Preserving families, but at what cost?

After a string of tragedies, New York City's child welfare workers reassess their goals.

Published February 6, 2006 6:55PM (EST)

The year 2006 has brought a sobering slap to the New York City Administration for Children's Services. According to a story in today's New York Times, in the past 10 weeks, four children under the care of ACS were killed in their homes by adults -- despite repeated reports of abuse and visits from the agency.

Each of the terrible deaths -- but notably the headline-making case of young Nixmary Brown -- has now drawn into question what, since 1999, has been ACS's prevailing child welfare strategy: preserve the family, except when "harm to the child [seems] imminent." Ironically, it is that same effort toward preservation that won the city accolades in recent years by reducing the caseloads of overburdened social workers, trimming the ranks of foster children, and using drug treatment, house visits and therapy to assist families before their situation turned perilous.

David Tobis, executive director of the Child Welfare Fund, tells the Times that while he supports the idea of a family preservation policy, he worries "that families identified as needing help were not actually getting the services they required and were promised." "The number of kids entering preventive services has declined slightly over the last two years," he explains. "It should be increasing astronomically if we are leaving so many more at home."

While he struggles to support his shocked and saddened staff, John Mattingly, commissioner of ACS, must also regain the faith of both the public and the families he serves. "I do not have an ideology," he tells the Times. "I believe that children do best in strong, forever families. If the birth family cannot be made safe, then another family should be a strong permanent family. But families that can be helped before they become dangerous to their children should be."

By Sarah Karnasiewicz

Sarah Karnasiewicz is a freelance writer and photographer based in Brooklyn, N.Y. Until recently, she was senior editor at Saveur magazine; prior to that she was deputy Life editor at Salon. She has contributed to the New York Times, the New York Observer and Rolling Stone, among other publications. For more of her work, visit and Signs and Wonders.

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