New York City

Exiting ACS commissioner ends tenure as advocate for public service

Administration for Children’s Services

New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) was originally created in 1969 under Mayor John Lindsay's administration to provide child welfare, juvenile justice, and early care and education services. The goal was to ensure the protection, safety and well-being of the city’s children and families. In 2017, David Hansell was appointed commissioner under the de Blasio administration to carry out a similar vision.

Prior to ACS, Hansell spent much of his life dedicated to public service, working in nonprofits and other government agencies, including New York City’s Human Resources Administration, the New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance and the Department of Health and Human Services under the Obama administration. 

Under Commissioner Hanell’s leadership, lowered the number of children in foster care from 11,000 in 2016 to less than 7,200 in 2021. The agency also continued to provide the support staff needed to carry out its work and provide much-needed services to parents and youth, even amidst a global pandemic that was ravaging the city. 

Now Hansell will be stepping down from his role at the end of 2021 as a new mayoral administration takes on City Hall. NYN Media caught up with Hansell by phone recently to talk about his leadership and work at ACS, the progress and success that has been made, and what he hopes for the future of the agency.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

I want to start with the news that you're stepping down. What led you to that decision and why now? 

We’re on the brink of a change in mayoral administration in New York City and I felt like that was an appropriate time to really step down from my role at ACS and give mayor-elect Adams an opportunity to appoint new leadership to the agency. I have now been in this role for about five years, which actually makes me a relatively long serving ACS commissioner. And I'm very, very proud of the work we've done in the last five years. I think there's a lot of progress and I look forward to seeing who Adams decides to appoint as my successor and ensure it will be a strong choice and somebody I hope will continue in the direction and the trajectory that we have been taking it ACS.

You have a lot of experience in government. What was that transition like becoming the Commissioner of ACS?

Most of my career, I have spent in government. Mostly in the city, a little bit at the state level and federal level. I have a very strong commitment to public service. I believe that the role of government in providing support and protection to people who are vulnerable, who are often unable to protect themselves is absolutely critical. So, I've been feeling really, very fortunate to have had a wonderful set of opportunities to run programs and run agencies and government. Coming back to ACS was in some ways returning to city government. I think it was helpful that I've been in city government before because I think I had a good understanding of how it works and how you get things done in New York City, which is a very complicated environment. And I also knew a lot of people have a lot of relationships in the provider community in New York City as well. And of course, much of the work we do at ACS is done not directly by us, but is done by our provider organizations, so having strong relationships there I think was very helpful as I came into the job. But I also came in at a time back in 2017 when ACS had been going through a very difficult period. Back in 2016, there had been some very, very tragic childhood fatalities in New York City, which received a lot of attention from the media, elected officials and oversight agencies. It had a very strong impact on ACS. So when I came in early 2017, I came into an agency that was in some turmoil and I really came in to look at how we could strengthen the work we were doing and make sure that we could carry out all of our child protective work and our child welfare work in accordance with the expectations that people in New York City would have. And then making sure that we could really move forward to transform ACS in a progressive direction to provide stronger support for families and stronger support to children. And that's what I hope I have done over the last five years. 

According to an ACS report examining the agency from 2014 to 2021, the number of children in foster care was reduced to a historic low of 7,200 under your leadership. Also, under your tenure, ACS reported the proportion of youth placed with kin rose from 31% to 43%, and that more resources were provided for case workers, such as tablets and Zipcars and much more. What accomplishment are you the most proud of? 

I think what I'm most proud of is the ways in which we have expanded support for families, and especially support for families in their communities, independent of any involvement with the child welfare system at all. I'm proud of the fact that we have reduced the foster-care census to the lowest level that we've seen in decades in New York City. And the way we've done that is by expanding our ability to serve parents in their homes and to serve parents in a way that keeps children safely at home. And we've done that really through our prevention services, which we put in place last year in the middle of the pandemic. It is a completely new set of prevention services that expand on the range of services that are available to families across New York City. And I think that's really been central to our ability to keep more children from coming into foster care. We have really moved even further upstream and said, we don't want families to have to come into the child welfare system in order to get the services that they need, and so we have been focusing on what we call primary prevention, which is reaching families with services, with support and with information that they need to keep their children safe, but without any involvement in the child welfare system and hopefully with the goal of avoiding any involvement in the child welfare system. That's why we've done things like investing in our family enrichment center model which we are going to be expanding over the next few years. That's why we've created an office of child safety and injury prevention to get information to parents about how to keep their kids safe and that's really been a new area of focus for us at ACS and one that I really think is the cutting edge of child welfare work nationally. So I'm very proud that we have really created a part of the agency that focuses on that and really made it a core part of what we do. 

COVID-19 created challenges for many agencies in New York when it comes to children and families. One of the challenges was the limiting of Family Court operations. With the pandemic looming, what did this mean for you as a leader?

