Op-Ed: Reflections on Mattingly’s Tenure as Head of NYC’s Child Services Agency

July 28, 2011 at 1:04 pm

Andrew White, director of the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School and editor of “Child Welfare Watch,” weighs in on John Mattingly’s role as the commissioner of New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services. Mattingly announced his resignation Weds., after seven years on the job.

John Mattingly

NYC Children's Services Commissioner John Mattingly had a tumultuous -- but in many ways successful -- tenure. He will leave his post in Sept. Photo courtesy of NYC.gov.

His job is both thankless and potentially explosive — among the most difficult in urban government. The commissioner of the city’s child welfare agency is tasked with protecting children from abuse and neglect, helping families make it through crises, finding homes for children whose parents have been deemed unable to care for their kids…and a great deal more. In New York City, we add to these daunting tasks two additional massive chores: overseeing a vast network of subsidized child care services, and the juvenile justice and detention system.

The job at hand — and the commissioner’s reputation — is routinely distorted by horrific but seemingly inevitable events: children die at the hands of murderous or thoughtless adults after a city child protection investigator has failed to see evidence of danger. In a city of eight million people, it’s only a matter of time until it happens again no matter how well a commissioner does his job. And when it does, the government must not only figure out why and understand what can be fixed, but it must also deal with a political backlash and a tabloid press corps that is rarely keen on subtlety.

That’s the grand disaster that nearly every child welfare commissioner eventually lives through. Usually, it leads government to be less trustful of parents and more likely to place more kids in foster care.

In September, New York City will have a new commissioner of children’s services. Queens Family Court Judge Ron Richter will take over from his former boss, John Mattingly, who has held the leadership post for seven years. Mattingly arrived here from a career as a foundation executive, helping guide creative reforms in children’s services nationwide. He set out to transform a fast-shrinking New York City foster care system to develop new strategies for preventive services and to make the system more fair, transparent and supportive of parents and foster parents.

He and his colleagues made progress on many of these things. There are 7,000 fewer kids in foster care today than in 2004. More than one-third of them are living with relatives, up from one-quarter when Mattingly arrived.

Maria Gonzalez, left, the maternal grandmother of Nixzmary Brown, is consoled by her son, Omar Santiago on Jan. 18, 2006 in New York where her funeral service was held. AP /Jennifer Szymaszek

But his time in office was radically reshaped by the January 2006 Brooklyn child abuse murder of Nixzmary Brown. There was an immediate and astonishing increase in reports of abuse and neglect that has lasted right up until the present day. Mattingly devoted much of his time in city government to understanding how abuse and neglect investigators could sometimes get things so badly wrong. The man whose prior career had been shaped by a passion for strengthening families to keep children safe ended up presiding over a large increase in the number of children removed from their parents each year and placed in foster care — albeit for far shorter periods of time than in the past.

And yet, he also managed to push a $2.8 billion-dollar agency toward important reforms. Today, few foster children live in group homes or residential treatment centers; most live in families. Parents today have more of a voice in their children’s welfare cases — and, if valuable initiatives are carried through, more parents under investigation will have supportive advocates to help guide them through the harrowing process.

Mattingly’s successor, Richter, led the Child Services legal division in the period after Nixzmary Brown’s murder. He is a pragmatic progressive, lauded for his work helping to clear a backlog of cases in the Queens Family Court and for contributing to a sharp reduction in the time it takes to move a case from initial filing to trial and decision.

But he is taking over ACS after four years of cutbacks in city funding. New York spent almost $700 million on foster care services (not counting city personnel) in fiscal year 2008. Today, it plans to spend just $565 million. That would seem a good thing — but there’s also been a decrease in preventive family support funding (from $236 million to $220 million, in inflation-adjusted current dollars, according to the NYC Independent Budget Office). And there’s been a steep reduction in funds for adoption services and subsidies. It’s not as if the savings from foster care are being reinvested in the system.

When Mattingly first arrived, I asked him if he worried about a backlash against the then-growing focus on prevention. “I came here understanding that the media pressures and the political pressures are on another scale,” he said. “It makes this kind of work more difficult. But it comes with the territory. All I know is to be straight as you can and to take your lumps when you deserve them, but keep focused on what you are trying to build. That’s all I know. I think a majority of political leaders and a majority of media people will see that.”

He held to this philosophy despite several turns in the tabloids headlights. And he was mostly right. Mattingly leaves ACS with respect not only from his colleagues and advocates but also from many of the reporters who covered his very worst days. In child welfare, that’s a rare and remarkable testament.


Christopher Guzman, 22, is one of 200 residents in a new supportive housing program for young adults leaving foster care with no place to go. Above, watch a tour of Guzman’s new home and hear, in his own words, about his life in transition. Kendra Hurley, associate editor for the Center for New York City Affairs and MetroFocus’ Sam Lewis produced this video. Read their full report here.

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