Aiming to make foster children's stays in foster care involve fewer moves and group settings and last less time overall, the city Administration for Children's Services (ACS) last week announced a sweeping overhaul of several key practices and policies.

Called "Improved Outcomes for Children," the plan redraws the relationship between ACS – which is responsible for approximately 17,000 children in foster care and 27,000 children receiving preventive services – and the dozens of contracted private agencies that actually provide services to children and families.

Perhaps the biggest change is the layoff of 650 ACS caseworkers, who reviewed paperwork from agencies, and replacing them with "family conferencing social workers" who will interact more directly with the agencies, children and families. Some 500 new positions are being created, and ACS is encouraging its workers to apply.

The new structure will be phased in, with the goal of putting the entire new system in place by July 2008. Apart from the strong reproof of SSEU Local 371, representing the laid-off caseworkers, early reviews from around the child welfare community were largely positive.

"If you eliminate a superficial layer of pseudo-accountability, it means that things go quicker and make more sense," said Mike Arsham, executive director of the Child Welfare Organizing Project, a group that facilitates the political involvement of parents who have interacted with the child welfare system.

Arsham said it's probably an improvement to move ACS workers "from kind of this bureaucratic shadow-world of file cabinets and computers, to the offices of their contractors and the communities of the families to whom they're ultimately accountable."

Andrew White, director of the New School's Center for New York City Affairs and editor of its publication, Child Welfare Watch (co-published by City Limits' sister policy institute, the Center for an Urban Future), went farther, calling the plan "a radical change for the better."

"ACS is now breaking the back of the system that provides incentives for long stays in foster care" because of a new funding formula, said White (a former editor of City Limits). "What I'm hopeful about is this could lead to more qualitative feedback and more qualitative monitoring. ... Can they overcome the politics of the bureaucracy and the union – can they be as creative and flexible as they say they're going to be? I hope so."

Denise Hinds, the assistant executive director for residential programs at Good Shepherd Services, says her organization wants to be in the first round of service providers to implement the plan. Hinds attended the meeting last week at which ACS Commissioner John B. Mattingly announced the changes to agency representatives.

"We don't know yet what this all means for us," she said. But "we want to be a part of anything that can improve the quality of care and reduce the length of stay" for foster children.

"That's very exciting for us and we want to figure out how that would look," Hinds said.

- Karen Loew