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January 2021Vol. 22, No. 1Transitioning to an Antiracist Organization

Written by David A. Hansell, commissioner, New York City Administration for Children's Services

For far too long, racial disparities have existed in child welfare systems across the country, with Black and Brown families overrepresented at key decision points. The New York City (NYC) Administration for Children's Services (ACS), of which I am the commissioner, has long been focused on this issue. In 2020, the fight for racial justice, and the racially disparate impacts of COVID-19, have transfixed the nation. We at ACS have made an explicit commitment to combat systemic racism and to transition toward a truly antiracist organization.

This commitment is embodied in a robust set of initiatives, both within and outside our organization. We are addressing the sources of racial disproportionality at every step in a family's involvement with the child welfare system. We are adopting a family well-being approach and expanding community-based supports for families. We are working with partners across NYC to reduce unnecessary utilization of the child maltreatment reporting system and increase utilization of alternative support systems. And we are taking a hard look at our organizational culture, policies, and programs and how they must change to further race equity.

The problem begins with dramatic racial disparities in maltreatment reports to the state child abuse hotline. In 2019, 41 percent of reports involved children in families who identified as Black, which is representative of 23 percent of New York City's children. While we want to be alerted to genuine child safety risks, ACS is taking numerous steps to address inappropriate use of the hotline and racial disparity in reports.

We are working hard to reduce families' interaction with the traditional child welfare system by providing community-based resources and support through a primary prevention approach. We support three family enrichment centers in neighborhoods of historically high child welfare involvement to provide parents with a safe and nurturing environment to build social connections and receive concrete resources like food and clothing—both of which are especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic—without ever needing to come into contact with the child welfare system. Our community partnership programs connect families with resources that exist in their communities, independent of ACS. And our child safety campaigns empower parents with information to protect children, like safe-sleep practices for newborns and infants, safe storage of medication that is hazardous to children, and avoiding other household dangers.

Given the disproportionate representation of Black and Brown families in reports to the child abuse hotline, ACS is focused on avoiding unnecessary and inappropriate reporting and increasing awareness of the many alternative ways to provide support to children and families. We know that child welfare investigations are intrusive for families and should be conducted only when safety and risk issues are presented. We are advocating for implicit bias training for mandated reporters. Our child protection borough offices work closely with schools in their local communities that generate large numbers of reports to create alternative strategies to address family needs. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, ACS has collaborated with the NYC Department of Education to develop guidance stating that struggles with technology during remote learning, or other COVID-19-related challenges, should not in themselves be treated as child welfare concerns that generate hotline reports. Similarly, ACS and the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene recently issued new guidance to hospitals citywide to make it clear that reports to the child abuse hotline should only be made when there is a reasonable concern about the child's safety and that there are other routes to helping families access services they may need.

For families that come to our attention through a hotline report, we seek to make sure that our response is led by support and services to address the family's needs. ACS's Collaborative Assessment, Response, Engagement and Support (CARES) program enables us to forgo a full child protective investigation when there are no imminent risk or abuse issues and instead collaborate with families to identify services they may need. In 2021, this program will be expanded citywide, which will dramatically increase its capacity to serve families.

When we identify safety concerns, our goal is always to keep children at home with their families when safely possible. In 2020, we implemented a new set of "prevention" programs designed to prevent future risks to children. These programs now offer 10 different service models to families across all parts of NYC and were designed with increased family voice and choice and with an explicit focus on racial equity. They include a range of evidence-based models, as well as community-based, home-grown programs that have proven to be successful. There is strong evidence that ACS prevention services reduce repeated involvement of families in the child welfare system. Families that successfully complete prevention services (and more than 80 percent do) are five times less likely to have another substantiated investigation (one in which there is evidence of child abuse or neglect) in the following 6 months than families that do not complete services. We also know that families feel that they are benefiting from the services. Earlier this year, ACS released the results of its first-ever survey that asked families receiving prevention services about their experiences. Approximately 94 percent of participants said they were happy with the prevention services their families received, and 71 percent of participants said they would recommend these services to a friend and/or family member. Overall, 86 percent of the parents participating in the survey said prevention services helped them reach their parenting goals.

When foster care is temporarily necessary to keep a child safe, we are focused on achieving more equitable experiences and outcomes for all children. We have reduced the number of children in foster care to an historic low in NYC and shortened the time they remain in care. We are increasingly placing foster children with family members and friends instead of with unfamiliar foster parents, which keeps them more closely connected to their families. We have just launched a new initiative—Parents Supporting Parents—that will assign a parent with lived child welfare experience to parents with children currently in foster care. The parent advocates will be crucial allies to empower parents, dismantle bias and oppression in the foster care system, and ultimately help to reunify families.

This work is all essential to transforming our relationships with children and families, but our efforts must start within. To combat systemic racism in the child welfare system and truly become an antiracist organization, we must look internally at our own structures, policies, practices, and implicit biases. And we must listen to the voices of those who have lived experience with our systems. We must walk the walk if we want to build an antiracist culture and empower our staff to fight racial disproportionality in our work.

We have made implicit bias training a requirement for all staff and provide opportunities for difficult but important conversations about race, diversity, and intersectionality. We are expanding the role of parent advocates across our system and work closely with our Parent Advisory Council and Youth Leadership Council. We are partnering with National Innovation Service to conduct an evaluation of our systems and activities as they relate to the racial equity experiences, needs, and priorities of frontline staff, families, and communities and to identify key areas of intervention to drive system-level change.

Racial disparities have been the legacy of the child welfare system, but they do not have to be its future. ACS is focused on placing equity at the center of every decision, policy, and initiative. Working with the entire child welfare community, advocates, families, and communities, we must take every action possible to ensure that our work with children and families contributes to the dismantling of racism in our society.