Testimony before The New York City Council’s General Welfare Committee

June 16th, 2016 by
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Good morning, my name is Jess Dannhauser.  I am the President and CEO of Graham Windham, a family support and youth development organization serving children and their families in Brooklyn, the Bronx, Manhattan and Westchester.  Thank you, Chair Levin and Members of the General Welfare Committee, for the opportunity to testify regarding NYC’s foster care system.  It is essential that we come together to discuss how we collectively help the children, young people and their families who come into contact with our system have successful lives.

The single most important tool in the success of our kids and families is an honest, caring, non-judgmental and enduring relationship.  (This is one reason why the City’s investment in Preventive Services which works to preserve family is so important).  As a nation, we have developed a foster care system that makes enduring relationships really hard.   Federal funding for family support and for young people after they leave care dries up immediately.  With all we know about trauma, neuroscience, and youth development today, how is it possible that we still have a national and local system that is set up to cut ties with the very kids and families who need stable relationships more than anyone else?  Informed by our routine youth, parent and foster parent round tables and Commissioner Carrion’s focus on well-being, I have come to see that any policy that only does better by kids while they’re in care is by definition incomplete.  As you know, in NYC, there are less than 10,000 kids in care today but we have several times that number of young people under 25 who have been in foster care.  These remain our kids.  I submit that our policy and practice must include efforts to help these young people succeed, both for the sake of today’s kids in care and our alumni.  Foster care must be temporary but true well-being takes a life time.  Simply, we cannot solve our challenges unless we create ways to stick with our kids beyond foster care.

A child’s reunification with her parents, permanent custody with family or adoption is not the end but the first essential step in building a foundation of success for her.  ACS has made great strides in helping organizations like Graham Windham do a better job ensuring our children receive the permanency they need and deserve.  Over the past two years, following Commissioner Carrion’s move to extend the Title IV-E waiver program to all agencies operating foster care programs which allowed us to reduce caseloads to 12 — a deep investment in the direct practice staff who put it all on the line to do right by kids and families — we have been able to increase our permanency rate by 11% percent.  The use of kinship guardianship and refined adoption practices, highlighted in ACS’ data-driven No Time to Wait initiative, are an important part of these improved outcomes.  More recently, we have also improved our rate of reunification with parents by 39% percent.  In addition to evidence-informed practices, Parent Peer Supporters who have themselves been successful in reunifying with their children, funded by both City and private funding have made an enormous difference in engaging birth parents and continuing to support them post-reunification.  As mentioned earlier, our Parents need a stable, transformative relationship that remains in their lives after their children come home.  As part of Strong Families NYC, ACS is wisely investing in parent support that can help the transition home in the form of Attachment and Bio-Behavioral Catch-Up (ABC) which we’ve recently started implementing in Brooklyn.

When reunification doesn’t work — foster parents, kin and non kin, are the primary source of permanent family.  They make lifelong commitments through kinship guardianship or adoption that are the bedrock of our kids’ wellness.  These volunteer heroes need our collective support.  Indeed, being a foster parent is a privilege and we must ensure that no one looking to harm kids can find their way into our system, but let us not confuse the need for excellent assessment with a necessity to be skeptical towards all foster parents.  Foster parents are too often taken for granted in our practice and legal processes.  Being an effective foster parent — caring for children who may have experienced trauma, managing the myriad logistics of appointments and assessments, providing unwavering support while holding firm to the high expectations our kids deserve — is no easy task.  Doing it, while feeling like you can always be second-guessed is even harder.  (This second-guessing is not about poor intentions.  Just imagine your in-laws had the authority to govern your home, and you’ll get what our foster parents experience. The “in-laws” in this example are the representatives of the foster care system who are tasked with ensuring the safety and well-being of the children in foster homes. I’m not suggesting changing that, but want to acknowledge the challenges of fostering children.)  Foster parents need tangible supports, including help navigating schools to ensure school stability, in addition to relational support.  I applaud ACS’ Home Away from Home initiative and the data-informed approach they are taking to supporting foster parents and strengthening our foster parent network.  In addition, as part of an effort to provide greater stability to our kids in care, an area we are not strong enough in, we at Graham Windham have launched our Hub Home initiative which connects foster parents to one another to provide peer support.  We are using the same approach to provide post-permanency supports to birth, kin and adoptive families and it is working.  Our re-entry rate has been consistently lower than the system norm since launching these supports with funding from the Redlich Horwitz Foundation.  There is a long way to go to be where we need to be on permanency as a system but we are making real strides.

As noted earlier, permanency is the first essential step but it is not the end of the story.  Commissioner Carrion has rightly focused us on the well-being of our kids.  The City’s plan to enhance funding for kids to pursue positive activities, support kids in college, and reinstate discharge grants to help make ends meet at a time of significant transition will make a big impact.  Our kids and families have experienced enormous stress and often trauma but they remain incredibly capable.  We hear a lot about the importance of grit these days.  Well, our kids are as gritty and courageous as they come.   They don’t want or need our pity but they and their families do need us to be there as a community to keep them safe.  There is no doubt that our kids thrive when we invest in them.  Our 47 kids in college are a testament to that.  Two years ago, with support from the Hilton, Tiger and Price Foundations, we launched Graham SLAM, a coaching model, that sticks with our kids until they are 25 and in a living wage career.  Since launching that program, our high school graduation rate for seniors is up to 86 percent, and our college enrollment and persistence rates have nearly doubled.  College persistence is not easy; it has usually included lots of stumbles at first.  One of our incredibly bright young women, I’ll call Monique, failed almost all of her classes first semester.  She wanted to drop out but we convinced her to stick with it and helped her develop better study habits.  She is now a sophomore with a 3.3 average. We provide Graham SLAM to our kids over 16 regardless of how they exit foster care. While it certainly serves kids who have aged out, it also serves kids who have gone home or been adopted.  This is very intentional.  Again, healthy relationships are the foundation of success.  Our kids have had enough instability. We cannot break ties with them, especially when they need us there to make sure their normal stumbles don’t become catastrophes.

Out of great intentions, too often we’ve set up programs to try to solve the problems youth aging out experience.  In doing that, we reserve the supports all kids in care will eventually need until after we’ve failed them and they’ve aged out.  I implore all policy makers to consider this unintended consequence when developing housing, education and career supports intended to help youth in foster care.  All of our kids no matter how they leave care deserve both a strong family and support, including the enriched housing subsidy proposed, to succeed in school and life.  (While not the subject of today’s hearing, we are confident that our Graham SLAM coaching model has applicability beyond foster care and we thank the Administration for investing in it to serve young people on Probation.)

Thank you again for the opportunity to testify.  I applaud the Council’s interest in deepening its understanding of the child welfare system through both data and personal interactions, and in helping improve the lives of our kids and families.  As the Council seeks more data to improve its understanding of how the system is functioning, learning from past experience, I encourage a process to ensure that any new data collection efforts required don’t distract from good work ACS is doing to better mine and deploy the data they currently utilize, including the efforts of the No Time to Wait and Home Away from Home Initiatives.

Finally, I encourage you to include alumni, both youth and parents, in the Foster Care Taskforce.  Their perspective will help to ensure we collectively take on the challenge and opportunity of supporting the success of our kids and families over the long haul. We welcome you Chair Levin and all Members of the Committee to visit our programs and speak freely with our kids and families. It is important that you see our work – warts and all. We would be honored to host you at any time.  I know that our LGBT Pride Youth Group would particularly appreciate the time to visit with you in the wake of the senseless tragedy we are all still trying to come to grips with.  Thank you again for your time.

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