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.