Ronald Richter just got what the Mayor calls a "thankless" job. In the shadow of disturbing and, many say, preventable fatalities, and in the wake of bruising media coverage and administrative missteps, the veteran legal advocate, city agency staffer and Family Court judge has been tapped to take over the city's Administration for Children's Services from John Mattingly, ACS' longest-serving commissioner.

As ACS head, Richter has the potential to alter the lives of thousands of New York City's most vulnerable youth. His portfolio will include high-visibility turf like child protection and juvenile justice, as well as vital but lower-profile responsibilities like city-subsidized day care and Head Start.

Richter's tenure may be determined by the political calendar: Whether his appointment outlasts the current mayor can't be known. (Whether he'd like to do so can't be known, either: City Limits' request to meet with Richter was declined by ACS.)

However long Richter runs the agency, he faces enormous challenges and opportunities to leave his mark on a complex, crucial system.

Here are some of the issues that advocates in the child welfare community—sometime allies and frequent critics of ACS—hope Richter will address during his time at the helm:

1) Reaffirm the commitment to keeping kids at home

Mattingly's legacy at ACS predates his tenure as commissioner when, more than a decade ago, as a child welfare advocate at the Casey Foundation, he was part of the Marisol Panel (named after a one-time client of the agency), which recommended a systemic about-face at ACS, putting more emphasis on keeping children at home with their families and in the home community—goals that sound plenty familiar today.

As part of the Marisol Panel, Mattingly challenged the agency's direction and focus. Under ACS' first leader, Nicholas Scoppetta, who oversaw the agency from its founding in 1996 to 2001, decisions favored removing children for the “safety” of foster care. Removals rose by 50 percent, advocates assert. Parents in difficult circumstances – victims of domestic violence, residents in city-provided Section 8 housing that didn’t meet ACS scrutiny – were prosecuted in criminal court, charged with endangering their children.

After Mattingly took over, ACS made some tremendous strides: Fewer children are in foster care today than a decade ago; the agency's reliance on group homes and institutions has dropped steeply; ACS has merged with Juvenile Justice and has overseen the closure of Spofford detention center—a long-blighted site in the Bronx.

Yet some assert that Mattingly lost his way and backpedaled from his progressive policies in the wake of child deaths, notably Nixmary Brown's in 2006 and Marchella Pierce's in 2011. Responding to crises took Mattingly's focus away from the systems and processes that affect the vast majority of children in foster care—the kids who fly under the front-page radar, but whose struggles challenge ACS workers, nonprofit providers, and child-welfare advocates.

Paul Vincent, head of the Child Welfare Group who served on the Marisol panel with Mattingly, once said that “fixing the child welfare system is like fixing a bicycle – riding uphill.” Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, says that’s still true – but the hill has become a mountain.

"You can have significant improvement," Wexler says. "It happens very rarely. But there had been a 50 percent increase in entries to [foster] care [from 2006] through 2009," because complaints of abuse and neglect climbed after the death of Nixmary Brown. ACS statistics show that complaints tapered off somewhat in 2010.

Richter has says that he aims to improve the agency's use of data to inform practice and keep children safe. "There are two standard measures for child safety," says Wexler. "The re-abuse of children known to the system, and foster care recidivism. We see trends in those safety indicators; they haven't gotten any better. The general pattern is, they've gotten a little worse. I hope Mr. Richter will be looking very closely at those data."

2) Alternatives need support

The child welfare system is fraught with detours, delays and arcane obligations—and with outsize time pressures as well, advocates say. One problem is volume: Too many children are being pulled into foster care, says Wexler, because Family Court judges fear public exposure if they make a bad call and release a child who is later hurt—or worse.

Programs that keep families together, like Bridgebuilders in the Bronx, deserve more aggressive support, say advocates like Mike Arsham, a veteran social worker with Harlem CWOP, a parent advocacy group. These and other preventive services work to keep kids out of the system; they cost far less than formal foster care.

