Interviews & Profiles

Demystifying New York City’s foster care landscape

Ronald Richter, CEO of the JCCA and former commissioner of the Administration of Children’s Services weighs in on criticism towards New York City’s child welfare systems.

Ron Richter, CEO of the JCCA

Ron Richter, CEO of the JCCA Image courtesy of JCCA

Is foster care to blame for the challenges it faces? Or are these challenges symptoms of the greater fractures rampant in our child welfare system? While advocates often point to the shortcomings of the foster system as the leading cause of disruption and trauma for disenfranchised youth, child welfare organizations point to the greater systemic issues at play. 

Ronald Richter, CEO of JCCA, aims to challenge this narrative by shedding light on the greater intersectional issues that lead to child placement in foster care – often a difficult decision resulting from an exhaustion of all other viable options. Founded over 200 years ago, the JCCA formerly known as the Jewish Child Care Association, provides comprehensive care to thousands of children, young people and families from New York’s most vulnerable communities. In addition to foster care support, the organization offers wraparound services for families and children in underserved communities. 

New York Nonprofit Media spoke to Richter, a former New York City Family Court judge, former commissioner of New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services, on the measures that child welfare organizations can take to establish adequate support systems for every child in need. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What are some of the most significant challenges faced by young people in foster care and some of the lasting results of these traumas that you've noticed over the years?

The most challenging situations are those where a family has had repeated contact with the child welfare system or foster care system, usually as a result of a constellation of factors. So family violence, substance misuse, and a general challenge on the part of the parents to be able to support their kids. And so we see a lot of cases where the results of racism and economic deprivation really challenge parents in trying to do what they want to do for their children. I think that a compelling factor is that whatever we're doing to support the children or the parents while the child is not at home, has to be [done] by a range of services that make up a community. So strong schools, strong medical services, strong mental health services, jobs, good housing. All of that is critical to a child being successful. And unfortunately, we have a lot of cases where other systems have struggled to help families and therefore children end up being at risk and engage with the child welfare system. So that's a chronic challenge that's been around since I started in this work in the early 1990s. And way before that, it’s this idea that our systems are rife with challenges that make it really hard to raise kids, especially when there's economic deprivation and challenges associated with that. 

Critics say that the foster care system aggravates the issues experienced by vulnerable children and their families. What's your response to this opinion?

In 1990, there were close to 50,000 children in foster care from New York City and today, the number is more like 8,000 or less. So I think that there's been an acknowledgment that foster care really needs to be used only when absolutely necessary. Having said that, there's also reliable data that shows that when children enter foster care, they present with many challenges. From academic to medical, to how well they’ve been regulated as human beings in their early life. And so it's hard for me to understand why we seem to blame foster care, not that it doesn't have significant imperfections, but blame foster care when in fact kids come to foster care with a myriad of challenges. Also, close to 50% of the kids in foster care today in New York City are with family members – kinship care, which has always been considered a far better option to stranger foster care. So children in half the case are going to family members that their parents are usually supportive of. I don't think it's necessarily appropriate to blame foster care, other than the separation trauma to parents and to kids, and that that is the imperfection of sometimes protecting children. And it's not protecting children from parents so much as it's protecting children from circumstances that a judge has decided creates serious risk. 

What are some systemic issues that cause children to be placed in foster care? 

There are a lot of people in New York City, the majority in fact, who are poor, who have nothing to do with the child welfare system … and lack access to sufficient services that never have anything to do with ACS. So there is a distinction between a kid in foster care and their neighbors for a bunch of reasons. We all have times when we have needs and I do think that systems have tended to respond harshly to people who have needs that create compromise. And I think that's a big challenge for us in child welfare because by the time we're talking about a kid being removed from their home, so many systems have failed. So parents who are struggling with substance misuse shouldn’t feel ashamed to need treatment, but in our world, much like a parent who’s struggling with mental health issues, the shame and stigma associated with that makes it difficult for us to support that parent. And it's not anyone's fault. It is society that stigmatizes people who have mental health challenges, substance misuse problems. That is a fact. And so figuring out how to sensitively and effectively reach that parent and support them is loaded with lots of different challenges. And so I think that over the years, I've noticed that the more we can do to de-stigmatize the fact that there are times in all of our lives when it's really hard for us to function effectively as parents, goes a long way to helping them. 

What solutions do you hope to implement in order to combat this stigma that keeps people ignored and underserved?

