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New York City's Child-Welfare System Under Scrutiny


Officials there announced reforms this week, following the death of a 7-year-old girl, allegedly killed by her stepfather. Now, some experts are voicing concerns about the City's emphasis on keeping families together. From member station WNYC, Cindy Rodriguez reports.

CINDY RODRIGUEZ: Ellen O'Hara supervises prevention workers at Good Shepherd Services, which counsels families who've been investigated by child protective caseworkers.

ELLEN O: Over the years, the paperwork has kind of increased, the caseload has increased, what you have to work on with the family has increased. You're often the only one working with a family.

RODRIGUEZ: O'Hara says she's uncomfortable with the number of high-risk cases referred to her office. A 50-year old woman with serious psychiatric issues and a drug problem stands out in her mind. The woman had ten children, some had already been taken away from her, and others were adults. One six-year-old was in her care; that child as found alone, in Manhattan, by Police. O'Hara says child protective caseworkers investigating the mother told her counselors to provide parenting classes for the woman.

HARA: It's just so, mess, the complexity of this. And I was really upset. It just really felt like we were by ourselves being given, like, a loaded gun.

RODRIGUEZ: Between January and October of 2005, city child protective caseworkers substantiated about 13,400 reports of abuse. More than 30% of those families were referred to programs like O'Hara's, and 12% to 15% were sent to foster care. Complaints that cases are too high risk have been echoed by a group representing all major nonprofits in the city that provide prevention services. O'Hara says these organizations need city child protective caseworkers to stay involved.

HARA: We need to take them with lots of other supports in place. Where we're not the only ones monitoring, are they going for their medication, are they going for their drug treatment, are they going for their psychiatric appointments?

RODRIGUEZ: O'Hara says city child protective caseworkers should force families to attend programs, because right now, a family's participation is generally voluntary. Marsha Robinson-Lawry, the head of Children's Rights, Inc., a national child advocacy organization, says most prevention programs across the country work closely with agencies that investigate child abuse.

MARSHA ROBINSON: In most of the systems, there really is a link, and there's continued accountability with regard to whether a family is cooperating, because sometimes, of course, a mistake is made, and the system needs to know that very quickly.

RODRIGUEZ: John Maddingly is the Commissioner of the Administration for Children's Services, the city agency that oversees the child's welfare system.

JOHN MADDINGLY: I am convinced, and I've been here sixteen months, that there has been no direction given from the top of this agency to emphasize one decision over the other.

RODRIGUEZ: From NPR News, I'm Cindy Rodriguez, in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Cindy Rodriguez