New York City's child welfare chief David Hansell speaks on two years on the job

ACS Commissioner David Hansell

ACS Commissioner David Hansell Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office

Two years after taking the job, New York City Administration for Children’s Services Commissioner David Hansell says that he remains optimistic about efforts to change the reputation of the child welfare agency.

All too often, parents – and particularly people of color – aim to avoid ACS caseworkers because they are afraid of losing their children. Hansell has aimed to change that by highlighting the agency’s positive work and promoting ACS as a go-to city agency for families in need. However, that is more easily said than done, because there is no shortage of controversies for anyone who takes the top ACS job.

City & State caught up with Hansell just a few days as he entered his third year on the job. He weighed in on rebranding the agency and overhauling the juvenile justice system while countering accusations that the agency has been overzealous at times in investigating child abuse claims. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


A Feb. 25 New York Times article examined how parents remain listed in a state registry even when child abuse allegations against them are proven untrue. What is the role of ACS in this?

State law dictates really all aspects of the policy and the standard for determining that reports of child abuse or neglect are indicated is set by state law. The amount of time they remain on the registry is set by state law. It’s ultimately a matter of state policy and a matter for the Legislature to decide.

There is a strong policy reason to have the registry and to maintain these reports. But I think the concern that advocates have raised is that it could have the unintended consequence of limiting important employment opportunities for low-income individuals. It is important to balance the public safety goal of the current law and make sure that it is not unintentionally restricting employment opportunities in ways that are not significantly enhancing public safety.

If the Legislature decides it wants to reexamine that law this year, we welcome that. It’s important to look at all the aspects of it, including the legal standard for indicating cases, the due process protections that parents and other adults have in the system, and the length of time that prior abuse or neglect reports remain a flag from an employment perspective.


What progress has been made during your tenure in overhauling the agency?

I’ve been commissioner now for about two years and came in at a difficult time for ACS. We  had just been challenged by two very, very serious, very high-profile tragic child deaths in the city that had definitely shaken public confidence in ACS and its ability to do its job of protecting children as well as the public of New York City has a right to expect. So I started out with a top-to-bottom review of the agency to examine every aspect of our child protective work.

We’ve hired more caseworkers. We’ve reduced caseloads. We’ve improved the tools and technology that we give our caseworkers. We’ve enhanced our training and our quality and oversight.

We want to work with the parents to address issues and provide them services to do that, but we want to go even further upstream and work with families and communities even before there’s involvement in the child welfare system. We started a new division at ACS to focus on what we call primary prevention. I think we’ve done a good job in terms of making sure that our core child protective activities are strong and I am also excited about the direction we are moving in terms of moving more upstream in our engagements with families.

The reason that I have focused so much on the image of the agency is really twofold. One is that I think it really is important that New Yorkers understand how we do our work and have confidence that we do it well. That requires us being transparent about what we do and talking about both successes and the challenges. I’ve tried to do that over my two years here. It’s also important because we do want families to understand that ACS is there to be a resource to them. As to the issues in the New Republic article, now that we offer so many supportive services to parents we want to make sure that they understand that ACS is fundamentally there to help them. Yes, we have to make sure that kids are safe. That is first and foremost our goal, but in the vast, vast majority of cases, we’re able to do that in a way that is supportive and collaborative with the parents that we are working with.


Where is the city now on implementing Raise the Age, which raised the age of criminal responsibility to 18 in New York?

I literally, just 15 minutes ago, spoke at an orientation of about 60 new youth development specialists who are starting today and will be going into training. We are actually moving full speed ahead with the hiring process. We’re very much on course with regard to the implementation of Raise the Age as a whole. We’re only a little more than four months into the actual implementation so I think we are doing quite well given how new it is. We had the same challenge that all parts of the state had in bringing 16-year-olds into our juvenile justice system, which we have done. We also have the additional challenge of making sure that all 16- and 17-year-olds will relocated from Rikers Island into our juvenile detention system, as of last Oct. 1. We accomplished that.

There were certainly some challenges in the first couple of weeks with a new population for us to work with. We were working very closely with the Department of Correction as required by state law and that was a new operational mode for us. But that was only really in the first couple of weeks. Things have stabilized now.

Things at Horizon now are really on track. Kids are going to school. They are getting services and mostly moving on from Horizon elsewhere because they are usually there for a only short period of time while they are awaiting trial or release. Close to Home is moving ahead very well. We are well on pace to hiring our youth development specialists. We’re hiring about 240 currently. We intend to hire several hundred more over the course of this year.

