Tuesday, December 30, 2008

NY data reveals females vulnerable to domestic violence

NY: Family violence main cause of female homicides
Associated Press, Dec. 24, 2008.

New York homicide data show most female victims died last year at the hands of somebody in the family.

Division of Criminal Justice Services researchers said 87 of the 157 female victims of murder or manslaughter statewide in 2007 were slain by a partner, parent or some other relation. By contrast, 48 of the state's 643 male homicide victims died in domestic violence, according to the report issued Wednesday.

"Domestic violence often occurs out of sight and, historically, out of mind," Gov. David Paterson said. He called it "a blight on our society."

Paterson this year signed into law a measure expanding the definition of "same family or household" to include unrelated individuals who were involved in an intimate relationship with the victim, regardless of whether they had ever lived together. Another new measure authorizes criminal mischief charges when an abuser damages jointly owned property. A third makes it a crime to prevent someone from seeking emergency assistance by disabling or removing a telephone or other communication device.

Despite the current state fiscal crisis, Paterson promised victims won't be abandoned and public safety won't be sacrificed.

"I will be relying on this report, and its troubling findings, as we consider new strategies to address domestic violence," he said.

While noting the crime rate statewide has dropped 33 percent in a decade and spending for public safety programs grew 54 percent, Paterson has carved out various exceptions for law enforcement from his cuts in the current state budget and proposal for 2009-2010. He proposed $727 million total spending for the state police next year, up 5 percent, and ongoing staffing of 4,939 sworn troopers.

Amy Barasch, executive director of the Governor's Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence, said 80 percent of homicides by intimate partners nationally were preceded by other domestic violence.

The data should help them work with police and victims' advocates "to strengthen initial responses" to domestic incidents, she said.

Another state report adding data about hot line phone calls, orders of protection, child welfare cases and related crimes should be out by the end of January. It will be used to target services at communities with the greatest need, Barasch said. "We want to get services to people before they become a homicide statistic," she said.

Statewide, authorities in 31 counties reported no domestic homicides, while 17 reported no homicides at all. The 800 total statewide was down about 14 percent from 926 a year earlier, while domestic homicides totaled 135 last year, up from 133.

The historical data on domestic cases is "a little squishy," division spokesman John Caher said. "It all depends what the cops put in the report." If a case wasn't flagged by police as domestic violence, it didn't turn up in that state data. The 2007 data include family definitions that include, for example, unmarried partners, and the report's researchers examined every 2007 homicide to verify it, he said.

Of the 36 children killed by domestic violence last year, 20 were boys and all but three were under the age of 5. Most were infants.

Domestic homicides have been dropping since 1994, coinciding with passage of the Violence Against Women Act but mostly among men, Barasch said. The addition of services for abused women has reduced self-defense killings that follow years of domestic abuse. "Women know they don't have to resort to violence," she said.

While it makes sense to simply avoid violent or deadly people as intimate or parenting partners, Barasch said that's often unclear at first.

"Folks who are abusive can have an appealing side to their nature and show that side to attract a partner." Later, once abuse starts, victims often don't want to believe the person they love is hurting them, or they may feel trapped for complicated emotional, economic, parental and other reasons.

Also, popular culture can make obsessive and controlling behavior, fairly unhealthy yet common among abusers, sound OK.

"I think we all get very mixed messages in what love looks like," she said.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Hopes for Higher Education for foster care alumni

Dr. Deborah Sims receives NY Beauty of Education Award
Press Release, Dec. 15, 2008.

Dr. Deborah Sims was one of 10 recipients of the 2008 Maybelline New York Beauty of Education Award. The award recognizes women using the power of education to make a difference.

Dr. Sims was selected by Maybelline for founding Hopes for Higher Education, a non-profit organization dedicated to improving college access for the youth aging out of the foster care system and into higher education.

Dr. Sims earned a doctorate from Capella University's School of Harold Abel School of Psychology in 2006. Capella University ( www.capella.edu), is an accredited* online university that has built its reputation by providing quality online education for working adults.

Dr. Sims, herself a product of foster care, operated and managed the Hopes for Higher Education while pursuing her online PhD.

"I found balancing both to be a very positive experience," commented Dr. Sims. "I knew that I wanted to conduct my research in this area, so I was very eager to combine the two activities that I'm most passionate about--my education and helping the kids aging out of foster care."

Her organization will receive a $10,000 grant to support their educational cause along with the opportunity to be showcased in a national ad in Essence Magazine.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

NY journalist cares about foster care

In foster care, there's always room for one more
Caring families can help rescue kids and their parents
Cleary, John. Elmira Star-Gazette, Nov. 15, 2008.

This week, I became a father again. Twice.

My wife and I finalized our third and fourth adoptions this week. Two foster children, girls ages 3 years and 15 months, have permanently joined our family. We now have six children.

It is, of course, a joyous thing. Our new youngest daughter has lived with us since birth, her new older sister for almost all of her life. To have them become, officially, part of our family is a cause for celebration. We are happy the adoptions could be finalized in November, National Adoption Month.

But it is bittersweet, too. We know now our family is complete. We don't have the space or, honestly, the inclination to adopt any more children. We have been foster parents for nearly seven years, having cared for more than two dozen children. With our family having grown so much, taking in more children is difficult. We may be available for temporary respite care or the occasional emergency case, but I think our days of long-term foster care are behind us, at least until our own children are older.

Foster care has been such an integral part of our family life, we don't quite know how to feel. Except for brief vacations or time between cases, this weekend we are without foster children for the first time in our married life. We feel we are ending the first chapter of our life as a family, and while we're excited to see what comes next, we'll miss the challenges we're leaving behind.

Foster care has been the most exhilarating, draining, uplifting, depressing, fun and frustrating experience of my life. Above all, it has been illuminating. We've learned some valuable lessons.

We've come to believe no case is hopeless. We have met families with enormous challenges to overcome and have seen them do it. We've known addicts who have gotten clean, victims who have escaped abusive relationships, homeless parents who have found suitable housing and mental health patients who have made great strides in treatment. We have seen children we were certain were heading to adoption go home and live happy, safe lives.

When it happens, it is beautiful to see.

I've learned all children crave a measure of control. I believe what motivates a lot of a child's behavior, good and bad, is the desire to demonstrate, to themselves or others, that they have some control over their lives. Children, especially those in foster care, have little say in where they live, what they eat, when they sleep and what they do. So they try to control the things they can, often in antisocial ways. A lot of problems, I think, can be resolved or prevented by seeking an understanding of the child's need for control.

Most of all, we've learned the system that cares for these children can work. It requires the active advocacy of caseworkers, judges who are compassionate but firm, law guardians who care and foster parents who aren't content to watch children get lost in the shuffle.

You can join that team. Call your county Department of Social Services and ask how you can open your home to a child. You will never do anything as rewarding as helping a child in need.

John P. Cleary is a freelance writer from Elmira, NY

Friday, November 14, 2008

Need for Post Adoption Sibling Visitation

Adoption gives birth to a new family for children in foster care
Rulhmann, Dandrea. Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, Nov. 13, 2008.

As a Family Court judge, I have the privilege of co-chairing, with Judge Gail Donofrio, Monroe County's celebration of National Adoption Day on Friday. National Adoption Day represents a day of promise and hope for 1,300 New York children in foster care awaiting permanent homes.

The chaos created by substance abuse, unaddressed mental illness or physical violence has left these children without safe, permanent homes. By definition these children have lost much, not the least of which is their connection to their biological brothers and sisters.

For me, growing up with three sisters has created a lifelong safety net, providing constant friends, confidants and support. Indeed a person's relationship with his or her siblings typically lasts longer than many other relationships, including those with parents. Not surprisingly, a child in foster care often reveals in court that he desperately misses his biological siblings.

New York Family Court regulations encourage contact between biological siblings before adoption, recognizing the importance of the sibling bond in developing a child's identity and well-being. Many adoptive parents unselfishly chose to continue that contact after the child's adoption is finalized. Some by acts of unconditional love adopt more than one child from the same biological family, refusing to separate them.

Yet these are real families, with myriad problems. Unfortunately, risks to health and safety may prevent an ongoing relationship between a child and his biological siblings. In these cases, adoptive brothers and sisters fill the developmental and emotional void for the adopted child. Adoptive siblings become family. In this way, adoption can bring unfathomable promise for every child in foster care.

Ruhlmann is a Monroe County Family Court judge and guest essayist

New York to Host National Adoption Day 2008

Events in all 50 States to Kick-off in New York; 151 New York City Children to be Connected to Loving, Permanent Families
Press Release from National Adoption Day Coalition, Nov. 13, 2008.

