A System as 'Neglected' as Kids It Serves Child Advocates in New York and Elsewhere Turn to Courts to Overhaul Child-Welfare Agencies
Nicole Gaouette, Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
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. …