by Helen Zelon
Nearly a century ago, in 1915, New York City leaders established the Child Welfare Board – the first formal structure in the city to seek to address the needs of abused and neglected children. The Welfare Board gave rise to subsequent bureaucratic endeavors with the same common goal, including the long-beleaguered Child Protective Services agency, which was replaced in 1996– after the 1995 beating death of six-year-old Eliza Izquierdo – with the Administration for Children's Services, by then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
Now under the giant bureaucratic umbrella of the State's Office for Children and Family Services (OCFS), the Administration for Children's Services is the city agency that seeks to support children who have been abused, neglected, or whose families are in crisis. With a 2010 budget of $2.6 billion and nearly 6,100 full-time staffers, ACS oversees a network of agencies that manage child welfare, including preventive services, foster care and adoption programs, and administers more than 250 city child-care centers and Headstart preschool programs, which enroll hundreds of thousands of children.
ACS responds to reports of abuse or neglect (or worse) and evaluates cases to determine whether and how to respond – nearly 66,000 calls were made to the state's child-abuse hotline in 2010, involving more than 90,000 children, and leading to nearly 60,000 investigations. It works with a wide network of nonprofit agencies to provide services from basic counseling to foster care, and it shares selected information with the Department of Juvenile Justice, also under the OCFS umbrella.
ACS is both fish and fowl: It functions, at best, as an institutional advocate for children and their families. Its workings also entail a complex whorl of adversarial negotiations, including hearings, adjudications and dispositions that borrow much, but not all, from the world of litigation and prosecution.
The sad truth is that children suffer abuse daily, but when high-profile cases surface – Nixmary Brown, Marchelle Pierce, and just this month, Kymell Oram, an 18-month-old boy born addicted to heroin and apparently beaten to death by his foster-mother's teenaged boyfriend – media attention turns hot, as does the desire for reform.
In every case, ACS is at the center of a precarious see-saw of moral imperatives: The desire and mandate to protect children from abuse, and an equally powerful obligation to protect parental rights.
The world of child welfare is landscaped with a web of laws, regulations, legal precedents and government agencies—all designed to simultaneously protect children and sustain a family's rights.
But the human factor is what determines whether system succeeds or fails. The decisions and actions of caseworkers, managers, lawyers and judges profoundly shape individual children's lives.
For a full copy of our step-by-step guide, go to http://www.citylimits.org/multimedia/362/the-process-of-protection