On November 15, 2008, hundreds of communities in all 50 states will hold courtroom celebrations to finalize more than 4,000 adoptions of children from foster care, bringing the total number of finalized adoptions as part of National Adoption Day activities to more than 25,000.

Every year, in November, hundreds of judges, attorneys, adoption agencies, adoption professionals and child advocates volunteer their time to finalize adoptions of children from foster care and celebrate all families who adopt.

New York will host the national celebration as it has led the country with innovative and successful programs to promote foster care adoptions, annually completing about 5,000 of these adoptions throughout the state.

As one of the original National Adoption Day participating cities, New York will host the national press conference to address the state of foster care and national trends in foster care adoption. The press conference will begin at 9 a.m. in the ceremonial courtroom on the first floor of the Queens Family Court.

The press conference will be followed by the adoptions of 151 children from foster care into permanent, loving, forever families.

Participants include:
- Rita Soronen, Executive Director of the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption and a founding sponsor of National Adoption Day
- Judge Joseph M. Lauria, Administrative Judge, New York City Family Court
- Ortiz-Torres-Fonseca, new adoptive family

"Today marks a milestone in America as we celebrate the over 3,500 children that will go home tonight with their forever families -- children who have waited for this moment in some cases for years. Our hearts are filled with joy for these children and for the power that this day has in raising awareness of the overwhelming number of children still waiting for a loving home," said Rita Soronen, Executive Director of the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, a founding sponsor of National Adoption Day.

"We are honored that 25,000 children have now permanently joined families through our national celebrations. Experiencing the joy of National Adoption Day reminds us all of what we can accomplish and drives us further toward the goal of finding a home for every child."

"While we are first and foremost a Court of reunification, we are committed to permanency through adoption for our children and families when reunification is not appropriate. New York is proud to champion foster care adoption on National Adoption Day and every day throughout the year," said Judge Joseph M. Lauria, Administrative Judge of the New York City Family Court.

"In 2007, we finalized over 1,644 adoptions from foster care in our courts citywide, providing safe, loving and permanent homes for our deserving children. And, on National Adoption Day, we will be delighted that 151 more children who were waiting in foster care will go home knowing they are part of a permanent bond, knowing they have a family."

Right now, 129,000 children are waiting in the foster care system legally and permanently separated from their biological parents. Through no fault of their own, these children enter foster care because of abuse, neglect and/or abandonment. Unless they are connected with adoptive parents they will not only lose the opportunity for family joys as simple as Thanksgiving dinner, but they will also be at an increased risk for being undereducated, unemployed, homeless and/or involved in substance abuse or criminal activity.

Since 1987, the number of children in foster care has nearly doubled, and the average time a child waits for an adoptive family is more than three years. Many move to different families more than three times while in the system and are separated from siblings. Each year, nearly 26,000 of these youth will just end up leaving the system when they turn 18 with no family to support them in the future.

The National Adoption Day Coalition works tirelessly throughout the year with hundreds of communities and thousands of volunteers to dispel the myths about adopting from foster care and to raise awareness about the 129,000 children in need of adoptive families. The day also builds collaboration among local adoption agencies, courts and advocacy organizations and communicates the availability and need for post-adoptive services.

In Syracuse, New York, the Fifth Judicial District and Onondaga County will be hosting its largest National Adoption Day Celebration ever. Local Adoption Agencies as well as Onondaga County Department of Social Services will be on hand to provide information with regard to becoming Foster Parents as well as adopting. Following the ceremony, the private adoptions will take place with gift bags going to the children being adopted.

National Adoption Day is sponsored by a coalition dedicated to improving the lives of children, including The Alliance for Children's Rights, Casey Family Services, Children's Action Network, The Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute, Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption and the Freddie Mac Foundation.

The Fostering Connection (TFC)

The Fostering Connection is a New York City program that offers lifelong therapy to current and former foster children for free. For more information, please call 212-255-8895.

This organization has been facilitating effective, long-term relationships between foster care youth and alumni and professional therapists in the New York area since 2001.

The Fostering Connection (TFC) evolved from a New York social action project called The Children’s Psychotherapy Project. TFC incorporated as a 501(c)3 nonprofit in 2004.

To continue providing services, The Fostering Connection relies on the generous contributions of foundations, corporations and individuals, as well as their volunteers.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Times Square Vigil Focusing on Homeless Youth

Press Release: Plight of Homeless Youth Will be Focus of Nov. 20 Times Square Vigil
Nov. 12, 2008

NEW YORK-- Covenant House International is releasing its First Annual Report Card on the US Homeless Youth Crisis, and gives a bleak outlook for their future. America's kids in crisis will be the focus of the 18th Annual Candlelight Vigil for Homeless Youth on Thursday, November, 20, 5:30 pm, in Times Square.

"Over 750,000 young people in the US are living and dying on our streets every year. We were able to help 70,387 homeless youth last year, 7% more than the year before, but this is still not enough, more needs to be done by all of us," explains James White, interim president and chief operating officer for Covenant House International, the largest privately funded agency in the Americas helping homeless kids.

"Our First Annual Report Card on the US Homeless Youth Crisis finds that the number of homeless and impoverished youth is growing and their outlook is bleak," says White. The report card examines 11 key indicators affecting children, including: population growth, poverty rates, employment opportunities, high school drop-out rates, health coverage, dental health, the foster care system, juvenile justice, arrests, substance use and death rates.

"18- to 24-year-olds make up the highest percentage of individuals living in poverty and they are twice as likely to be unemployed. Many of these kids are aging out of foster care at rates 30% higher than we typically see," says White adding, "One-third of the homeless kids helped by Covenant House come directly from foster care. The rest come from environments of abuse, neglect and other at-risk situations."

According to information gathered by Covenant House, once a kid becomes homeless, that youth is at a much greater risk for becoming incarcerated. The number of recent arrests of 18- to 24-year-olds has increased for prostitution (17%), drug violations (19%), weapons charges (25%) and vagrancy (28%). These kids also are at much greater risk for premature death by homicide or suicide. 5,000 homeless youth die from assault, illness and suicide each year.

"We want people to be outraged by this bleak situation. We want them and our nation's leaders to change this situation. It can be done. At Covenant House we've been changing the lives of homeless kids for 35 years by giving them guidance, transitional housing, healthcare, education and job training. Many of our kids go from the streets to college. They are good kids who have had some rough breaks in life and now just need a chance to help themselves," says White.

Homeless youth being helped by Covenant House will be telling their stories and performing with Broadway stars at the 18th Annual Candlelight Vigil for Homeless Youth on Thursday, November, 20, 5:30 pm, in Times Square.

Additional vigils will be held at other Covenant House sites, churches, colleges and via the Virtual Candlelight Vigil Web site: www.igniteadream.org

The Times Square Vigil will be hosted by Sunny Cummings Hostin, CNN Legal Analyst & Managing Director at Kroll Inc., a private investigation and security firm. The vigil also will feature: Jim White, Bruce Henry, executive director of Covenant House Institute, and Broadway stars Lawrence Clayton (Bells Are Ringing, It Ain't Nothin but the Blues, The Civil War, Once upon a Mattress, High Rollers Social Pleasure Club, and Dreamgirls) and Capathia Jenkins (Fame Becomes Me, Look of Love, Caroline or Change, and Civil War).

Nasdaq and Reuters will air vigil graphics while ABC will air the vigil live on their Times Square jumbotrons during the event. MTV and Invision will create a live Internet feed for the vigil.

Founded in 1972, Covenant House International is the largest privately funded agency in the Americas helping homeless kids, providing 24/7 crisis care and ongoing support at 21 facilities, NINELINE (1-800-999-9999) and www.covenanthouse.org.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Doctors as role models for foster children

Foster kids: in need of connection, and time to grieve
Ryan, Jeff. Contemporary Pediatrics. Oct. 12, 2008.

No one would try to set up a brand new widow or widower on a blind date. It’s too soon: the bereaved spouse needs time to grieve and process the loss before they can try to establish a new bond with someone else.

A child losing the care of parents or guardians, due to death or inability to care, experiences a similar type of loss, and needs a similar time to grieve. But too often they don’t get it, and are expected to immediately start thriving with a pair of foster parents. If they don’t, they get flagged with “oppositional defiant disorder.”

This, according to Francine Cournos, MD, who spoke at Saturday’s plenary session, is one of the few times where the medical establishment overcares for a child going through the foster care system. Cournos is an expert in the system in two ways, as a medical professional and as a child who experienced the system herself.

Cournos’s father died when she was three, and her mother when she was 11. The grandmother she was living with couldn’t provide care for her and her siblings, and her aunts and uncles didn’t want the responsibility either. She entered the foster care system “stunned, then angry” at her remaining family.