I think [at JCCA] we're trying to meet parents so we speak honestly and respectfully with them about why they ended up in the situation they're in. But going further upstream I think that there are options where we're trying to draw resources in communities so that parents have the opportunity to easily reach support services that are in their neighborhoods. And we’re trying very hard to connect people without child welfare involvement, by helping people know where the food pantries are or helping people know where mental health services, drug treatments are, without having to get ACS involved. So I think moving upstream and really, really trying to not just do primary prevention, but also offering social work services, without having to have an ACS case. Given the history of ACS and child welfare, it's really important to see how much we can support parents in the education system to advocate for their kids, so that they feel empowered to make their preferences known and understand how we do that. 

As we’re seeing declining mental health rates across the nation, what are some of the most significant mental health challenges affecting children in foster care? 

Providers are the biggest challenge. Finding strong, consistent providers that actually have the ability to connect with our kids and our parents. There are very few providers that want to work in the communities where our families come from. The second challenge is the extent to which in New York, the government makes it very difficult to secure Medicaid in order to urgently access mental health issues. And when you see the extent to which young people, adolescents are attempting suicide post-pandemic, the fact that a parent has to go through so many hoops to get their managed care organization to pay for mental health services is astonishing. And I think you would hear from parents who have private insurance, that they're struggling just as much. So it's workforce, it's access, and then I do think it continues to be a stigma. I do think that families have concerns about identifying mental health needs. That is not an easy thing. But I think there's always been a great stigma, particularly in communities of color around accessing mental health services. But they’re really making progress and that’s thanks to the Herculean efforts of providers of color who’ve taken an important stance on speaking to communities. 

You mentioned building trust as the main driving force behind change. Do you feel like trust is central to the solutions that you want to implement? 

If you are genuinely interested in helping families support their own kids, and genuinely interested in families achieving some sort of independence and stability, people know that. They know. Kids really know. So, if you can actually build trust with a young person which you've identified as really the most important thing, then you have a real shot at influencing them. But they have to believe you're really listening to them and they have to see that you're listening to them with your actions. I do think that in child welfare, we obviously struggle with building trust, because people see us as having the ability to take their child away. And that's pretty serious and different from your doctor, teacher or even in some cases to law enforcement. Child welfare is seen as potentially really destroying a family even though the majority of us are committed to truly and genuinely supporting families. 

With the growing nationwide concern for a lack of appropriate placement options for young people, providers like JCCA are exceeding capacity to deliver properly. What do you think caused this? 

This is a national crisis. And part of the reason for that is that for many years, residential care was overused and children did not move expeditiously out of a residential placement. So what ends up happening is there comes a point where the government [decides] to just disinvest in residential. And so instead of reducing residential capacity, they’re creating very strong day treatment programs for young people who are struggling with serious mental health issues and education challenges, instead of creating in communities, strong schools that have clinical services that offer respite to parents. So what ended up happening in New York in particular is that we took down residential sites, that there were kids that needed them, that were having very significant issues: suicidal ideation, schizophrenic behavior. What we ended up having was kids piling up in psychiatric emergency rooms, but there was no place to discharge them and so you ended up having kids coming into a child welfare setting who had very, very significant mental health problems that often resulted in persistently violent behavior, and it was not treated appropriately. Kids have been put in placements that are not consistent with their needs and this is an issue throughout the country. 

What are some overlooked strengths of the foster care system? 

I think the most important point that we made about foster care is that it is sort of the last option. The idea that there are people out there, both family members and non-family members that are opening up their homes, to help kids, especially teenagers, really warrants a lot more recognition in a positive way than we give those foster parents. It's not an easy role, and it is one that takes an enormous amount of heart and commitment. And it is very easy to criticize the foster care system. But it is very important to look behind why children come into care and what their life is like. That essentially leads the judge to find that they can't live at home. Sometimes I think people don't appreciate that. These are very, very difficult decisions. Judges do not take them lightly. And the law requires that every option be pursued before the removal of a child. Whether it's orders of protection, whether it's removing someone from the home, whether it's all manner of support, preventive services, mental health services all required in the name of diligent efforts by an agency before a judge. So I worry that we find it very easy to just criticize the foster care system without fully appreciating what the experience for a child is and how much consideration a court gives to that extraordinarily difficult decision. 

Editor’s note: Ron Richter is a member of the New York Nonprofit Media Advisory Board.

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