The System is Failing Our Children

Council Member Stephen Levin is Chair of the General Welfare Committee / Photo Credit: NYC Council

Council Member Stephen Levin is Chair of the General Welfare Committee / Photo Credit: NYC Council

Council Member Levin calls for comprehensive and rigorous ACS review

NEW YORK – A heartbreaking pattern of child deaths has emerged over the last four months. We have mourned the losses of six year-old Zymere Perkins, three year-old Jaden Jordan, five year-old Michael Guzman, and four year-old Zamair Coombs. The constant in each is involvement with ACS that failed to save their lives. The system exists to protect the most vulnerable children in our City and the system is failing them. 

While I appreciate Mayor De Blasio’s consistent attention to reforms, identifying and addressing the system’s failures has to be his highest priority. The Administration for Children’s Services must undergo an independent and comprehensive review of policies, procedure, and staffing at every level of the agency. 

Following the death of Zymere Perkins, the City Council Committee on General Welfare, which I chair, held two hearings to examine City practices and procedures in child protective and preventive services and concrete recommendations emerged. In addition to reforms that ACS has already instituted, I sincerely hope the City will implement new procedures to ensure robust managerial review of casework, require bi-annual training of ACS and contracted provider staff, and invest more deeply in proven preventive services models. I also believe that it is critical to enhance ChildStat casework review with participation by the highest level of ACS citywide and borough staff in order to ensure maximum casework accountability. 

Further, it is unacceptable that the Governor’s budget proposes to cut funding that ACS receives from the State for child welfare and foster care services. These cutbacks are inexcusable.

The tragic deaths of these very young children are intolerable. This is an agency that must continuously evolve and so reforms must be ongoing to ensure ACS can benefit from fresh opportunities and meet new challenges. It is essential that there be rigorous accountability at each and every level in the child welfare system. ACS must ensure that every step is taken to ensure that all children and families involved with their programs have adequate support and resources to build and sustain safe and loving homes.

Mayor de Blasio Signs Foster Care Legislative Package

Mayor de Blasio signed package of foster care bills almost a year after a "Foster Youth Shadow Day"

Mayor de Blasio signed package of foster care bills almost a year after a "Foster Youth Shadow Day"

CITY HALL―Today, Mayor Bill de Blasio signed a legislative package that will improve the foster care system for nearly 10,000 children and youth.

The legislation establishes strategic feedback systems, implements evidence-based permanency planning, and expands reporting on health, education, and housing stability outcomes. The seven bills provide the information necessary to strengthen comprehensive services here in New York City and urge systemic reforms at the state level.

  • Create a taskforce to recommend improvements to our foster care system that will include experts such as child advocates and foster youth (Intro 1192);

  • Require ACS to create three consecutive five-year plans that will identify and address systemic barriers to permanent placement for children and youth who have spent an extended amount of time in foster care (Intro 1191);

  • Implement a survey for children and youth in care regarding experiences with foster parents (Intro 1199); and

  • Expand reporting on foster care regarding educational continuity, graduation success, attainment of government-issued identification, and the number of youth who have aged out of care and who enter a homeless shelter or receive financial assistance such as SNAP benefits (Intro 1190; Intro 1205; Intro 1187; Intro 1197).

“Children and youth in the City’s care are some of the most vulnerable New Yorkers and it is our collective responsibility to ensure that each of them has a safe, loving home and access to comprehensive services,” said Council Member Levin, Chair of the Committee on General Welfare. “These bills are especially important because many of them are a direct response to the firsthand experiences of youth in care. I look forward to continuing to work with young people, advocates, agencies, and my City Council colleagues to improve how our City protects and provides for our children.”

Last year, the Council hosted a Foster Youth Shadow Day at the Council during which members of the General Welfare and Youth Services Committees were paired with a young person who were in or had recently aged out of care. During the event and in follow-up meetings, youth shared ideas about improving foster care in New York City, informed by their own experiences of the system.

“The very system that is meant to protect our children is failing them,” said Public Advocate Letitia James. “This package of bills is an important first step to overhaul our City’s broken system and provide the protections that our children need and deserve. I want to thank Council Members Ferreras-Copeland and Levin for their partnership on this issue. We must continue to focus on our children, protect them from harm, and ensure that we transform our system to one that protects and cares for our most vulnerable children.”

“Our foster care youth are some of the most vulnerable populations in our city and after participating in Foster Youth Shadow Day last year, it became clear that we should be doing a lot more as a city to protect them,” said Council Member Donovan Richards. “This package of bills is focused on finding the holes in foster care and improving the lives of foster youth, which will ensure that they are no longer left behind in New York City. I'd like to thank Council Member Levin and all my colleagues for working together to secure a better future for children in the foster care system.”

While the number of children in foster care has decreased significantly in the past year, it stands that children in New York City’s system spend almost twice the amount of time in care than children in the rest of the country – 3.2 years versus 1.7 years. There is still much more to be done so that the nearly 10,000 New York City children and youth in care can receive vital services and return to their families or be adopted by lifetime families. The bills considered today underscore areas where data is needed to improve service delivery, such as education and housing.

“All children, teenagers, and young adults deserve to have access to supportive resources, and it is crucial that New York City’s foster care system is improved so that it adequately addresses the needs of our young people in foster care,” said Council Member Mathieu Eugene, Chairman of the Youth Services Committee.