She spoke powerfully to the audience, using the voice of “adaptive” children in foster care. “We as foster children need our connection to you,” she said. “We are coming from a world of betrayal, and long for adults who are trustworthy…We may not show it: saying no is the one power of the helpless. But don’t be fooled: we want to connect to you. Our rejection is merely anger.”

She added that “you don’t need to be more than you are,” stressing that foster parents and pediatricians do not have to single-handedly make up for all the deficits of the child’s parents and (sometimes) previous foster parents.

The decades have definitely improved the lives of foster children. When Cournos was in the system, children weren’t considered able to have mood or anxiety disorders, not even depression for how their life had turned out. Still, some pediatricians try to cram in many tests during placement day, when children are already traumatized. This might exacerbate a case of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Cournos recalled a pediatrician ophthalmologist colleague of hers, who realized he was the only constant for some of the foster kids in his practice. She had a similar role model: her own pediatrician growing up. “He was the nicest man in the world,” she recalled, and he was extra nice to foster kids. She said she might be a doctor when she grew up, and he believed her.

All of this despite only seeing him once every six months, for her well visits.

Monday, October 13, 2008

"My future is flying toward me"

After spending much of her life in foster care, Star Diaz turns 21 this month--and will have to make a home of her own
New York Times Upfront, Sept. 22, 2008.

Whenever my parents come up in a conversation, I want to lie. I want to say all of us live together in one big house. My mother sings while she's folding laundry. My father watches TV. And my brothers and sisters are always in my room, taking my things.

But the truth is, when I was 13 years old, my father killed my mother at a motel in New York City. The six youngest of my eight brothers and sisters were adopted, and I don't know where they are. The last time I saw them was when we buried my mom.

My oldest sister, Jeanette, and I grew up in different foster homes, but we're close now. Jeanette, who's 26, knows how to move on and plan for her future. She works as a home health aide and makes sure her kids look good for school.

But I feel like I'm stuck in the past, while my future is flying toward me. I'm about to age out of foster care, when I turn 21 on September 27. At that point, I have to move out of my current foster home--the sixth foster home I've been in since I was 7.

Growing up without your mother and father, you ask yourself all the time: Where do I belong? Who loves me? You just never stop asking yourself those questions.

To me, it meant something to belong to somebody, even if my parents weren't perfect. My mother and father drank a lot. My father was a boxer in Puerto Rico and turned his fists on my mother and on us. The truth is, I would forgive anyone, even my father, if it meant they would just come through for me.

My caseworker told me a lot of foster kids end up in homeless shelters when they age out of the system. And if she was trying to scare me, I'm feeling it.

The thing is, when I try to imagine having a home--with comfy leather sofas, a fluffy bed, and lots of food in my fridge--it seems like a fantasy. It just doesn't seem real.

One night, I walked by the hotel for homeless people where I once stayed with my mother. I realized I do not want to end up there, so I have to pull myself together and focus on the future.

Last spring, I got a chance to tell my story on the radio. After my story aired, a listener called in and said she wanted to hire me. So now, four days a week after my G.E.D. program, I do clerical work at a law firm in New York.

Having the job means long days and not much time for fun. But it also means I'm eligible for public housing when I leave foster care. This summer, I got my own apartment, and I hope that will be the first step in getting my life on track.

This essay is adapted from Star Diaz's story for Radio Rookies, a series produced by WNYC Radio in New York.

How could CDSC not know that criminal checks were required?

Kids agency skips crime checks
Lucadamo, Kathleen. New York Daily News, March 26, 2008.

A BROOKLYN NONPROFIT paid by the city to help abused children didn't do criminal background checks on workers and couldn't prove caseworkers were doing their job, the city controller's office says.

The Child Development Support Corp., which gets more than $4 million from the city, failed to conduct criminal checks on 95% of its employees - even though its contract required them to, according to the controller's audit.

The organization provides services - including day care, job training and substance abuse programs - to 100 families in Clinton Hill, Bedford-Stuyvesant and Brownsville.

Caseworkers at times didn't make required contact with the families and didn't "adequately monitor" the services clients were receiving, the audit claims.

Controller William Thompson blamed the city Administration for Children's Services, which oversees CDSC, for not keeping better tabs on child welfare agencies.

His findings come as ACS is relying more than ever on preventative programs to stop child abuse.

"If they [CDSC] are entrusted to help families keep children out of foster care, are they doing this job? Nobody knows," said Thompson. He urged ACS to "pay attention to those who are working for you."

ACS spokeswoman Sheila Stainback charged that Thompson used "largely old data" and said "CDSC has made marked improvement in recent months." The audit covered July 2005 to June 2007.

CDSC does complete extensive checks on their employees but didn't believe criminal background checks were required, said its executive director, Marcia Riddick.

Since the audit did not conduct its own background checks, it is not known whether any of the workers have a criminal background.

This law might save lives

Child Welfare Tightens Law On Removal
Kaufman, Leslie. New York Times, May 15, 2008.

New York City has enacted a tough new policy that allows the authorities to remove newborns from their parents' homes in all but an "extraordinary instance" if the parents previously had children taken from their custody and their case is still open.

John B. Mattingly, the city's commissioner of children's services, announced the more aggressive approach during a City Council budget hearing on Tuesday at which he faced questions on his agency's role in the death of Pablo Paez, an 11-week-old boy whose older sibling had been removed from the same home at age 3 months, a year earlier.

The children's mother, Kiana Paez, a 23-year-old drug addict, was charged on April 25 with beating Pablo to death. Child welfare workers had been in frequent contact with Ms. Paez since the first baby was placed in foster care because of violence in the home, but they did not try to remove Pablo.

Mr. Mattingly said that the new policy was influenced by the Paez case, but that he had been considering the changes -- a natural outgrowth of other changes he had made at the agency -- for a long time. The policy, which had been toughened in 2006, was officially revised again on April 21, 18 days after the baby's injuries were discovered.

"When I got here three and a half years ago, the assumption was the child would stay in the home," Mr. Mattingly said in a telephone interview. "Most of us in the country have the view that if older siblings are in foster care, and the court has affirmed that they are at substantial risk of harm, it makes very little sense to make the opposite assumption about a 6-pound baby coming into the home."

Even under the new policy, removals will not be automatic. When caseworkers learn of a pregnancy, they are required to have a safety conference with family members, lawyers or advocates to evaluate the risk for the new baby. If they feel a new child should stay in the mother's home, a borough supervisor will have to sign off on the decision. Otherwise, the agency will initiate the court proceedings required to remove any child from the parents' care.

"The assumption should be we are going for removal," Mr. Mattingly said. "This is a very serious matter, and only the highest authority can make a decision not to remove the child."

City officials could not say whether any babies have been removed under the new regulations, but they estimated that 150 to 200 infants a year were born into families with children in foster care.

Several child-welfare experts said on Wednesday that New York's new regulations were among the most aggressive they had seen.

"The presumption is toward keeping a baby home unless there is imminent risk," said Anne Marie Lancour, director of state projects at the American Bar Association's Center on Children and the Law.

Richard Wexler, executive director of the Virginia-based National Coalition for Child Protection Reform and a major critic of foster care, said that New York had basically adopted "a de facto confiscation-at-birth policy."

"What this policy is really saying, to the worker, the supervisor and even the borough commissioner, is, 'Go ahead and leave that child in the home if you want, but if anything goes wrong, your career is over,' " Mr. Wexler said.

For the authorities to remove a child from a home for any significant period of time, they must have an order from a family court judge. Child-welfare officials in New York have long held that a court order for the removal of a single child from a home includes the right to monitor the safety of any new children born into that family. The degree of aggressiveness in how the city pursues that jurisdiction, however, has varied widely over time.

Mr. Mattingly said he had seen a need to tighten the protocols for dealing with such families after reviewing child deaths and seeing too many situations like the one involving Pablo Paez. He declined to state which cases in particular had worried him, but it was clear from his City Council testimony that Pablo's case bothered him deeply.

Officials said that caseworkers had been monitoring the home of Kiana Paez carefully since her first child's placement in foster care, and that her drug screening tests had all come back negative, leading them to believe she was becoming more responsible.

But the Queens district attorney, Richard A. Brown, has said that as a result of abuse at her hands, Pablo had severe brain injury and fractures, including broken ribs and a broken leg.

Bill de Blasio, the chairman of the City Council's General Welfare Committee, praised the new regulations, saying they were "desperately needed." But some parent advocates worried that the aggressive approach might cross a civil rights boundary.

"The extraordinary circumstances language is troubling," said Michael Arsham, executive director of the Child Welfare Organizing Project. "There has to be a reason beyond simply their history. There has to be a new allegation. There has to be an immediate and pressing concern."