But lately, the courts have been mandating preventive services, counter to their original design: Nearly 30 percent of preventive cases are now legally mandated. "It's an oxymoron," says Arsham. "The voluntary nature of the services is the key to their effectiveness. They're not supposed to be something coerced; that's an abomination."

ACS, however, faces a stubborn dilemma: how to serve more families in need with finite, flat funding. "Do you reduce the number of families that get services? Or do you to serve as many families as possible by reducing the amount of time that families can receive services?" asks Dianne Heggie of the Council for Family and Child Caring Agencies.

3) Reconsider administrative changes

One big change at ACS is in the average time allotted for a case to achieve some sort of closure: Previously set at 18 months, it's now truncated to 12. Twenty days have been lopped off from the crucial initial "engagement" window—within which agency workers must connect with families, assess their situations and complete detailed records on duplicate computer systems that don't communicate or share data. Now, only 10 days are allotted for that initial process.

Heggie cites concerns with a plan being floated at ACS to rate agencies according to how they meet the 12-month average. "This model suggests a fiscal incentive for agencies that meet that benchmark. In a system that is in flux, it is premature to do that," she says, adding that incoming Commissioner Richter should reconsider those timeframes.

"The concept of doing more with less is really not something that's rational when you're talking about the lives of families and children," Heggie tells City Limits. "Until the system supports relieving workers, or helping them to prioritize, workers are going to make their own calls about 'what part of the job won't I do today'."

Since 2009, providing preventive services has been bogged down in what she calls a "bungled" RFP process, confusing agency providers and leading to layoffs, staff reassignments and other cutbacks. According to Heggie at COFCCA, "the system has been in flux—in chaos—for the past two years."

The bureaucratic fiasco shadowed an economic crisis: Funding for preventive services, among other child-welfare expenses, was sharply cut back in 2011—and the City Council annually restored the funds. Even so, caseworkers in the field and the agencies that employ them have had to absorb waves of cuts and change—and the actual number of children and families served has decreased, advocates say.

4) Strengthen community ties

ACS' mandate states the agency's intention to keep more children at home, or in foster care in their home community, permitting kids to maintain connections to school, siblings and extended family, and neighborhood institutions like church and after-school programs. But intent is one thing; outcomes, another.

"The city has committed to placing kids in their home community," says Bill Baccaglini of the NY Foundling (a foster-care agency with a long history with ACS) but many end up beyond their familiar neighborhood. (ACS reports that nearly two-thirds of children are placed in their home borough—but East New York is a far cry from Mill Basin, although both are in Brooklyn.)

Finding qualified, skilled foster parents is a persistent challenge, especially in impoverished, high-need communities, for myriad reasons: Domestic instability, prior criminal records, substance abuse, the daily challenges of providing for one's own family, to name a few.

Pressures on community-based care exert a toll. "We need to improve the quality of our foster parents," Baccaglini says. "It's counterintuitive: Fifteen or 20 years ago, we had 47,000 kids in foster care. Today, we have 15,000. You might think there'd be a large pool of prospective foster parents to draw from." But many in the child-welfare community say they worry about the quality of foster parents across the system.

ACS has to choose, Baccaglini says. If keeping children close to home and keeping community ties is important, "we might want to think about a professional foster-parent model,” under which parents well-suited to the task could be trained and then compensated for providing foster care. “This could be financed by savings from reductions in group care,” he adds.

"I know I don't support my foster parents the way I should—the current business model doesn't support that," he says.

Stronger foster families also need local supports, rooted in communities, but the ACS community partnership program is "very marginal," according to Arsham. "It could become central by engaging the community more deeply in processes like family team conferencing and foster-care placement."

An ACS pilot community partnership program, which would have involved community members in making foster care placement decisions, was launched in 11 of 59 community districts in 2006 but has since stalled.

5) Pay special attention to aging children

Baccaglini additionally points Richter's attention to a troubling bubble of high-need kids is growing within the child welfare system.

Children too old or too challenged to 'adopt cute,' age out of the foster care system at 18—but only after they have lived with foster parents, and perhaps later in group homes, sometimes for years. Well-trained and well-supported professional foster parents could ease the transition to adult life facing these young people.

