A System as 'Neglected' as Kids It Serves

Child advocates in New York and elsewhere turn to courts to overhaul child-welfare agencies

ELISA IZQUIERDO and Marisol A. shared the same short biography of physical abuse until Marisol was rescued and Elisa died. Now these young girls' separate cases, each in its own way, are triggering reform of New York's system for protecting abused and neglected children.

Elisa's death last November, allegedly at the hands of an abusive mother, sparked hearings, investigations, and pledges to reform the city-run child-welfare agency. The agency, which oversees foster care and investigates cases of child abuse, has been drubbed with accusations that it failed to respond to reports that the six-year-old girl was being beaten and abused.

But child advocates here say it's time for a more radical solution: They are suing to wrest control of one of the nation's largest child-welfare agencies and place it in federal hands.

If the Marisol v. Giuliani lawsuit succeeds, New York's Administration for Children's Services would become the second system in the nation to be placed in federal receivership. The move represents a growing trend, as advocacy groups increasingly turn to the courts to force reform of child-welfare agencies across the country.

"These are such neglected systems," says Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of Children's Rights, the national advocacy group behind Marisol v. Giuliani and 11 other suits against child-welfare agencies nationwide. "The only time anyone ever pays attention to them is when a child dies and then it's very, very brief. No one ever stops to look at the serious underlying problems."

The flaws that beset these systems - a lack of accountability, swollen caseloads, untrained or unqualified caseworkers, poor supervision, meager resources, and simple mismanagement - are mirrored in agencies from Alabama to Connecticut, advocates say.

Children's Rights and its cocounsel, Lawyers for Children, took the far-reaching step of asking the court to place New York's agency into receivership because "we felt it was too late for an ordinary class-action suit," Ms. Lowry says. "The problems are so well documented, and they've been admitted for such a long time."

The District of Columbia's child-welfare agency was placed in receivership last summer after a two-week trial and years of complaints by advocacy groups over its poor performance. Meanwhile, child-welfare agencies elsewhere in the country, such as Kansas City, are under court order to reform their systems. Philadelphia's system and several others are currently involved in lawsuits.

"Lawsuits have certainly increased in the last five to 10 years," says Judy Meltzer of the Center for Social Policy in Washington. "More systems have fallen into crisis across the country, with increased caseloads and new budgetary pressures." The center is the court-appointed monitor for the District of Columbia and has worked with systems in Alabama, Missouri, Connecticut, Arkansas, Milwaukee, and Kansas City.

"The biggest challenge is coming up with remedies that are realistic, but it has to start with leadership and a culture change in the bureaucracy," Ms. Meltzer says. "The other changes - lower caseloads, staff training - follow."

"When I arrived, no one really knew how many people the agency served," attests Jerome Miller, who began his job in September as the court-appointed receiver of D.C.'s child-welfare agency. "We're close to solving that. We'll be getting a small computer system soon." In a report of his first 120 days at the helm of the system, he characterized the bureaucracy as "unresponsive" to children and as actively trying to thwart his reform efforts.

NEW York's agency, meanwhile, continues to make headlines. In the past week, it has been criticized by school officials and residents who say their reports of abuse in two more cases - one involving an 11-year-old boy and the other a two-year-old girl - were not adequately investigated. Both children apparently had been beaten and were treated for broken bones and other injuries.

Such reports of institutional negligence have continued despite reform efforts, which intensified in the months since Elisa's death:

*In his State of the City address last month, New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani announced that the $1.2 billion-a-year agency would get a new commissioner (former federal prosecutor Nicholas Scoppetta) and would be made an independent entity. Child advocates noted, however, that the mayor failed to mention the agency's funding, which has been cut under his administration.

*The New York legislature last month revised confidentiality laws that have prevented child-welfare agencies from discussing their investigative reports about child-abuse cases, even after a child's death. After Elisa's death, critics charged that the laws protected child-welfare officials and workers because case details never underwent public scrutiny. Six other states have enacted legislation similar to "Elisa's law," as the bill was known here.

*The state's Department of Social Services was rapped last month for failing to monitor the city's child-welfare agency. The report by New York City Public Advocate Mark Green and a council of local and national groups also noted that bureaucratic neglect either contributed to or allowed for 33 percent of the 74 child deaths here between May 1994 and October 1995.

But the public outcry following Elisa's death - and the response by state and local officials - has not dissuaded child-advocate groups of the need for legal intervention. After the attention dissipates, "the agencies go on as they've always done and it's business as usual," Lowry says. The Marisol case, brought on behalf of a child whom caseworkers placed in foster care and then returned to an abusive home, is intended to instigate a top-to-bottom shakeup of the agency, she says.

The strategy even has the support of some agency administrators, who say the sting of a lawsuit may be the only way for child-welfare agencies to get the help they need from lawmakers.

Gary Stangler, director of the Missouri Social Services Department, has been trying to bring change since his Kansas City agency - sued by the local Legal Aid and Children's Rights in the late 1970s - was held in contempt of court in 1992. "The attitude here was characterized by a posture of defiance," he says of the period before the contempt citation. "But ... the budget has gone up, we have special appropriations for training and staffing, we've gotten more resources."

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