Bill Baccaglini, executive director of New York Foundling, one of several dozen foster-care agencies that will help administer the new policy, said he was "willing to be the subject of a little criticism from the civil libertarians."

"This comes out of the best of intentions," he said. "Being on this side of the business I know if we make a mistake you could lose a life."

I don't think this policy is too aggressive

Saving Babies from Bad Parents
New York Post, May 16, 2008.

Credit where it is due: Administration for Children's Services head John Mattingly seems to get it.

At a City Council hearing this week, Mattingly announced a new ACS policy giving the agency increased latitude to remove a newborn from a parent if another child in the home had previously been removed for safety reasons.

Under the new system, if one child has been removed and the mother becomes pregnant again, the family's ACS caseworker must immediately attempt to determine whether the new baby will be in any danger.

The default presumption will require removal when the child is born, unless a borough supervisor determines that the baby will be safe.

Absent assurances otherwise, ACS will petition a court right away to gain custody of the child.

Such petitions aren't granted lightly - nor should they be.

But where the courts have already compromised parental rights for cause, the burden to prove that a new baby will be safe should be on the parent.

That's just common sense.

While this new policy is seen as "aggressive" by many advocacy groups, what's really amazing is that it wasn't put into effect a very long time ago.

Had it been, it's likely that 11-week-old Pablo Paez of Queens might not have been beaten to death - allegedly by his mother - last month.

Police say Kiana Paez, Pablo's drug-addicted mom, murdered her son only six months after ACS had placed his sibling in foster care because Paez was incapable of caring for the child.

According to ACS, the new policy was under discussion prior to Pablo's death.

As many as 200 babies a year are born into families with other children already in foster care.

They, at least, will have a greater chance at survival than did Pablo Paez.

Good for ACS for recognizing that.

However belatedly.

Young people abused while in NY foster care

Fury at foster 'abuse;' Parents fume over ACS kids' injuries
Montero, Douglas. New York Post, May 19, 2008.

Sandra Allen first wants to get her son back from the city - then she'll sue.

Allen is part of growing army of irate parents whose kids were abused or injured while in the custody of the Administration for Children's Services.

Allen, who works for the city's Department of Finance, said she learned in early 2007 that her son Stephen Jr., 6, had a fractured skull and broken collarbone when she started getting X-ray bills from her employee medical insurance.

"We still don't know what happened to his head - we need to know," said the teary Queens mom.

Allen still doesn't know who beat up Stephen, and she is forbidden by MercyFirst, the Queens foster-care provider contracted by ACS to take care of him, from questioning him during supervised visits.

"They [ACS] make the Police Department's blue wall of silence look like cheesecloth," said Joseph Kasper, Allen's lawyer.

The "standard practice" requires the foster-care provider to inform birth parents of injuries or abuse "as soon as possible," an ACS spokesman said.

Tell that to Raven Hamlett, whose two sons, then 5 and 2, were sexually abused sometime between February 2004 and June 2006 when she voluntarily put them in foster care to kick a drug habit.

After getting them back, she sought their medical records from ACS because the oldest boy was acting out.

The ACS social workers accidentally "turned over documents saying these kids had been sexually abused" by an unknown man who attacked them in the Bronx foster-care agency caring for them, her lawyer David Lesch said.

"It's a nightmare - I have never seen anything so heinous," said Lesch, who filed a lawsuit last year.

There are 211 pending personalinjury lawsuits against ACS, some dating back to 2003, according to Law Department records.

The city has shelled out $1.8 million to resolve 15 personal-injury cases, including a $1 million payout last year to Antonia Phillips, now 6, who suffered permanent brain damage after being shaken in 2003 by an unknown assailant.

ACS refused to say if any workers or foster-care contractors were arrested or disciplined for the attack.

Phillips' lawyer Derek Sells calls the lack of prosecution "perplexing."

Between July 2006 and June 2007, there were 1,337 complaints that children in ACS care were abused or neglected, and 301 - nearly a quarter of the cases - were substantiated.

Both numbers were up from the previous 12 months where 197 of 1,256 complaints were substantiated. MercyFirst refused to comment.

Sandra Allen learned that 6-year-old son Stephen was injured in city foster care - only after getting his X-ray bills.

Two NY theater programs for at-risk youth

New voices: Teen playwrights command the stage
Hoffman, Barbara. New York Post, May 31, 2008.

WRITE what you know. And if you're a teenager in one of this city's underserved schools, you probably know a lot - about peer pressure, longing, homelessness . . . and hope.

It helps to put those things in writing. And if you're lucky, you might just see the world you've created enacted on a New York stage.

That's what's happening this week via two different programs. Manhattan Theatre Club's Write on the Edge Festival Monday at City Center (131 W. 55th St., 10:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.; call [212] 399-3000, ext. 4252 for free tickets) presents short plays written by at-risk kids, performed by professional actors.

Fidelity FutureStage goes even further - with students not only writing plays, but acting, directing and stage-managing them. Eight months of workshops and theater trips culminate in performances this week before family, friends and the occasional producer at off-Broadway's New World Stages.

"A lot of the kids say they've now found a passion - something that's meaningful and they love doing," says Alice Krieger, one of the directors of Leap (Learning Through an Expanded Arts Program), which works with FutureStage.

"We had a senior last year who was homeless and living in a shelter - he's now in a theater company up at Cornell."

Here's a look at several teens, the playwrights of tomorrow.

Aspiring director, playwright, actor (in Erica's play)

"My play last year, 'Ice Joey,' was about a boy who moves to Phoenix and has trouble fitting in, so he tells everybody that he's a rapper named Ice Cube. Erica played Joey's mom.

"The best part is the first rehearsal. When people laugh at a joke, it feels good. And it's fun to direct, because the ideas you have in your head, you can see performed in front of you, and if you don't like it, you can tweak it.

"I like being backstage. How they say a line, where they say the line - you have more of a say in what goes on."

Aspiring actress, playwright

"I write from what I see and what I hear from my friends. It shows in my play, 'Just B Urself, I Can B That 2.' It's about a boy who falls in love with someone and tries to change his personality . . . It's based on people in my school. I changed the names - some.

"Editing's hard. You fall in love with a line and you have to take it out, because it doesn't work. Makes you want to cry, losing a line.

"[Getting the play produced] made me feel proud. Now people in my school know my name. After high school, I want to go to California, because that's where the stars are. The writing thing is cool, but I like to act."


"My play 'Street Walker' is about a 20-year-old boy who lost his family and everything he knew, loved and cherished in a fire. In some ways, it's a little like real life. I was taken away from my mother when I was 4 or 5 and put into foster care. I went to five families, none friendly or nice.

"My mom wanted me back. She'd ride her bike to my karate school, look at me and ride away. At 12, I went back to her. Now we're like best friends. She was ecstatic [about the play] because she knew there was something special in me . . .

"Writing a play is a big thing. I stopped a few times. The only thing that kept me going was my English teacher, Mr. Evans. He told me, 'Nick, you have a wild imagination. Put it in the play.' "

Understudy, playwright

"I wrote a play, 'Are You Having Sex?,' about a mother who finds a condom in her 16-year-old daughter's room . . . I just tried to imagine what would happen if my mother found one in my room.

"There were only two curses in it: damn and hell. My mother said, 'Try to use other words,' but she was proud of me.

"I start things and I drop things, so she was glad to see me finish something, finally. I rewrote the ending Sunday - I still keep trying to make it better."

Quick move from group homes to foster care lacks sufficient pool of NY foster parents

Older Children, Bigger Hurdles
Foderaro, Lisa. New York Times, June 8, 2008.

Eight months into New York City's bold experiment of moving hundreds of troubled teenagers out of group homes and into foster care, the system is stretched so thin that many involved say they are having trouble making thoughtful matches between foster parents and their charges. Some child-welfare experts are worried they may soon be unable to recruit enough qualified foster parents, while others say the city has moved too slowly in putting support systems in place to help these older children flourish in private homes.

"It's a good direction, but the problem is that we're implementing the plan before the infrastructures are all in place," said Bill Baccaglini, executive director of the New York Foundling, one of the largest of about three dozen private foster care agencies that contract with the city to find and monitor homes. "We run the risk of burning out our foster parents and losing them."

Stephen McCall, a consultant who runs a support group for foster parents, said he fielded a frantic call in May from a New York City police officer he had helped persuade to foster her 19-year-old godson. She suspected he was smoking marijuana with friends in her home in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. "She said, 'I don't know if I can do this,' " Mr. McCall said.

A 61-year-old psychotherapist said that a year ago, after raising four children of her own, she welcomed a 17-year-old boy into her home on the Upper West Side with the intention of adopting him. Speaking on the condition of anonymity because she wanted to shield her private life from her clients and protect the boy, she said that the teenager had been physically abused when he was younger, was "emotionally no older than 12 or 13" and consistently lied to her. He moved out in March.