“Every youth, irrespective of their socioeconomic status or background, deserves an equal opportunity to succeed as scholars and professionals. With nearly 10,000 children and youth under the care of the Administration for Children’s Services, we must ensure that the proper resources are in place to support their continued growth and development within and beyond the foster care system. I am proud that my bill, Intro 1205, will enable us to assess the academic progression of high school-aged youth in foster care,” said Council Member Laurie A. Cumbo.  

It is also essential to reduce the number of youth who age out of foster care without permanent family. In 2015, over 650 young people aged out of foster care, starting adulthood without family or ACS support. The majority of young people, including those that did not grow up in the foster care system, are nowhere near ready to be fully financially independent at 21 – and yet that is exactly what we expect of young people who age out of the foster care system.

“I am happy to support these bills, which will provide much needed information about foster care and the young people in the system,” said Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland. “We must work together so that all youth receive the support they need to be successful, and these bills will provide us with the data necessary to make the necessary reforms. I also thank Public Advocate James and Council Member Levin for their leadership on this legislation.”

“This joint effort to strengthen NYC's foster care system will improve the lives of thousands of young New Yorkers,” said Council Member Daniel Dromm. “My legislation will help these youth obtain identification by improving Administration for Children's Services reporting practices. I am proud to be part of this work which will ensure that all those in foster care have equal access to city services.”

“The foster care system is entrusted with the safety and care of some of our most vulnerable children. It’s important that we, as a City, properly protect and care for them. This package of bills will strengthen the foster care system by providing much needed oversight,” said Council Member Barry S. Grodenchik.

Advocates and agencies stood with Council Members to offer praise for the legislative package:

“Today the New York City Council has overwhelmingly passed a package of bills aimed at improving the wellbeing of New York City’s children and youth in foster care.  CCC applauds the leadership of Council member Levin and the General Welfare Committee in this effort and we look forward to continuing to partner with the Council and the Administration to improve outcomes for the families who come into contact with the child welfare system,” said Stephanie Gendell, Associate Executive Director, Policy and Advocacy, Citizens’ Committee for Children.

“It is appreciated when the public takes an interest in the finer points of child welfare and we are grateful for the Council’s interest, especially the attention to nuance being paid by Council Member Levin,” said Jim Purcell, CEO of the Council of Family and Child Caring Agencies (COFCCA), which represents nearly all New York State nonprofit organizations that provide foster care, adoption, and family preservation services. “The information the Council will receive from the required reports should provide a broader picture of the city’s youth and families than is captured in a headline or soundbite.  We hope the reports will illustrate some of the successes gained from ongoing system improvement, and also shine a light on the obstacles ACS and the child welfare agencies face in building strong families in New York City.”

With the legislative package, the Council also passed Resolution 1073, calling on the New York State legislature to improve a housing subsidy used by former foster youth in order to reduce their risk of homelessness as they age out of care. Sponsor Councilmember Rafael Salamanca, Jr. said, “This is a package of common-sense legislation that aims to ensure we are supporting our most important asset – our young people.

Council Member Stephen Levin's Opening Remarks - Child Abuse and the Various City Touchpoints


Good Morning. I am Council Member Stephen Levin, Chair of the New York City Council Committee on General Welfare. Today we are joined by representatives from ACS, DHS, NYPD, DOE, OCDV, the Children’s Cabinet, union representatives, advocates, providers, and parents to hold the hearing: “Child Abuse and the Various City Touchpoints.” I want to thank our Speaker for joining us for this important hearing.

As Speaker Mark-Viverito outlined, Zymere’s life was tragically cut too short, and today we are here to discuss how City agencies are working together to provide families with assistance, and how to prevent future tragedies. 

As we do a deep dive today into City agency policies and reforms, interagency coordination, and recommendations for moving forward, we must not lose sight of the fact that a family lost their child. 

Today is Halloween, and millions of children across the city will be trick-or-treating with their families, but Zymere will not. As Zymere’s story eventually fades from the headlines and we move on to other issues, his family must continue to endure a tragic loss. Zymere is remembered by those who knew him as an articulate, playful, and loving child who “had a smile that would captivate anyone’s heart.” 

The other thing we cannot lose sight of during this discussion and through the implementation of new policy reforms, is that the majority of families involved with the child welfare system are caught up due to allegations of neglect. While some children are abused by their parents or guardians – and those children may need to be removed from their families and placed in appropriate and safe foster care placements – most families are involved with ACS because they face issues generally tied to poverty. For example, we know that being unable to secure adequate housing for your family can lead to a multitude of other challenges and approximately 25% of the families living in DHS family shelters have an open case with ACS. 

Today, we will discuss how City agencies are working together, or failing to work together, to address child abuse and neglect. Families involved in the child welfare system are frequently engaged with several agencies – such as the Department of Education, the Police Department, the Department of Homeless Services, and the Human Resources Administration.

When preparing for this hearing, advocates and providers who work with families consistently told us about the difficulties their clients face when trying to navigate a myriad of systems with complicated rules and requirements. Families may receive conflicting mandates, and must travel to seemingly endless appointments to keep their families together. While some are able to connect with skilled legal services organization that can help navigate these processes, not everyone has access to that help. One major question we want to address today is how the City plans to help reduce those burdens so that more families can succeed.

I look forward to hearing from ACS and the other agencies here today about implementing the recommendations announced earlier this month, and from providers, advocates, and parents about their thoughts and experiences in relation to those recommendations. After today’s hearing, we aim to maintain an open dialogue to ensure that the policy changes are not simply a response to one tragedy, but address systemic challenges in an ongoing manner.