But we’re on track to being able to begin assuming some responsibilities at Horizon in addition to the other juvenile detention facility, Crossroads, which we have been fully staffing since the beginning. We expect to begin assuming some responsibility for Horizon very soon and the goal is by early 2020 that ACS will takeover full responsibility for both of the detention centers. Of course, the real impact of Raise the Age is not on detention because most young people have very short stays. It’s really the Close to Home program, which was really fundamental in juvenile justice about five years ago. Now, that too will be available to 16-year-olds – and very soon to 17-year-olds. We have been making all the changes that we need to make across our entire Close to Home program to make sure we are offering the services and the resources that older youth will need if they come into the system.


Weren’t there supposed to be more youth development specialists in place by last October to staff Horizon?

No, that was never actually the plan. The state required that we create two different facilities that had to be certified under two different provisions of state law. For young people who came into the system as juveniles, which beginning last Oct. 1 includes anyone up to age 16, they would come into the system as juveniles. If they needed to be detained prior to trial, they had to be detained in what’s called a specialized secure detention facility – or an SSD – and so we got state certification for Crossroads Juvenile Center in Brooklyn to be an SSD. But the state law said that for the young people who were on Rikers who needed to be moved off Rikers into our detention centers, they remain legally in the adult criminal system. While they can’t be on Rikers, they had to be moved off Rikers into the facilities we had. But the state law actually required that the management of those facilities be co-operated by the Department of Correction and ACS. So our plan from the beginning had been that the Department of Correction would staff Horizon because it was certified not as an SSD but as a specialized Secured Juvenile Detention facility – or an SJD – which required more involvement from the correctional side.

Our plan from the beginning was that the Department of Correction would provide an initial level of staffing at Horizon while we staffed Crossroads. There are now 17-year-olds who are being arrested today who are still not considered to be juveniles legally, but they come to Horizon because by law they can’t go to Rikers. Those young people remain in the system until October of this year when those 17-year-olds will become juveniles under Raise the Age. After that, ACS will assume full operational control and full staffing for Horizon as well.


A group of state Assembly members have urged that the state increase its share of child welfare funding. What difference would that make at ACS?

Let me start by adding some context. Over the last three years, New York City specifically has lost significant amounts of state funding for both child welfare and juvenile justice. We, a couple of years ago, had a significant reduction for foster care services – about $62 million – which has remained the case in the two years since then. Last year, we lost all the funding for programs I just described in juvenile justice. We lost all of our state funding for Close to Home and we were essentially precluded from getting any funding for Raise the Age. This has been an ongoing issue for a number of years. While we have a very good state partnership in terms of providing funding support for our core preventative and protective services, the law says that the state is to provide 65 percent of that funding and localities, New York City or other localities provide 45 percent. But for the past number of years the Legislature has overridden that and reduced the state funding from 65 percent to 62 percent. They’ve done that in the last five or six years, maybe longer than that. So one of the things we have suggested is that if the state were to return to that level of 65 percent, which is actually what is written into the law, that would provide $19 million in additional funding, which we could use for a number of things.

We have a number of things that are important to us and it would have to fall within the preventative and protective world. I’ve talked about our expansion of preventative services. We’re certainly interested in providing more support to young people who are aging out of the foster care system. There are really a number of things where we could use those funds to expand our work or to support some of the innovative work we are doing in the area of prevention. We would love to see the city return to the level of funding it provided years ago.


Does the agency track all emergency removals of children, including when a child is returned after a few hours before a court would become involved?

Yes, we track every situation where we remove a child. We certainly track every situation where we remove child from a home, no matter how short a time.


Your job has been called one of the toughest in city government. What advice do you have for your counterparts in other city agencies?

The first thing I’ll say is that ACS alone cannot be responsible for child safety. Child safety has got to be a collaborative responsibility among multiple city agencies, nonprofit agencies and providers. We can’t do it alone. There are many services and supports that families need that are the responsibility of other parts of city government. We need to make sure it’s a responsibility that is taken seriously by many of our sister agencies and I think we do. We work very closely with the Department of Homeless Services, the Human Resources Administration, the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the Department of Education, and the NYPD because all of us have a collective responsibility to keep kids safe.

In terms of general management, the most important thing is listening. You can’t do this job or a job like this if you are not committed to collaboration, committed to transparency in the way the work is done and committed to keeping an open door and listening to people. None of us have a monopoly on wisdom and so I try to listen to as many people as I can and that is the advice I would give to my colleagues.