Panel Plays Pioneering Role in Child Welfare Lawsuits

Posted May 3, 2010
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation

Law­suits against child wel­fare sys­tems can drag on for years, and the reme­dies that result often aren’t con­ducive to com­pre­hen­sive, long-term reform.

You can get a court order say­ing the sys­tem has to do a bunch of things, but they often aren’t able to do those things any bet­ter after the law­suit than they were before,” notes Steve Cohen, inter­im vice pres­i­dent for the Casey Foundation’s Cen­ter for Effec­tive Fam­i­ly Ser­vices and Sys­tems. You could end up chas­ing the 78 things in the order, and it might turn out lat­er that not all of them were the right things and that oth­er things might be just as impor­tant or more.

This was a prob­lem no one knew how to solve,” Cohen notes—until Doug Nel­son dreamed up an idea that would allow all the par­ties to get the ben­e­fits of the law­suit with­out all the drawbacks.”

That idea was the New York City Spe­cial Child Wel­fare Advi­so­ry Pan­el, formed in 1998 in response to the Marisol v. Giu­liani law­suit, trig­gered by the 1995 death of a six-year-old girl beat­en by her mother.

Hop­ing to stave off an impasse, Nel­son pro­posed an alter­na­tive approach that would enable key play­ers to work togeth­er con­struc­tive­ly. This led to the for­ma­tion of a five-per­son pan­el that issued five reports offer­ing exten­sive rec­om­men­da­tions and timeta­bles that became the basis for sweep­ing reforms.

If the plain­tiffs had pre­vailed, the result might well have been a detailed list of require­ments, some of them con­flict­ing with reforms already underway—and the strong man­age­ment team the city had put in place could have been under­mined,” notes Cohen, who served as full-time staff direc­tor of the pan­el from 1999 until its con­clud­ing report in 2002. If the city had pre­vailed, its sup­port for reform might have fad­ed away with the next bud­get crisis.”

Giv­en that Doug Nel­son was the pres­i­dent of the Foun­da­tion and had tremen­dous respon­si­bil­i­ties, the fact that he would pause and spend so much of his time get­ting into the weeds of one agency made us feel very invest­ed in,” says Lin­da Gibbs, deputy may­or of New York City. It increased the stakes for mak­ing sure our reforms were successful.”

I have used law­suits through­out my career to reform fail­ing child wel­fare sys­tems, and I am quite aware of their strengths and lim­i­ta­tions. They are tru­ly a blunt instru­ment,” observes Mar­cia Robin­son Lowry, founder and exec­u­tive direc­tor of Children’s Rights, a nation­al advo­ca­cy group. The panel’s approach played out in a much more sub­tle and col­lab­o­ra­tive way behind the scenes and Doug played a huge role in that.”

The panel’s work has brought a focus on com­mu­ni­ty and fam­i­ly engage­ment to issues rang­ing from crim­i­nal jus­tice to the over-insti­tu­tion­al­iza­tion of peo­ple with men­tal health issues, and influ­enced prac­tices like col­lab­o­ra­tive case plan­ning and com­mu­ni­ty based ser­vices. Those ideas per­me­ate across all agen­cies and dis­ci­plines in the city,” says Gibbs.

Nel­son put his lead­er­ship on the line by tak­ing stands and mak­ing clear rec­om­men­da­tions, which in this busi­ness is always fraught with error and mis­takes with tough con­se­quences,” notes John Mat­ting­ly, a for­mer Casey staffer who served on the pan­el with Nel­son and now heads New York City’s Admin­is­tra­tion for Children’s Services.

The pan­el drew on Casey’s Fam­i­ly to Fam­i­ly ini­tia­tive, then led by Mat­ting­ly, which seeks to reform child wel­fare sys­tems through a fam­i­ly-cen­tered, neigh­bor­hood-based approach and an increas­ing empha­sis on find­ing per­ma­nent fam­i­ly connections.

The panel’s approach helped shape the devel­op­ment of the Casey Strate­gic Con­sult­ing Group, an effort to help state and local sys­tems strug­gling to reform in the wake of child wel­fare crises. Its work in a sim­i­lar case in Maine had a dra­mat­ic impact on improv­ing child wel­fare out­comes,” notes Mark Mil­lar, found­ing direc­tor of the Maine Divi­sion of Casey Fam­i­ly Ser­vices, the Foundation’s direct ser­vices agency. Improve­ments includ­ed a 34 per­cent reduc­tion of chil­dren in out of home care, a 50 per­cent reduc­tion in res­i­den­tial care, and a 30 per­cent increase in kids in kin­ship fos­ter care between 2004 and 2009.

Nelson’s empha­sis on using data to under­stand who enters the sys­tem, how long they stay, and how mon­ey is spent gal­va­nized efforts to reduce the num­ber of chil­dren in expen­sive, restric­tive group set­tings and move them toward per­ma­nent fam­i­ly con­nec­tions, notes Ray­mond L. Tor­res, a vice pres­i­dent of the Casey Foun­da­tion and exec­u­tive direc­tor of Casey Fam­i­ly Services.

Nel­son has worked to tap the front­line per­spec­tives, lessons, and suc­cess­es of Casey Fam­i­ly Ser­vices. Doug appre­ci­ates that as a nation­al foun­da­tion, we are unique in hav­ing grant mak­ing and direct ser­vices, and that we have an oppor­tu­ni­ty to show­case best prac­tices with the very same fam­i­lies we are try­ing to impact,” says Torres.

Casey’s work to com­bat pover­ty issues that are at the root of many fam­i­ly dis­rup­tions and to high­light the dis­pro­por­tion­ate num­ber of chil­dren of col­or in the sys­tem have also been crit­i­cal, notes Sania Met­zger, Casey’s direc­tor of state child wel­fare policy.

Doug has brought to the whole field his abil­i­ty to see how the prob­lems that affect all vul­ner­a­ble fam­i­lies are inter­re­lat­ed,” says Lee Mul­lane, inter­im direc­tor of com­mu­ni­ca­tions and media relations.

He could real­ly envi­sion what a dif­fer­ent pub­lic sys­tem should look like and how best to do that,” notes Kath­leen Feely, Casey’s vice pres­i­dent for inno­va­tion and founder of the Casey Strate­gic Con­sult­ing Group.

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