New city plan seeks to end New York's foster-care shuffle

They are known in the world of foster care as ``overnighters.'' They are children - from toddlers to teen-agers - who are on the move in the labyrinth of the New York City foster-care system. For a variety of reasons, the city has not found a permanent place for these children, who number several hundred out of the more than 24,000 children in foster care here.

Last week, the New York City Human Resources Administration (HRA) announced a plan to stablilize the overnight population. The plan is the city's reponse to a two-year-old lawsuit, filed by the Legal Aid Society, aimed at stopping the practice of bouncing foster-care children from place to place. Federal district Judge Mary Johnson Lowe had already ruled that the overnight system resulted in ``physical, emotional, and psychological harm'' to these children.

Overnighters, whom the city considers ``hard to place,'' are those children who have been in a temporary placement for three or more consecutive nights. Some are teen-agers with drug and behavioral problems. Others may be young children with mental or physical disabilities. They are removed from their homes because of abuse or neglect, or because their own families say they can't take care of them.

But then these children find themselves in a nomadic existence. They are not given a permanent place to stay in a foster boarding home or group home, but are shuffled from place to place. Or they may stay in the same institution each night, but each day return to the HRA's Special Services for Children (SCC) field offices, awaiting a permanent placement.

``These children are incredibly fragile already,'' says Rose Firestein, a Legal Aid attorney. ``There is no question that they are damaged. First they are told their parents don't want them or can't have them. Then they go around and around. They get hardened.''

The city does not disagree. But HRA says the new plan will bring about the end of the overnight circuit.

Ms. Firestein says Legal Aid is ``very disappointed'' in the city's proposed plan, which she sees as very vague and unsubstantial.

``We question whether these plans will be effective in ending overnighters,'' says Ms. Firestein. ``We question the appropriateness [of parts of the plan]. And quite honestly we question the ability of the city to implement the plan.''

Judge Lowe will hold hearings this week to help determine remedies in the case. Last week she also received a report from a master she appointed to look at conditions in the city's field offices, where many of these children spend their days while they wait for placements. The study paints a sad picture of children being cared for in cramped spaces, eating poor food, and having little opportunity for normal indoor or outdoor play.

Every site, according to the report, has been the scene of violence and vandalism. While violence has declined in the past two years, the report says, city workers are still frustrated at the conditions children are being placed in, and empathize with the anger of teens who have been long-term overnighters.

There were, however, some positive notes in the report. The court master noted that staff members in the field offices have ``hopes and aspirations about the effect of their efforts on these children.... I am convinced that the majority of them are doing an excellent job, under difficult circumstances.''

A new teen lounge, opened at the end of August as part of the city's plan to deal with overnights, also presents hopeful signs, says the report. The ratio of staff to children will be improved. There will be more space and better bathroom facilities for the children. A recreation, education, and reception area will be provided.

The city is already beginning to carry out its plan. Transitional centers for 10- to 14-year olds have been created to get these children off the overnight circuit. The city then tries to place them in a voluntary system of foster or group homes. If a child has not been placed in 30 days, he or she is then put into long-term beds in city-operated homes, says Poul Jensen, SSC assistant deputy commissioner and director of the Office of Direct Child-Care Services. His goal is a safe and secure environment for each child, he says.

Hard to place children 12 years and older, who are ``extremely problematic,'' will be served by the new Special Intervention Division. Under the program, daytime centers for these teens will be improved and services strengthened, with educational, recreational, and medical services.

A series of group homes and residential beds, placed in existing facilities, will reduce and eventually eliminate the overnight circuit, says the HRA plan. These programs will provide 24-hour services with social work, clinical, medical, educational, and recreational staff.

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