"For too many years we have failed the aging-out population. And not just here in New York; this is true across the country," Baccaglini says. Kids who age-out too often feed other systems—like homeless services, mental health or corrections—and don't have the skills they need to leave foster care and live independent, productive lives. "I don't think that any of us in the business are confident that we have prepared this group for adulthood outside of the system. The consequences are that many of them fall into other systems, where they languish for years. This needs to change."

5) Get good people

A big part of leadership is growing and grooming the ranks. Advocates say Richter must cultivate talent on all sides—ACS staffers as well as social workers who do the actual work with clients, foster parents, and in Family Court.

Marcia Robinson Lowry, founder and executive director of Children's Rights, a legal advocacy group for abused and maltreated children, cites "very, very significant problems in the child welfare system: New York City has a very high rate of maltreatment, for example. With all of the talent and the energy that is involved in New York's system, one would hope for better results."

Integrating Juvenile Justice and child welfare requires strong staff, Lowry says. "It's really the case that a lot of these kids are the same kids—they may be a little bit older, have been in the system or returned as child welfare 'failures.' But the bottom line is, are there more services for these kids? Better services means more time and more money. I'm not sure the staffing and economic resources are there."

ACS contracts the lion's share of the services it supervises to nonprofit and private agencies. But the social workers who staff those agencies often lack real-world foundations—burnout is high, many say, and the learning curve is both costly and steep. Why not develop a summer academy for incoming social workers, asks Baccaglini, to help new professionals make the transition from the academy to the street?

"In a system that spends billions, this is pennies," he says. "Ron Richter could do this, he could be the bridge, and bring together universities and [service] providers to talk about what our world looks like"—and grow a new generation of strong workers.

Also useful would be an ACS look at how social workers spend their time, whether bogged down in hours of waiting for hearings or doing data entry and paperwork—or visiting families, accompanying kids to emergency rooms, and providing the direct services for which they have been trained.
To achieve the goals that ACS has pursued since the Marisol Panel, strong staff and inspirational leadership are vital: Richter can and must inspire his troops, Lowry says: "It's important to be an inspirational leader who attracts very strong people. If you can't attract and hold good staff, there's no way he or any other human being can get the job done."

6) Address the courts' key role

Staffing challenges extend to Family Court judges, infamously understaffed, underpaid, and overloaded with cases. Yet Family Court judges, appointed to 10-year terms, have little public accountability, according to Lowry, because there are no public data on outcomes: how long cases take, and how they are decided. "A lot of time is wasted on adjournments," she says—time taken from ACS caseworkers and lawyers, not to mention the families and experts called to testify. Most judges, many say, keep their heads down and aim for a low profile, leading to what one advocate describes as "CYA decisions." Nobody wants to wind up on the front page of the tabloids after a child dies.

Richter might also expand the successful legal defenders program that Mattingly launched, which provides high-quality legal counsel for indigent families. As a former lawyer representing families before the Court, Richter may have a special stake in assuring adequate representation for parents citywide, instead of the fewer than one fifth of the city's districts where the program now operates.

A resume inspires optimism

While it's unclear how long Richter will have to address this litany of concerns, advocates have high hopes that his time at the head of ACS will bring progress. "Ron Richter has been a force for progress throughout the system throughout the years," says Arsham, who has worked in child welfare since 1975. "Richter's decision-making has been courageous—not at all characteristic of what's ordinarily seen on the bench."

Richter enjoys a sterling reputation, earned on all sides of the child-welfare conference table: as the head of Legal Aid's Juvenile Rights Division, as Deputy Commissioner and Family Services Coordinator in two prior stints at the Administration for Children's Services (ACS), and most recently, as a Family Court judge in Queens.

"Ron comes in understanding the system. He takes a different view of the world, because of the experience he's had," Baccaglini says. And Richter's people-savvy, too, Baccaglini adds: "He's very well spoken; he has a good wit, a good presence. He can convey a message with a joke, and nobody's ego is offended."

Heggie adds that Richter is a "problem solver." If so, he's in the right place.