Even Mary Chancie, an experienced adoptive parent who recruits foster parents on behalf of the nonprofit agency You Gotta Believe, lasted only six months with two teenage boys she took in. One, age 13, had a behavior disorder and went to live with a sister; the other, 19, was "disrespectful to family members in the house," Ms. Chancie said.

"He was a nice kid and we still have a relationship," she said. "But he had challenges I wasn't equipped to deal with at the time."

Robert H. Gutheil, executive director of Episcopal Social Services, another private foster care agency that contracts with New York City, said his organization usually has 10 to 15 foster families awaiting children, but "typically, in the best case, only one to three of those would be willing to take a teenager."

With the city's Administration for Children's Services having promised to move 700 to 1,100 children out of so-called residential care -- group homes and larger institutions -- and into foster homes by June 2009, that may not be enough.

"It's the right principle and policy, but principles and policies need to meet kids where they are on every single day," said James F. Purcell, executive director of the Council of Family and Child Caring Agencies, an umbrella organization that represents foster care agencies. "And we need to pay constant attention to that -- that we don't let a policy direction that says 'less residential' become the reality if, in fact, that's not what the kid needs."

New York -- which has long had a higher proportion of teenagers in institutional settings than other large cities, according to John B. Mattingly, commissioner of the Administration for Children's Services -- is among several places nationwide prioritizing a push toward private foster homes. National studies show that in general, children in private homes have fewer problems as adults than those in group homes.

As the total number of children in the city's care has dropped to 17,000 from 19,000 over the past four years, the proportion in institutions has also dipped, to 15 percent from 19 percent, according to figures provided by the children's services agency. The average age of the foster care population is 10 1/2, while those in institutional care average 16. Children in New York State can remain in foster care until age 21.

The city's most recent initiative to reduce the current institutional population of about 2,500 to as few as 1,500 comes on top of similar efforts. In 2005, the city finished closing its own 250-bed network of group homes. And in 2004, Children's Village, a private nonprofit agency that contracts with the city and houses 280 children in cottages on a 150-acre campus in Westchester County, decided to redouble its efforts to find homes for teenage residents rather than maintain its longstanding practice of keeping them until they turn 21.

Mr. Mattingly said the key is to place teenagers in private homes immediately on being removed from their families, because otherwise they often languish forgotten in institutions.

"The basic experience we have in the field, and research supports this, is that if you work at it, you can place teens at the very get-go in foster families," Mr. Mattingly said. "Those foster families sometimes will need additional supports, not always, and the young people will do better and achieve permanency more quickly if placed at the outset with a family."

But the challenges of placing teenagers only grow more complicated as the numbers dwindle, since those left behind tend to have more physical, behavioral, emotional, psychological or learning problems. Some were badly abused and further traumatized by bouncing from foster home to foster home.

"Good, solid, healthy teens have issues in the best of families," said Mr. Gutheil, of Episcopal Social Services. "But these are not run-of-the-mill, 'I'm in a bad mood today' adolescents. These are kids who have gone through some pretty rugged times. The notion that an adult is somehow going to take control of their lives is very difficult for them."

To address these issues, the Administration for Children's Services has created nearly 1,000 so-called therapeutic foster homes, which come with extra counseling services, as well as crisis-management support and more training for parents. The city has also relaxed its rules regarding kinship placement, allowing a godparent, coach or family friend to take in a child.

And foster care agencies have begun to tailor their recruiting pitches at churches and street fairs to play up the benefits of fostering a teenager, including the freedom from diaper changes and sleep deprivation. Among the most effective tools has been including a panel of teenagers who need homes in the 10-week training of prospective parents: Mr. Mattingly said that while perhaps 7 percent start out willing to take in teenagers, by the end, 25 percent raise their hands.

"One lady called after attending a panel and talked about one young man who she said had an amazing self-deprecating humor," recalled Jeremy C. Kohomban, the president and chief executive officer of Children's Village. "She ended up taking him."

Andrew White, director of the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School and editor of Child Welfare Watch, a policy journal, said that some of the planned reductions of children in residential care would be achieved through attrition, as young people age out of the system at 21.

The current challenges were foreshadowed by the experience of Children's Village, which found this year that over three years, only half of 69 charges age 13 to 20 settled successfully with families. The story of the other half is sprinkled in shorthand across an agency tracking spreadsheet. Angel, 18: "Severe Psych Issues. AWOL from Hosp & now incarcerated." David, 19: "Severe Psych issues: not ready." Claude, 16: "Goal to be changed."

"It's not that residential has no place in the continuum, but it can't be a permanent solution, and in the past it has become that," Dr. Kohomban said. "Organizationally, we have to be eternally optimistic that there's always a family. All of us look at these kids and say, 'There's a family for you.' When kids lose hope, they're impossible to treat."

Dr. Kohomban said that as hard as his staff tried, the cottages on his Dobbs Ferry campus, which house 12 to 14 boys each, could not replace the experience of a private home. "We take boys who have been arrested multiple times and get them into employment," he said. "But the one thing we can't do in residential care is we can't create family. The dynamics of family life have to be experienced -- the negotiating, the setting of limits, the good, the bad. I can't create the values of being a brother or a son or responsible boyfriend."

Richard Hucke, deputy director of foster home services for the Jewish Child Care Association, is one of many in the field who want the city to create more therapeutic foster homes, in which the parents also receive a much higher monthly payment, called a board fee, to help cover the expense of housing a foster child.

(According to the Administration for Children's Services, the board rate for a child 12 or older is $662.70 a month, compared with $486.30 for a child under 6, and the $901.50 annual clothing allowance for a foster child of 16 is about quadruple that for a 4-year-old. Those with special needs get a board rate of $1,065 to $1,614.60 a month.)

Mr. Hucke said that his agency, another contractor, is hamstrung because the city gives it only enough money for 96 therapeutic homes, though it has trained more parents to run such homes. "I have therapeutic homes that are sitting empty," he said.

In the meantime, his is one of many agencies that have become more aggressive and creative in recruiting new foster parents since the city's focus shifted to placing teenagers. It offers a finder's fee of $500 for each new household that current foster parents recruit, and is planning a cruise around Manhattan on Thursday to woo new foster parents and thank current ones.

On Friday morning, representatives of the Jewish Child Care Association set up a table brimming with brochures outside a mental health forum at Lincoln Medical and Mental Health Center in the Bronx in the hope of reaching out to potential parents with a grounding in some of the children's challenges.

"Those are professionals, and those are the people we really want to target," Mr. Hucke said.

Beverly Mills, a case manager for a city-run shelter for homeless families who stopped by, said she lives alone and has plenty of room. She said she would like to do her part to help disadvantaged young people, explaining that "sometimes when they're not raised correctly, they come out here and do bad things." But Ms. Mills, who has a 30-year-old son, drew a line at adolescents.

"I would take someone up to 11 or 12 because they're still impressionable," she said. "You can still grab them and guide them so they can go through school and go through college."

As a success story, Children's Village points to Juan Molina, 17, who in another time and place would have simply been called an orphan. After a decade of searching, Juan found a family in the form of Henry Greene, a 71-year-old retiree who had already adopted eight boys, most of them teenagers at the time, now successfully launched into the world. They began spending time together last fall, and Juan moved into Mr. Greene's apartment in the Parkchester section of the Bronx in March. Mr. Greene, Juan's foster father now, has started the process of adoption.

Juan was 7 when he was taken from his father, who he said was an alcoholic, and his mother, who was sick with cancer. After bouncing around among foster families, he landed in Children's Village at 11, though he said he ran away and lived with a friend in Brooklyn for a couple of years.

Until Mr. Greene entered his life, Juan had given up hope of being someone's son. "Ever since my mom passed away, I never thought I'd find a family," he said. Of Mr. Greene's decision to adopt him, he added: "It was awesome. He cares about me and talks to me like a father. I feel like I finally got this."

Abusive New York foster parents

Foster parents blame 3-year-old Kyle Smith for his death
Shifrel, Scott. New York Daily News, July 1, 2008.

CORRECTION - A STORY in Tuesday's Daily News incorrectly referred to Nymeen Cheatham and Lemar Martin as the foster parents of Kyle Smith, 3. Cheatham was Kyle's guardian; Martin was her live-in boyfriend.

They actually blame little Kyle for his death.The fiendish foster parents charged in the slaying of 3-year-old Kyle Smith called the abused tyke "a troubled kid" who was "always hurting himself."

Court documents filed Tuesday at the arraignment of Nymeen Cheatham and boyfriend Lamar Martin reveal how savage and cold-hearted their alleged treatment of the boy was.

