A PLACE TO STAY THE NIGHT, NOT A SOLUTION TO FAMILY PROBLEMS
KYLE has not been home for 29 days. When the car door opens in front of his building, the preschooler looks a bit anxious, and begins to moan softly. Taking the child's hand, his caseworker leads him to the front steps. As they trudge up the five flights to his mother's apartment, the autistic boy begins to sob with emotion. When he arrives on the top floor and spies his mother waiting with a huge smile at her open door, Kyle breaks loose and runs to her for a big hug.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Kyle's (not his real name) case, in a city where 52,568 child-abuse or neglect investigations were conducted in the past fiscal year, illustrates both the best and the worst of the city's beleaguered child-welfare system. The largest system in the United States, it has for years been the target of criticism, lawsuits, and calls for reform.
There has been progress - such as the development of a plan to care for ``boarder babies,'' who are drug-addicted or HIV-infected infants. They were simply languishing in hospitals, instead of being placed in homes. Too often, though, it takes a crisis to provoke action.
But despite the barrage of public attention and progress on some fronts, advocates say the New York City Special Services for Children (SSC) is still struggling. Some critics say the system is not working. They cite the increasing emphasis on ``congregate care'' facilities that care for six or more children, and what they term a ``lack of political will'' at the high levels to improve services to poor children and families.
Take Kyle's case. Before he was removed from his home, the state should have determined whether Kyle and his mother could have received services, such as a homemaker to help the mother, to prevent the removal. This determination would have followed the mandate laid down in the state's 1979 Child Welfare Reform Act. But it didn't. Instead, faced with an allegation of neglect and declaring an emergency, a city worker removed Kyle and a baby brother from the home. The infant was placed in a foster home in the neighborhood.
During Kyle's 29 days in the foster-care system, the boy was an ``overnighter.'' That made him one of several hundred children who receive nightly placements rather than one where they stay day and night while they are in the system. While Kyle did not go to a different placement each night, every day he was shuttled back into the makeshift nursery in the SSC offices in Manhattan.
Overnight placement is damaging to any child, but for an autistic child ``it is devastating,'' says Rose Firestein, a Legal Aid Society lawyer.
Marguerite Sutherland, Kyle's SSC caseworker, agrees that the time on the overnight circuit was not particularly good for Kyle.
``I didn't know he could talk'' at first, she says. ``I don't have the time to devote to him that he needs. The nursery doesn't have the time.''
In the end, SSC decided Kyle's mother was not abusive or neglectful. She was just ``overwhelmed'' by the double challenge of caring for an infant as well as an autistic child who needs special attention. Despite her poverty, she had regularly taken Kyle to a special nursery school at a local hospital, and officials there lobbied SSC on her behalf.
Now, finally, the family is getting services. Ms. Sutherland has arranged for a homemaker to come to the apartment seven days a week, while the mother gets her feet back on the ground.
Although Kyle is currently reunited with his mother, the situation may be temporary. SSC's formal plan for Kyle is to place him in long-term foster care, where, the agency says, he can get special care and his mom can visit. THERE are more than 24,000 children in the city's foster-care system. Yet in fiscal 1989 the Human Resources Administration (HRA) projects that it will be responsible for 30,000 children in fiscal year 1989. The increase, it says, is directly related to the increase in crack-related drug abuse.