Pols preen at kids' expense
Just in time for the 2017 municipal election season, ambitious politicians are promoting the false idea that the city's child protection system is in a shambles, and that the Administration for Children's Services is rife with failure and incompetence that puts kids' lives at risk.
Don't believe the hype. ACS, like other city agencies, has plenty of room for improvement -- but the unseemly posturing of the politicians ignores decades of measurable improvement in the way New York prevents kids from being harmed, killed or needlessly taken away from their families.
We're talking here about the most horrifying cases in our city: instances in which young children are systematically abused, even tortured and murdered. The recent murder of Zymere Perkins adds the 6-year-old's name to the sad roll call, familiar to longtime New Yorkers, that includes victims like Lisa Steinberg (killed in 1987), Elisa Izquierdo (1995), Nixzmary Brown (2006) and Marchella Brett-Pierce (2010).
Each one of those murders triggered a round of finger-pointing and blame, much of it aimed at ACS for not meeting a standard of 100% perfection that is expected of no other agency.
Every year, New York experiences hundreds of homicides, but that, in itself, doesn't lead to calls for the police commissioner to resign. Ditto for other preventable deaths due to fire, screwups by ambulance personnel or medical errors in city hospitals.
But when it comes to ACS, the heartrending nature of the cases leads people to suspend reason. A generation of politicians has learned to play on those tender feelings, stirring the public to blind fury by attacking ACS and its caseworkers.
The problem with the headline-chasing is that it creates an atmosphere of crisis, making everyone -- teachers, caseworkers, judges -- more likely to stop using their heads and simply order kids removed from their families at the first sign of trouble, whether real or imagined.
That, in turn, adds many more kids to the system and causes caseloads to swell and families to disintegrate. Children taken from their homes then end up in foster care settings that might actually prove to be more dangerous than the home they've been yanked from.
Early signs suggest child removals are up sharply since the Perkins case after years of trending downward.
Everyone concerned about the issue -- including members of the news media -- should look at www.nccprblog.org, the website of the Virginia-based National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, an advocacy organization that regularly names and shames the people playing politics with child welfare.
The group has some choice words for Controller Scott Stringer, who last week rushed out something inaccurately described in media accounts as a "report" on ACS' failure to prevent fatalities of children.
In reality, what Stringer issued was nothing but a twopage letter to ACS, along with the all-important press release titled "Comptroller Stringer Releases Alarming New Numbers on `High Priority' ACS Investigations."
The controller's office examined a three-month snapshot of ACS records and appears to have misinterpreted much of the relevant information.
Although Stringer suggests 38 children died during the three months he looked at, the actual number called in to the abuse and neglect hotline, according to ACS, was 26.
"53 investigations were closed without ACS investigators ever meeting with the child who was allegedly abused," reads the Stringer press release.
ACS says the actual number they supplied is 30, and that 7 of them involved children who were, in fact, visited, while another 17 involved allegations about kids who reside outside of New York State, where the agency has no jurisdiction. The remaining cases included two teenagers the agency couldn't locate, a clearly false allegation against a woman with no children, and an 18-year-old who is too old to qualify for ACS intervention.
It's a point of special consternation among advocates that Stringer chose to hold a press conference in front of City Hall instead of asking ACS to explain the numbers. "Political grandstanding pushes workers to rush to tear apart even more families. That kind of foster care panic further overloads workers," says the NCCPR. "So the investigations get sloppier -- and more children are endangered. Scott Stringer's grandstanding is making all vulnerable children less safe."
I suggest a New Year's resolution for all politicians: when it comes to child welfare, choose calm compassion and professional solutions, not the politics of panic.
Errol Louis is political anchor of NY1 News.
Originally published in the Daily News, 12/27/16