Testimony to General Welfare Committee of New York City Council Hearing on Preventive Services

December 14th, 2016 by
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Jess Dannhauser, President and CEO, Graham Windham

Chair Levin, Members of the General Welfare Committee, thank you for convening this important hearing regarding our City’s Preventive Services system. I am Jess Dannhauser, President and CEO of Graham Windham. We partner with the Administration of Children’s Services to serve 300 families in Preventive Services each year. As you know well, Preventive Services has a sacred charge: ensuring the safety of our City’s children while supporting their families in addressing the conditions, circumstances, relationships and behaviors that could place children at risk of harm. New York City has one of the most comprehensive and effective Preventive Services systems in the nation serving 10,000 families a year with the largest concentration of evidence-based and evidenced-informed practices in the country. New York City has a robust oversight system of the performance of the nonprofit providers who deliver Preventive Services and have recently created additional systems to ensure ACS involvement at critical decision-making points. The City and State foot almost the entire bill with little federal support for prevention. We have good reason to be proud of what is truly a national model developed by ACS. The City Council also has a proud tradition of supporting Preventive Services, including funding increases in service availability and reduced caseloads championed by Mayor de Blasio when he was the Chair of this Committee.

 

We serve hundreds of families managing the universal stressors of parenting, greatly exacerbated by poverty, racism and social isolation, working to make ends meet and do right by their children. They are often exhibiting behaviors and/or living in circumstances that create risk to children. As a result of preventive services, thousands of these families each year have a substantially increased capacity to protect their children and a community of support to help them sustain their growth. The children in these families are safe and spared the life-changing trauma of separation. When we get it right, we are a better, more just City for it.

 

When we do not, when we miss someone or some thing that is dangerous to children, we know too well that the consequences can be catastrophic and even fatal. Less known but as important for us as a society are the tragedies out of public view when children are left to face a childhood of chronic neglect, which stymies emotional development and learning.

 

The consequences of our work are monumental, life-altering in fact, for every child served by this system. We deeply appreciate the investment of time and energy of this Committee to consider how we can make our system stronger. Just because we are a national leader does not mean we cannot get much better. We must.

 

With all due respect to monitoring (and having done it for a few years I really do respect it), the progress we need is at the front line, or as we like to call it, direct practice. Our dedicated case planners wade into the most complex family circumstances, assuming personal risk “armed” only with a phone and a pen. We
ask them to do the dual job of assessing child safety and supporting parental growth. While I do not believe this dual responsibility is contradictory – in fact the best assessment tool is a trusting relationship – it certainly requires an abundance of skill, experience, excellent supervisory support, and perhaps most importantly significant time interacting with each family.

I believe there are three concrete ways we can support our dedicated Preventive Services staff and strengthen frontline practice.

 

1. Intensify General Preventive Services. In General Preventive, case planners carry caseloads of twelve families and typically visit families twice a month. As ACS has created more intensive models of prevention, it is clear to me that in comparison General Preventive does not have the intensity needed to fully assess the family’s functioning, behaviors, relationships and conditions that relate to child safety. It is also not sufficient to support the family’s necessary behavior change. In addition to adding intensity, I believe all preventive programs should follow an evidence-informed or promising casework practice.

 

2. Increase Funding in Preventive Contracts to Improve Case Planner Compensation, Quality Assurance and Support to Families. The de Blasio Administration funded a 2.5% increase for Preventive Services staff, the only increase since 2008 in compensation. There have been no increases to cover rising administrative costs. Where private fundraising dollars haven’t been available, salaries have lost ground to other fields and other positions within our field, contributing to turnover; training and other supports have been curtailed; and cash support to families, which in certain
circumstances can mitigate risk, is less available.

 

3. Reduce the Documentation Burden. We must lighten the regulatory load on our case planners who are required to compose near-ethnographies on each interaction with families. I do believe documentation is important. It makes you think through your assessment and decision-making but we’ve gone overboard. Staff spends 40% or more time documenting their work. We are asking them to focus on hundreds of micro-requirements, all of which make good sense in isolation, but can lead to burnout and a loss of focus on the core work that really matters. We’ve lost the forest from the trees. I encourage the City and State to consider piloting a program where case planners complete one fulsome note each week focused on assessment and decision-making with each family rather than a specific note for each of the
dozens of contacts, visits and discussions they have each day.

 

Moving the system forward also requires we understand the importance of the relationship between ACS and our communities. We have had a major public discussion about police-community relations in this country, but to my regular dismay, hardly any about the relationship between the child welfare system and
community. Given the enormous authority of emergency removal given to government, one that still is utilized disproportionality based on race and ethnicity even when controlling for rates for reporting, trust is not easy to develop. Just as we believe that police get the best information when they are trusted, the same is true of our child welfare system. As we move to community policing, let’s also move to
community child protection.

 

Over the past decade, preventive services has taken on more of a role in monitoring child safety and evolved from a system that had a significant percentage of families who availed themselves of the support voluntarily to a system that is overwhelmingly serving families following an investigation of maltreatment at the recommendation of ACS. This was done for good reasons that I support but we have unintentionally lost an essential ingredient in our system: primary prevention where parents can turn for help without having an ACS case opened. ACS is working to change this with an RFP out right now for 3 Family Enrichment Centers. I encourage the Council and Administration to consider increasing that number. I also encourage to the Council and Administration to consider asking the State for a funding waiver to allow the Preventive Programs operating within schools as part of the Beacon program to adopt a primary prevention approach which would make them more likely to be used by the parents in the school and surrounding community. If we are not only worried about the children who come to ACS’ attention but all of NYC’s children, we must invest more fully in primary prevention.

 

Thank you again for your time, energy and commitment to NYC’s children and families, and to the dedicated workforce who works every day to make children safe and families strong.

 

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