"He looked pale (and) I didn't know if he was playing a trick because he does that a lot," Cheatham, 31, told cops. "He put on more of a performance...I popped Kyle open hand because he was acting out."

"I didn't do anything wrong," Cheatham continued. - YES, YOU DID

Then she blamed the tiny victim: "Kyle is a troubled kid, he is difficult to handle and is always hurting himself, jumping from bed to bed and throwing himself on the ground."

Cheatham and Martin, 23, pleaded not guilty to manslaughter charges in the June 6 beating death in their Bedford-Stuyvesant apartment.

Cheatham, who had her own four children taken away in a Texas case, was taking care of the tot after his mother left town.

The statements revealed in court papers were made to cops in their living room and at the precinct house shortly after the battered and beaten child was taken to the hospital and pronounced dead.In some instances - as when they repeatedly called Kyle a "troubled child" and admitted throwing cold water on him to make him behave - the statements were chillingly like those given by 7-year-old Nixzmary Brown's parents after she was killed about 15 blocks away in January 2006.

Others appeared to be self-serving and never admit to a fatal blow but they offer the first detailed look at Cheatham and Martin's side of what happened that horrible day.

The family had attended a cousin's funeral the day before and Kyle continued "acting out" when family and friends came over to their Patchen Ave. apartment afterward, the couple said.Cheatham "asked Kyle why he is putting on a show," she told cops. "He was very dramatic, falling out and crying."

That night, he was kicking the bars on his bed and she tried to "calm Kyle down" because Martin had to work in the morning. "I put Kyle in a time out and had him do push-ups," she said, also admitting to hitting him with a hairbrush. "When he was doing push-ups he banged his head a few times and he kept acting out."

"He was very pale. He didn't look right. I took him to the bathroom to run water over him because he didn't like water. I would run water through his hair to sooth him in the past."Martin also admitted that he "popped" the child that morning, made him stand in the corner, march in place and ordered him to do push-ups.

"I popped on his arms and told him to get in push-up position," he told cops. "When Kyle got down in push-up position he (acted) like he is going into another convulsion and started screaming, crying."

At the arraignment, Brooklyn Supreme Court Gustin Reichbach denied bail for both. He ordered the petite Cheatham, who held a Bible in her handcuffed hands and had a blank, puffy-eyed look, kept on suicide watch.

One year for every life she ruined is not enough

Foster-ma caged: Abuser get 11 years in $1.6M fraud
Fermino, Jennifer. New York Post, Jul y 16, 2008.

She got one year for every young life she ruined.

A federal judge yesterday sentenced a woman to almost 11 years in prison for crafting a "diabolical scheme" in which she abused 11 special-needs kids she adopted to bilk New York state out of $1.6 million.

Citing the severity of the crimes and the need to deter others, Manhattan federal Judge Richard Berman ignored a plea agreement which would have given Judith Leekin a maximum of eight years on mail- and wire-fraud charges.

"He allowed the children to be heard," said Howard Talenfeld, a lawyer for the victims.

Other criminal charges against Leekin, 63, are still pending in Florida, where she took the kids from New York. If convicted there, she faces another 120 years behind bars.

Many of the victims are now adults and suffer from serious handicaps, including one who is mentally disabled and went blind after he was allegedly allowed to look into the sun with a magnifying glass.

"They will never have that opportunity to have a family. Who is going to take care of them?" Talenfeld asked the judge. "There are folks that would have adopted these children and stayed with them for life."

In court yesterday and in letters to the judge, he detailed the harsh treatment the victims received for two decades.

They were tied to their cribs, burned on a stove and beaten with an iron, the lawyers allege.

None was educated or received proper medical attention, he said.

Authorities are also searching for one child who disappeared under Leekin's watch.

Leekin's lawyer, Diamond Litty, begged the judge to stick to the plea agreement.

"Many allegations are uncorroborated . . . We have depositions of the children who miss their mother, who love their mother," she said.

The US Attorney's Office also asked the judge to stick to the more lenient agreement, but Berman would not be swayed.

The judge also ordered her to pay back the $1.6 million in subsidies she got from New York for adopting the kids.

Fake adoptions and embezzling subsidy

ACS insiders' $1M 'phantom-tot bilk' fake adoption busts
Cornell, Kati, Jennifer Fermino and Stephanie Cohen. New York Post, July 17, 2008.

Two top ACS officials were among four people charged yesterday in a million-dollar scheme to rip off the city's child- protection agency by funneling cash through fake adoptions of kids who didn't exist.

The Administration for Children's Services duo allegedly spent the last three years setting up the phantom adoptions and cutting checks for nonexistent computer services.

Calling the case a "weighty and tragic situation," Department of Investigation Commissioner Rose Gill Hearn called for a major overhaul of a system that allowed the scam.

She accused Nigel Osarenkhoe, supervisor of adoptions at the ACS payment services unit, and a second agency official, Lethem Duncan, of using the "great river of public money that flows through ACS" as a personal piggy bank.

In a disturbing twist, Hearn said investigators learned of the embezzlement scam during a year-long probe of the agency launched in response to the case of Judith Leekin, a Florida foster mother who allegedly abused 11 New York City kids in her care. Osarenkhoe was the ACS point person in that investigation.

The stolen cash was earmarked for orphaned, abandoned, and often abused kids, Hearn said.

A criminal complaint shows Osarenkhoe hatched the phony adoption plot at least as early as 2005, and recruited Duncan's help in finding people willing to pose as parents.

Osarenkhoe boasted to Duncan that "all he needs is a name, any name" to put in the ACS system in order to cut a check, US Attorney Michael Garcia said in announcing the charges of embezzlement, mail fraud and money laundering.

Stay Thompson, a foster-care worker with Concord Family Services in Brooklyn, snapped up the chance to become "foster mother" to a phantom child in exchange for a share of nearly $80,000 in checks, court papers charge.

At the same time, Duncan allegedly wrote a $375,000 check for computer equipment and services under a fabricated contract with Philbert Gorrick, owner of Contemporary Technologies Inc., which provided services to Concord.

Gorrick used his share to pay for a 2006 BMW, a 2006 Range Rover and $30,000 in rental payments at a doorman building, according to court papers.

The major break in the case came in March when a cooperating Duncan set up an additional, jaw-dropping $711,000 bogus transaction. The charges came one day after Leekin, 63, was sentenced to 11 years in prison for stealing more than $1.6 million from ACS, even as she tortured 11 disabled kids.

Stay Thompson (left) posed as a foster mom and ACS official Nigel Osarenkhoe, at court yesterday, made crooked payments in a scheme (flow chart) that netted another man this BMW, feds say.

1,708 cases of alleged abuse of NY foster children by caretakers

Abuse up for ACS children
Montero, Douglas. New York Post, July 21, 2008.

Reports of abuse and neglect of children in city care grew by 12 percent last year, as parents, advocates and investigators keep closer watch on the municipal government's long-troubled child-welfare system.

The number of abuse complaints against foster parents and others asked by the Administration for Children's Services to look after troubled youngsters grew to 1,708 in the 2007 fiscal year, up from 1,525 in 2006, city records show.

In one such case, Judith Leekin, 63, was sentenced to 11 years in prison last week for taking more than $1.6 million from ACS even as she abused 11 disabled kids left in her care when she lived in Queens.

Abuse complaints involving foster parents and other caretakers are investigated by the ACS Office of Special Investigations, an internal affairs unit that was revamped two years ago.

Some 362 of the abuse cases reported in 2007 were substantiated by ACS investigators, meaning that there was enough evidence to take corrective action or forward information about the cases to district attorneys' offices for prosecution, city records show.

Last year's tally of abuse cases showed that 11 kids in city care were sexually abused, 66 were beaten and one endured psychological abuse.

ACS officials say they have a tough job dealing with abuse by people hired to care for children, and note that with 8,000 foster parents in the city caring for 17,000 kids, the rate of substantiated cases is tiny.

Andrew White, who runs the watchdog group Child Welfare Watch, said the rise in abuse complaints is due to the retooling of the Office of Special Investigations, including the hiring of 60 former law-enforcement officers.

"It shows a higher sense of caution and a more rigorous and intense approach to investigating," he said.

But another advocate says greater vigilance by parents angry that their children were unjustly taken has sparked the rise in abuse complaints against ACS.

"Parents have become more outspoken about the abuse of their children. People are fighting back," said Rolando Bini, who heads Parents in Action, a grass-roots group.


Latest figures reveal a growing problem for the city's Administration for Children's Services
Child-care complaints in fiscal year

Total 1,525
Substantiated 173, or 17%

Total 1,708
Substantiated 362, or 23%

Employee steals from adoption subsidy program

Ex-Official Pleads Guilty In Fraud at Welfare Agency
Weiser, Benjamin New York Times, Aug 1, 2008.

