they have a difficult job because systemically the system is flawed,” she said. “This appreciation for caseworkers is an appreciation for people that don’t push back on the system … they are complicit and compliant because it pays their bills.”

But the number of youth in foster care in New York City has plummeted in recent years, despite rising nationwide. And one small part of that involved a CPS named Adam Vega who convinced a teenager to do something he did not want to – go to school.

That involved listening to how the teenager saw his own situation before suggesting that he also see things from his mom’s perspective, Vega said. He knew the youth’s prospects had brightened when the teenager called him about a month after that first contact and put on the phone a program manager for a job training program to prove he had attended.

At that moment Vega could see that the youth saw him as a potential ally instead of an enemy. So Vega again turned to the strategy of listening.

“I’m trying” the teen said. “Please believe me.”

Zach Williams
Zach Williams
is a staff reporter at New York Nonprofit Media and sister publication City & State.
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