Q & A: New Children’s Services Commissioner On Reforms

| November 14, 2011 1:45 PM

As the new commissioner of the NYC Administration for Children’s Services, Ronald Richter is taking over an embattled agency tasked with protecting thousands of children all across the city. The death of 4-year-old Marchella Pierce last year raised doubts about the ACS’ effectiveness and prompted an investigation of the child welfare agency, which had a caseworker assigned to monitor the girl.

Richter, a former Family Court judge with a wealth of experience in and out of government, spoke with City Hall about preventing such incidents in the future, the challenges of child protective work and how to better support his agency’s frontline workers. What follows is an edited transcript.

Ronald Richter, commissioner of Child Services, took office in September. According to Richter, Child Services is prioritizing several reform intiatives. Photo courtesy of Daniel S. Burnstein for City Hall News.

Q: Why did you take this job?

A: I spent my career working in juvenile justice and child welfare in New York City. The opportunity to lead New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services, especially after Mayor Bloomberg [merged] our juvenile justice and child welfare systems, is the opportunity of a lifetime. So I never would’ve turned this opportunity down.

Q: What are your top priorities?

A: Implementing EarlyLearn NYC is going to be a key priority. We are going to work with New York State and the Cuomo administration to ensure our young people placed upstate on delinquency cases are going to be closer to home in New York City, so that we can plan for their rehabilitation with their families to make them productive members of our society. We are going to make sure all of our frontline workers have good, solid supervision, so when they come to work each day someone is looking out for them and making sure their professional development matters. If they are invested, our children will be protected. We are going to ensure child safety continues to be a priority.

Q: ACS has been scrutinized following the deaths of Nixzmary Brown and, more recently, Marchella Pierce. How will you prevent these kinds of incidents?

A: As a Family Court judge, I was very moved by the commitment, tenacity and mettle of the child-protective specialists that appeared before me each day, including their investigative skills and the resources that they brought to bear on their cases. Each child appeared to matter to them, and each protective investigation is unique and difficult. We need to get each of those 60,000 investigations right. The way to do that is to make sure our frontline workers are being supervised well, and that supervisors are being managed well. You do that by making sure that managers and supervisors have the tools and skills available to them to do their jobs.

Q: You became deputy commissioner in 2005 and put in reforms after the death of 7-year-old Nixzmary Brown. What worked?

A: The use of the Family Court, not just for applications to have children placed in foster care but to have the court authorize the agency to supervise children for various periods of time while they’re in their parents’ care and custody, is an important tool to help us protect children. We’ve also provided BlackBerrys to all our lawyers in the Family Court in an effort to help lawyers have easier, faster contact with the child-protective specialists, supervisors and managers in the borough field offices, so that decisions could be made more expeditiously on behalf of children and families and so we would not create as much delay in the Family Court.

Q: What did you do in the juvenile justice arena?

A: While I was the deputy commissioner, we developed the Children’s Services Juvenile Justice Initiative, which for the first time invested in evidence-based models as alternatives for young people at risk of placement on delinquency cases. Those models developed in the past 35 years demonstrate that with youth violent offenders, they can be treated at home in their families without being placed, and you can reduce recidivism at a much lower cost than placing them upstate, where the cost is great and recidivism rates are high.

Q: Will there be similar reforms following the Pierce case?

A: The agency’s priorities are always going to focus on ensuring that we’re making the best efforts we can to improve child safety and risk assessment.

Q: How much of the criticism of ACS is warranted?

A: When you think about the fact that this agency knocks on the doors of our citizens in the city 60,000 times a year, and makes an assessment of whether parents or guardians have in fact abused or neglected their children or whether there is in fact some credible evidence of abuse or maltreatment, as the law requires… if you consider that in about 35 percent of those cases we make such a finding, and then we as an agency have to make a determination as to what kind of services to provide—and then whether, based on further findings, the government should intrude on a family’s life further by seeking some sort of court intervention—court-ordered supervision, or even the removal of a child from a parent—you begin to think about the awesome responsibility that New York City Children’s Services has. Each time we make that assessment, it’s our obligation to make it right. Our city is entitled to the assurance that we’re doing the best job we can each day, each night, to make it right. And we are. But there’s no question that predicting human behavior is a very challenging task.

Q: How has the merger with the Department of Juvenile Justice worked out?

A: In New York if you are a juvenile delinquent, you are by definition 15 and under. So Mayor Bloomberg was spot-on when he merged the two agencies, because his motivation was to say that Children’s Services was the right place for young people’s needs and interests to be considered, so long as we are careful to ensure that we are looking out for public safety and our public safety is secure. We are currently operating two secure detention facilities and nine non-secure facilities. The merger has actually resulted in the closing of one secure facility.

Q: Why is the number of children in foster care at record lows?

A: Fewer young people are coming into the foster-care system as we continue to use preventive services to have families address concerns while intact. There are jurisdictions across the country finding it makes more sense to avoid the need for separation and reunification, because that’s traumatic both for children and their families. That’s the better course whenever you can do so consistent with a child’s safety. The goal is not to reduce the foster-care census. The goal is to make sure children are safe.

Q: How do you cope with the emotional toll of your work?

A: I have spent 20-some years in the child-welfare and juvenile-justice field. I think that for all the people who do this kind of work, it is important to balance the work with a healthy sense of humor and perspective. We will not be successful if our workforce is drained by sadness. Our supervisors and managers consistently have to take the temperature of our frontline workers and consider the fact that doing the frontline work with families that are traumatized is difficult. It takes a special person to do child-protective work, and it takes a special person to continue doing it, because beyond the endurance, just being able to absorb people’s pain and suffering is a particular skill.

Q: Do you have to deal with this as commissioner?

A: A lot more so as a judge than as a commissioner. As a judge, you’re actually reading case records, and you’re hearing testimony that is very disturbing, and you’re seeing the faces of parents as you are telling them you are removing their children, and you’re actually seeing the face of a worker who has seen the child who has been burned, and you’re seeing the real effects right there before you in the courtroom. That has more of an effect than the work that I’m doing today.

Q: How did you deal with the emotional toll before you became ACS commissioner?

A: I have the support of a great family. I have great friends. And I think that I try to take care of myself, which is very important. I think I have a pretty good sense of humor. I try to generally view things as “The glass is half-full.” I’m an optimist. I come from a background of really enduring people who are strivers. I think you can make things better. So I come to work each day thinking you can make systems improve if you work hard enough and are smart about how you approach problems.

Read the full post at City Hall News.

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