Assemblyman Al Stirpe with two foster care representatives. (photo by Lauren Young)
Over 17,000 children currently live in foster care in New York state, but only 27 percent of those find a permanent home within 12 to 23 months, according to state data. To address these problems in the foster care system, Assemblyman Al Stirpe (D-Cicero) hosted a roundtable discussion with representatives on Friday in Liverpool.
Representatives from foster care agencies gathered to discuss the state’s need to provide more support toward kin placements, the quality of preventative services and child care, high employee turnover, ongoing struggles faced by children and families and how they can combat these challenges and improve the system. Representatives included Council of Family and Child Caring Agencies, Families Together in NYS, Fostering Youth Success Alliance, the Office of Children and Family Services, the Office of Mental Health, Onondaga Court Appointed Special Advocates, the Schuyler Center for Analysis and Advocacy and Toomey Residential and Community Services.
New York is one of nine states in the country to use a county-based foster care system compared to a state-based one, which results in a variation of services from child welfare funding to training workers. “All the counties right now are going through their Child and Family Services Plan, a five-year plan usually performed in April or May. For the first time in a long time, the [NYS] office has really had us look at permanency in our educators and to do a lot more data review and strategy development,” said Jim Czarniak, deputy commissioner of child welfare at the Onondaga County Department of Children and Family Services. “In Onondaga County, we’re focusing more on kin and relatives,” he said, adding that “kids do better with families.”
“The kin-first strategy is a way to relieve pressure in the system, because we have to relieve pressure in the system for our most vulnerable kids. We have kids who have been severely sexually abused in our system, who have been beaten, emotionally beaten down; they need a lot more, and the system we have right now really struggles to do it,” he said.
“The unfortunate reality is that the financing of the child welfare system disincentivizes family placements and prevention,” said Jessica Maxwell, director of Fostering Youth Success Alliance (FYSA). New York is “ahead of the curb” as far as preventive services go she said, but more can be done, she said. “For example, New York State has only been paying 62 percent of their share when it is supposed to be 65 percent according to the state law.”
Maxwell said she is hopeful of the benefits from the recent approval of the Family First Prevention Services Act, a spending bill approved by the president on Feb. 9. FFPSA will essentially attempt to restructure how the federal government spends money as it pertains to child welfare, ranging from in-home training, family therapy for mental health and substance abuse programs.
While foster children may be removed from homes due to neglect, some enter the system to only experience more neglect. According to 2015 data from the SCAA, there have been over 69,000 reported incidents of neglect from indicated reports to Child Protective Services in New York.
According to 2016 data, while in foster care, 14 percent of children experience abuse, and 17 percent of children in indicated reports of abuse experience a recurrence of abuse within 12 months. According to the federal Child and Family Services Review conducted by the Human Services Administration for Children and Families’ Children’s Bureau, the state is “failing to keep children safe” or to find homes for children within a reasonable amount of time. According to its 2015 review, New York ranks “near the bottom nationally on safely and permanency measures, indicating that children in New York are more likely to experience a recurrence of maltreatment than children in other states, and are less likely to be placed quickly in permanent homes.”
“I see a tremendous need for foster families that are in it for the long haul, who understand that a kid may not connect initially, and to be patient with that,” said Jaime Gaglianese of Elmcrest Children’s Center. Gaglianese said that foster children can get burnt out quickly when bouncing around from family to family. Czarniak added that he often sees aged-out youth returning to the same home they were originally removed from due to lack of places to go. According to SCAA data from this year, the state currently has the third highest percentage of homeless children in the nation.
“Respite is key,” said Gladys Smith from the NYS Department of Mental Health. Respite care gives foster parents and children a chance for relief from each other, which is especially helpful for those with special medical, emotional or behavioral needs. Funding, however, remains a challenge.
“The governor just delayed the transition to Medicaid-managed care for children for another two years, and this is already on top of the six years we’ve been waiting for this,” said Brad Hansen of Families Together in NYS. “For youth in foster care who have a mental health diagnoses, those families can’t get respite, or there’s a greater need for respite than what they are getting,” adding that “these were services that were needed in the community six years ago.” Currently, the Children’s Behavioral Health Coalition in NYS is partnering with Families Together to push for Gov. Cuomo to honor his initial plan.
Conklin additionally noted how CASA has recently developed a program, partnering with Syracuse University sorority Kappa Alpha Theta-Chi, to connect kids with young, motivated women from the university for mentorship and tutoring. “Our biological parents and foster parents jump on this opportunity,” said Conklin. “They really love that positive viewpoint from these women and the extra help in their subjects.”
The roundtable additionally featured two current foster children, one of whom said some foster families are not equipped to understand mental issues prevalent amongst foster kids, such as PTSD, and don’t take the time to understand the child. “Not only are the foster parents not equipped to address that situation, but our relative caregivers aren’t equipped with that either,” said Conklin. “If you don’t get that good bonding experience as a small child you are struggling so much more as an older child,” added Conklin.
Gaglianese noted that when she last attended a roundtable of foster youth they discussed how “people do a really great job at giving them independent living skills and how to budget, but nobody taught them how to attach, love, connect or who is going to be there for them as their safety net.”
“I learned to love people through Elmcrest,” said one foster youth. “Before I came to Elmcrest, to be honest, I did not know what [love] was,” describing how bouncing from home to home was an emotionally exhausting process. While this teen is soon to be discharged, it certainly wasn’t a short process, as she was in the foster care system for six years. “I felt like I would never find someone who would love or care for me, or have someone to come home to,” she said. After writing a letter to her county worker stating her frustration, she was able to move forward with her discharge plan.
Representatives additionally discussed a need to strengthen their work force, noting that low pay has driven many caseworkers out, while some foster youth have reported difficulty reaching their caseworkers before court dates, with their calls going ignored.
Stirpe has previously carried legislation for the court appointed special advocate (CASA) bill, which establishes a court-appointed special advocates program to help family courts promote the best intentions for children. As of May 2016, the bill passed the senate and is currently awaiting to pass the assembly. Stirpe said he also supports a measure that calls for the establishment of a task force to “examine, evaluate and make recommendations concerning child abuse and neglect prevention efforts in the state.”
In a press release issued after the discussion, Stirpe stated, “every child deserves a safe, stable home and the support to not just grow but flourish. The sad reality, however, is that too many kids lack these basic necessities. In fact, the federal Children’s Bureau found that New York fell short on standards for children in foster care. We need to do better and improve the system so these kids have a fair shot.”
Jason Emerson is editor of the Cazenovia Republican and Eagle Bulletin newspapers.