Well, you're right, the pandemic has challenged every aspect of what we do at ACS and required us to modify our approach to make sure that in addition to carrying out the core elements of our mission, which are protecting children, keeping children safe and supporting families, we had to make sure we did all of that in the context where we also had to make sure we were keeping everyone safe, parents safe, children safe and our staff safe in the face of this is public health crisis. We had to modify all aspects of what we did. We had to make sure that our staff were following public health guidance when they were interacting with families or with children, we had to make sure that we are keeping families safe as well. And then we had to respond to the changes in the system that we work with, like the family courts, which beginning back in early 2020 restricted access, especially in-person access. That was a great concern because in protecting the rights of parents and families, court proceedings are absolutely essential. It's a civil rights issue and it's an equity issue. We were and continue to be concerned about the restrictions on access to courts during the pandemic and since the proceedings in family court became mostly virtual back in early 2020, and has continued to be virtual, we've done everything possible to make sure that families and parents in particular could fully participate in those proceedings because they are so critical. We did things like requiring that our foster care agencies provide the necessary technology to parents who have children in foster care so that they could participate in court hearings and stay in contact with their children. We provided cell phones to any parents who didn’t already have them to make sure that they too could participate in court hearings and maintain contact with their attorneys as well as contact with their children. And we issued guidance to our foster care agencies and all of our providers. In fact, we expected them to continue in person contact with families and made sure the parents had in person contact with children whenever that could be done safely because we knew how important it is that that kind of contact continues. So we did have to transform things. We did everything we could to make sure that we were continuing to support families. We did a lot of work outside the court system to continue to move children who are in foster care, act towards reunification with their families, with their parents, even when the courts have not been exercising their normal level of oversight over that. So we did a lot to adapt to that. And I will say, I know the court system is working very hard to maintain access and to restore access as much as they can, I do think it is critical that the family courts return to full operation as soon as possible to make sure that the rights of all parents in family court are being protected. 

How did your approach to management and leadership change throughout your time as ACS commissioner? 

I felt like our staff and our providers were really the experts in understanding what was working well in the agency and what wasn't, what we needed to change, what we needed to improve. So I got lots and lots of recommendations from staff about things we could do better, ways we could better support staff. For example, as a result of some of those initial discussions, we provided a range of remote technology to our child protective staff, so that they could access information while they were in the field and so they could provide information to parents and families while they were in their homes, things that turned out to be critical during the covid pandemic. And the other thing I realized very quickly very early on was that we really needed to listen to constituents. We needed to listen to parents, especially parents who have lived experience in the child welfare system. We need to look at the young people because we also needed to make sure that we were benefiting from their wisdom and their advice about how we could better interact with and better serve parents in the future. And so we implemented new ways of doing that. We established a position for a parent engagement specialist, created a parent advocate, just to make sure we were really listening to parents and young people who have the experience for the child welfare system. So, you know, I think I learned a tremendous amount at the beginning of my tenure. I have continued to learn a lot over the five years that I've been here and I've continued to learn from working with and listening to all of our providers. And I hope that all of that has been reflected in the policy and programmatic changes that I've made in my time as commissioner. 

With this new Administration coming in, what do you want to see from the Adams Administration in terms of support for the future of ACS? 

Well, I hope fundamentally that Mayor-elect Adams and the leadership that he appoints will continue the direction we're moving. Continue to focus on supporting families, continue to focus on keeping children safely at home through prevention services, continue to focus on expanding primary prevention services for families and their communities. I hope that the new administration’s leadership will also continue to recognize the importance of supporting staff and to make sure the staff have all of the tools that they need to do the work. And I hope they will also recognize the critical importance of the provider organizations that we work with. Our foster care agencies are our prevention partners, the many nonprofit organizations that we work with that I think the city has an obligation to make sure have the funding and the resources that they need to carry out the very important responsibilities the city has entrusted them with. So I hope those things will continue. I think we're on the right track, but there's always room for more progress And fundamentally, I also hope that the new leadership here at ACS will continue to listen to providers, to our staff and especially listen to parents and young people and make sure that their voices are heard in all of the work that ACS does. 

What's next for you?

Well, I'm not quite ready to say that yet, although I hope I will be soon. But I remain very, very committed to child welfare transformation and the kind of work we're doing here. And so I hope to land in a place where I can continue to support that kind of work, both in New York City and across the country. 

What advice do you have for future public service leaders? 

I would encourage everyone to consider, if not a full career in public service, at least spending time in public service. I've worked in the nonprofit sector. I've worked in the private sector. And I work mostly in government, and I believe strongly that the opportunity to effect progressive change in government is unmatched. It is challenging. Government is huge and complicated, but the ability to really support positive changes in communities, I think, is just enormous. And so I encourage everyone to think about spending time and government, even if it's not the primary focus of one's career and I think New York City is a wonderful place to do it. I think we have a commitment to supporting people, supporting children, families and communities in New York City. I think while it can be a challenging political environment, and there are lots of people who have very strong opinions and strong beliefs, I think there is also a real commonality in terms of that kind of commitment. So, I think the opportunity I've been blessed to have had is the opportunity to work in New York City government for so long, and I really strongly encourage everyone to try to have the opportunity to do that.