A former official of New York City's child welfare agency pleaded guilty on Thursday to charges including embezzlement, fraud and money laundering. Prosecutors have said he took part in schemes to steal hundreds of thousands of dollars intended for the care of children with disabilities or special needs.

The official, Lethem Duncan, 62, participated in one scheme in which prosecutors have said that another Administration for Children's Services employee manipulated the agency's computers to create phantom adoptions and issue checks as if they were subsidies being paid for real adoptions.

In another scheme, Mr. Duncan, who officials have said was the deputy director of the payments-services department, arranged to have the agency issue checks to a private contractor for fictitious services, and received kickbacks in return.

"I agreed with other persons to embezzle money from A.C.S.," Mr. Duncan said in United States District Court in Manhattan as he addressed the first of six counts to which he pleaded guilty.

The judge, John G. Koeltl, asked Mr. Duncan, "Did you know that what you were doing was wrong and illegal?"

"Yes, Your Honor," Mr. Duncan replied.

The fraud charges involving Mr. Duncan and others were first made public about two weeks ago by the United States attorney's office in Manhattan and the city's Department of Investigation.

That announcement came a day after the sentencing of Judith Leekin, who was convicted of fraud after she adopted 11 children under four aliases and collected $1.68 million in payments meant for their care, which she used to support a lavish lifestyle. She received a prison term of nearly 11 years.

The two fraud cases have focused a harsh spotlight on the lack of internal financial controls at Children's Services. When the scheme involving Mr. Duncan was disclosed last month, Rose Gill Hearn, the Department of Investigation commissioner, said that Mr. Duncan "had the power to authorize A.C.S. payments and checks -- so he did, for himself and his co-conspirators, and it was easy, too easy."

John B. Mattingly, the Children's Services commissioner, said at the time that his agency would investigate to "discover how our internal controls and fiscal accountability systems were violated," and what could be done "to prevent this malfeasance from reoccurring."

An agency spokeswoman referred a reporter for comment to the Investigation Department on Thursday night. There, Ms. Gill Hearn said: "This guilty plea was a substantial step forward in this case. We're glad that this investigation has ended this individual's corruption in his former city position."

In the phony-adoption scheme, Mr. Duncan also worked with an employee of a Brooklyn foster care agency, Concord Family Services, the authorities have said. They said that the employee, Stay Thompson, Concord's fiscal director, received about $79,000 in illegal payments and agreed to share the proceeds with Mr. Duncan and the other A.C.S. employee, Nigel Osarenkhoe.

Mr. Mattingly, the commissioner, has said that the city has halted the placement of children with Concord.

In the other scheme, the authorities said, Mr. Duncan had his agency issue a check for $375,000 to a computer-services firm run by an acquaintance of Ms. Thompson's, which they said had done no work to earn the money.

The head of that firm, which had offices at Concord, then split the money with Mr. Duncan and Ms. Thompson, prosecutors said. Mr. Duncan, they said, received more than $100,000 that way.

Court records unsealed last month indicated that Mr. Duncan has been cooperating with the authorities in hopes of receiving a lighter sentence.

In court on Thursday, Daniel L. Stein, a prosecutor, said that the evidence included recordings of conversations between Mr. Duncan and his conspirators in the case.

The judge told Mr. Duncan that he could face up to 75 years in prison on the charges. Mr. Duncan, who is free on bond pending his sentencing, had no comment as he left the courtroom.

His lawyer, Steven K. Frankel, said Mr. Duncan had retired from the Children's Services agency.

Mr. Frankel added, "A.C.S. should look closely at their internal safeguards, which are literally nonexistent, particularly within the adoption subsidy program." He said that the activities the investigation uncovered "could never have happened if there were any kind of reasonable safeguards in place."

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Empowering Youth Day at Oneida County Courthouse

Foster children prep for independence
Morrison, Angelica. Utica Observer Dispatch, Sept. 8, 2008.

About 50 area foster children who were preparing to live on their own got information about jobs and area services Monday afternoon during the Empowering Youth Day: Life After Foster Care at the Oneida County Courthouse.

The event — which took place through the efforts of Oneida County Family Court, Oneida County Department of Social Services and the Office of Court Improvement — featured workshops and vendors.

“We’re trying to encourage our foster care kids to take ownership of their own lives and to be an active participant in developing their own career goals,” said Julia Brouillette, court attorney referee.

None of the foster children could comment due to privacy concerns.

Vendors included the Oneida County Workforce Development, the Peacemaker Program Inc., Planned Parenthood, Carpenters Local 747, Plumbers & Pipefitters Local 112 and the United Union of Roofers, Waterproofers and Allied Workers Local 195.

“It’s a trade you can take with you anywhere,” said Fran Hardy, council representative for the Local 747. “The thing about carpentry is at the end of the day, you feel like you’ve accomplished something.”

Next Generation Center for Youth

Press Release: Children's Aid to Dedicate New Next Generation Center in the Bronx; New One-of-a-Kind Center Designed By and For Youth Members to Serve Teens Leaving Foster Care and Other Disconnected Youth, April 28, 2008

NEW YORK – On May 6th, The Children’s Aid Society will formally open its new Next Generation Center in the South Bronx, a state-of-the-art facility designed to serve teens leaving foster care and other disconnected youth.

Designed by and for the youth themselves, the Next Generation Center symbolizes Children’s Aid’s new approach to serving vulnerable youth ages 14 – 24 who are leaving, or have left, foster care; or who are neither in school nor working and lacking the basic skills, education and social support systems to make a successful transition into adulthood. The Center also serves community youth.

“By placing all the services and all the experts that these youth need in one beautiful center that was designed by the teens,” said C. Warren Moses, CEO of The Children’s Aid Society, “we have a youth-driven, one-stop shop with all the programs and supportive services together in one very welcoming environment.”

History of the Next Generation Center
Mayor Bloomberg’s commission on economic opportunity estimated in 2006 that over 200,000 young people in New York City are disconnected, that is, neither in school nor working and lacking basic skills. Concerned about the dearth of services for these youth in the Bronx and in New York City as a whole, Children’s Aid wanted to fill the void. In the summer of 2005, Children’s Aid convened a panel of youth to identify what support teens need and how to best make those available.

In response, Children’s Aid developed an array of services, all grounded in youth development principles and focused on personal responsibility, educational achievement, creative self-expression and youth empowerment. Staffed by a team of top professionals, the center welcomes older youth by day who are disconnected with education and employment, and by evening youth in school who desire the center’s youth-driven services and community.

Youth in the earlier, temporary Next Generation facilities consulted with the architects of the permanent center to guide them in designing the new space. The 10,000 square-foot facility includes large teaching classrooms, computer lab, sound studio, teaching kitchen, fitness room and an entrepreneurial café. Art classes, workshops in digital photography and in the culinary arts occur simultaneously with financial literacy classes, tutoring, legal services and housing assistance.

“We’ve also invested in a new electronic case management and tracking system so that we can monitor our members’ progress and create enhanced workshops to meet their evolving needs,” said Lynne Echenberg, Esq., the Next Generation Center’s director. “We’re looking forward to serving many more youth in our new center.”

The Children’s Aid Society’s Next Generation Center is located at 1522 Southern Boulevard (at 172nd St.), Bronx, NY 10460, 718-589-4441. Subway: 2 to 174th Street. Walk along Southern Boulevard to center at corner of 172nd Street. Visitors can take the 5 train to 149th Street-Grand Concourse and change there for the 2, which always stops at 174th Street.

Ellen Lubell, (o) 212-949-4938, (c) 917-854-6864, ellenl@childrensaidsociety.org
Emily Crossan, (o) 917-286-1548, (c) 201-344-5742, emilyc@childrensaidsociety.org

Lynn Echenberg

NYer Of The Week: Bronx Woman’s Center Supports Troubled Youth
Khan, Shazia. NY1, Sept. 22, 2008.

More than 700 young people depend on the Next Generation Center in Morrisania, Bronx as a place to turn to instead of the streets.

Director Lynne Echenberg said she knows firsthand what kind of support they need.

“I represented young people in foster care and became painfully aware of the lack of supportive services for young people involved in various systems like foster care and juvenile justice,” said Echenberg.

The center opened three years ago, offering tutoring, jobs, housing assistance and medical services free of charge to young people from 14 to 24.

Echenberg said this is the first time many of her clients have had this type of support.

“Because they have had these unstable childhoods, they haven't had the privilege and good fortune of having someone talk to them about how to develop marketable skills and make sure that they're staying in school,” said Echenberg.

Shawnee Washington said before she started coming to the center two years ago she used to get into trouble and wasn't going to school. Now she says she's changed for the better.

“Since I have been with them I have changed a lot. My grades in school went up,” said Washington.

Shawnee and the others who come to the center are called “members.” They don't just attend the classes and programs, but design them based on their own needs.

“This is not rocket science. These kids just need somewhere to go in order to keep them out of the court system, in order to keep them off the street,” said the center’s technical director Karon Porter. “In order to engage them in something positive so they can move on and lead a happy and healthy life.”

Echenberg said many come right out of foster care and jail and can get involved in drugs and violence. She hopes for a different outcome with the Next Generation Center.

“My hope is that young people can come here, take risks, learn new skills, have a great time, meet new friends and find caring, compassionate adults who will be there for them," said Echenberg.

Mark Grate, a member, says Echenberg would do anything for the center and its members.

“Her head could get chopped off and she wouldn't even care,” said Echenberg, “because it’s like, 'I am not going to put myself before you guys or before this center.'”

So for giving members a place to go where they can find the support they need, Lynne Echenberg is our New Yorker of the Week.

New York Resources for Youth

The Struggles Of Forgotten Youth
Hampton, Matt. Queens Chronicle, Aug. 21, 2008.

Jamel Robinson is a 20 year old black man. He has spent most of his youth in foster care, shuttled between group homes and living with his own grandmother. He has spent nearly a year incarcerated for arrests which occurred while he was driving stolen cars. Next month, he’ll be jettisoned from New York City’s child welfare system with no prospects, and no idea where he’ll end up.

His story is by no means unique, and while not every child spends time in jail, many young people, both inside and out of the foster care system, struggle to find direction — ending up hopelessly lost, even to their own families. A recent New York Times article, citing a study by the Urban Institute, issued an alarming statistic: by the time they reach their mid-30s, roughly 60 percent of black men had spent time in prison.

There is a disconnect somewhere in society. A circuit is broken, and perhaps has been for a long time. But for young men like Robinson, who have the desire to stand up and fight for a brighter future for themselves and others — that circuit stands a chance to be whole again.

Crying Out
“All I know is foster care, and I depended on this system to take care of me. It failed.”

Robinson has testified before the New York City Council on the failings of the city’s child welfare system. He knows it all too well.

He was placed in foster care at the age of two months, in November 1987. He was born to a drug-addicted mother who was also an alcoholic. He still bears the physical and emotional damage of his mother’s addictions, suffering from cerebral palsy and a battery of learning disabilities, including ADHD.

When he was in high school, he fought for himself to get into special education classes, and was rebuffed often, told that everything from individual tutoring to group classes were filled. Failing to make any headway in the college preparatory classes where he was placed, he dropped out of high school, admitting that he “walked out of the building and never went back.”

Robinson’s problems worsened once he left school. Responsible only to his grandmother, he would stay out nights, disappear for hours at a time and often end up alone, sleeping on the street or in train cars. He says that when he was arrested the first time — for being in possession of a stolen vehicle — he almost felt a sense of relief that someone was finally paying him some degree of attention.

“I was crying out for help and I went unheard. There were nights I went hungry,” he said. “When I was in jail, I knew that I didn’t have to deal with the struggle of a dysfunctional household while I was serving time.”

For Robinson, every act of desperation, from finding his way into abandoned subway trains, to joyriding in stolen cars, was a plea for help from a city that was ignoring him.

“I felt like I didn’t have a voice, I just felt like I couldn’t get one,” he said. “So I thought, I’m going to do everything I can to get attention.”

Sugar Wright, of the southeast Queens group Keep Our Streets Safe, has known Robinson since he was 15. She considers him to be a strong advocate for change, because he knows better than most what can happen to a child who slips through the cracks.

“He’s been in the system,” she said. “For us, we sit outside it, so we really don’t know what’s going on. He would be the only one who actually knows it.”

Wright said that she considers Robinson to be a bit of a rarity among young people who have seen the hard times that he has in so few years.

Now, at age 20, with his discharge from public care looming, Robinson has had a revelation.

“I just want to increase the awareness of the multiplicity of problems of children in foster care and in the criminal justice system,” he said. “What happens is that most of these children go unheard and unsupported. For me, the struggle was too much to deal with.”

Finding Answers In Others
Mackenzie Brooks is a St. Albans artist. In 2006, she started From Cardboard To Canvas, an organization that reaches out to children from around her neighborhood, and gathers them together to sit and paint.

It’s a simple operation. Just paints and supplies, but Brooks said the group has been a vital component in the lives of roughly 20 kids, from the ages of 7 to 19, who don’t have a place to go on weekends.

“Not all kids want to do basketball, or do karate, some of the kids, like me, just really want to draw,” she said.

Without her group, a number of the young people she helps would be left to their own devices, and while the art supplies are a big expense, Brooks considers it a public service.

In southeast Queens, organizations like From Cardboard To Canvas spring up all the time out of sheer necessity. Brooks said she believes that when young people are given the opportunity, they will always turn their backs from a life lived on the dark side of the street. The problem is that authority figures — everyone from parents and teachers to clergy — don’t always have the energy to keep up, or they lose interest.

“You’d be amazed to see,” she said. “It’s awesome how young people can learn if we don’t give up on them. It makes me feel good when a child can figure out the artistic process, it makes me feel that I’m doing something important in the community.”

A group that started as just five children has more than doubled in size over the last year and a half, becoming as big as Brooks can manage.

Down Merrick Boulevard, at I.S. 8 in Jamaica, Calvin Whitfield and the group Ella’s Place take a different tactic to get the same results.

Whitfield had a strong belief that subtle guidance and lending an ear would make all the difference in a child’s life, and he used Ella’s Place to test his theory.

A kind of independent pilot program which started in February, Ella’s Place is a group connected to at-risk and troubled youth through the court system and gives them a place to have open discussion with mentors and youth their own age.

Shakeria Little, 16, and Bernard Harrison, 17, were referred to Ella’s Place by their probation officers. Both were guided to the program because they had gotten into altercations with other people their own age, which had resulted in criminal charges being filed.

Now, instead of becoming a casualty of the juvenile justice system, Little and Harrison have turned around their attitudes, and their lives. The two spent six months in the program, which has seemingly made a world of difference.

“There’s a lot more self control in our behavior now,” Little said. “We’ve learned to be optimistic. We talk about what we want to do when (we) grow up, and that’s not stuff we really thought about before.”

Harrison, who said he found a great deal of use out of conflict resolution workshops, agreed. “This is the kind of program that helps you look inside yourself, and find your passion. They help you and they give you guidelines.”

Whitfield, who runs the program along with coaching football at Jamaica High School, said that they rely on input from the young people themselves to dictate how their workshops go.

“We engage in a lot of role-playing,” he said. “We might put them in a situation to look at their options.”

In addition to the workshops, the group takes time to open up mentorship opportunities to put the youth in different environments, including field trips to Manhattan —all tailored to follow the interests of the young people involved.

As with From Cardboard To Canvass, in many ways, the money that comes in facilitates the content. Art supplies and theater tickets aren’t free, even for charitable organizations, and Whitfield said that by far the biggest struggle is finding the funds to maintain the program, even when less than a dozen young people are regular attendees.

Whitfield feels vindicated by the first six months of the program, secure in the belief that the act of letting young people engage in a simple dialogue has improved their quality of life exponentially.

“Our goal is to give every kid an opportunity to be supported,” Whitfield said. “We all have social problems. We just said we would do whatever we can do to help them achieve.”

For all this work, Little said that it’s easy to tell which young people are getting the most out of the program. “You can notice who’s really into it with the attendance. Some people, if they just come a couple of times, they’re not getting it.”

Those that don’t show up, of course, are added to the growing number of young people who slip through the cracks. The kind of young people that Robinson is trying to convince to stay motivated in their own lives.

Inciting Change
On Oct. 6, Robinson is holding a press conference to introduce what he calls the Jamel Robinson Child Welfare Reform Initiative, the first stage in what he hopes represents change for the programs which he believes have failed so many young people like himself across New York City.

Robinson named it after himself to highlight his own story, and to give others valuable context when it comes to looking at the way youth services are presented.

“It makes a powerful statement when you use a name, because behind that name is a story,” Robinson said. “This is about my peers, the ones who are still in foster care, and in the criminal justice system. Those systems are not interconnected, but there are solutions to these problems. We just have to put them together.”

Robinson has faith that through his example, people will be able to see the importance of reaching out to youth.

“I believe we need to change things,” Robinson said. “I believe real leaders incite change.”

Anyone wishing to donate to the programs listed in this article should e-mail Matt Hampton at matth@qchron.com