Organizations Representing the Majority of Children and Parents in the City's Child Welfare System Pledge to Continue to Assist in Meaningful Reform
Legal service providers gathered Wednesday to denounce the state’s proposed settlement of a suit filed on behalf of foster children. From left, Mary Anne Mendenhall, Bronx Defenders; Stacy Charland, Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem; Lauren Shapiro, Brooklyn Defender Services; Tamara Steckler, Legal Aid Society; Susan Jacobs, Center for Family Representation; and Karen Freedman, Lawyers for Children. NYLJ/Rick Kopstein

The seven legal services organizations, representing the majority of children and parents in the City's child welfare system, met at the headquarters of The Legal Aid Society to express their concern over New York State's announcement of a proposed settlement of the lawsuit of the claims against the State in Elsa W.

The organizations said that the City's foster care system needs reform, but that their organizations have joined ACS committees and working groups dedicated to reforming the agency. "We are convinced that the proposed settlement, which adds redundant layers of oversight including the use of a Court-order monitor, will delay and distract from the focus necessary to achieve meaningful reform," they said in a statement. They also expressed concern that the State has surrendered the due process rights of vulnerable foster care children by prohibiting foster children from suing the State to secure systemic reform regarding their treatment in foster care.  It would preclude all attorneys for children from utilizing the tool of impact litigation against the State to protect our clients' rights.

The seven organizations are The Legal Aid Society, Lawyers for Children, Children's Law Center, Bronx Defenders, Center for Family Representation, Neighborhood Defender Services, and Brooklyn Defender Services.




The New York Law Journal
Legal Providers Critical of Foster Care Pact with State 
By Andrew Denney
October 22, 2015 

Legal service providers on Wednesday denounced the terms of a proposed settlement  of a class action suit in which the state has agreed to hire a monitor to review New York City's foster care system.

The class action, Elisa W. v. City of New York, 15-cv-5273, was brought by New York City Public Advocate Letitia James and 10 foster children in July.

The city and its Administration for Children's Services (ACS), the state and its Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS), and the heads of those agencies are named as defendants.

The state has entered into a settlement agreement but the city and ACS did not sign the consent decree and thus the case against them will move forward.

Speaking at a news conference at the Legal Aid Society's Manhattan office, representatives from various legal service agencies not involved in the litigation said a state-appointed monitor would add an unnecessary layer of oversight to the system, noting the state already has regulatory oversight of the city's child welfare agency.

"I don't see the need for another bureaucratic layer that will only serve to slow down the system," said Tamara Steckler, attorney-in-charge of Legal Aid's Juvenile Rights Practice.

The legal service providers also said the consent decree, filed on Tuesday, would cause foster children to surrender their due process rights. They said the agreement contains a covenant that prevents additional foster care-related class-action suits against the state while the agreement is in effect.

Joining Legal Aid in deriding the agreement were Lawyers for Children, the Children's Law Center, the Bronx Defenders, the Center for Family Representation, Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem and Brooklyn Defender Services. They collectively represent more than 90 percent of the children and parents in the foster care system, the representatives said.

According to the suit, children spend twice as much time in the city's foster care system as children in foster care in the rest of the country and that, according to federal data, it takes longer for the city to return children to their parents than it takes other government foster care systems.

Additionally, the plaintiffs allege, the more than 11,000 children in city foster care, which make up the majority of the foster children in the state, are subjected to a system with "one of the worst rates of maltreatment in foster care of any jurisdiction in this country."
"Foster care is supposed to be safe and temporary," the suit contends. "For children in New York City's foster care system, it is neither. Children in New York City's foster care system are in one of the most dangerous foster care systems in the country, and they spend longer in foster care than do foster children almost anywhere else in the country."

As part of the settlement agreement, the state's monitor would be retained for three years. The state also would appoint a research expert to review confidential case files. If the monitor or the researcher finds that the agency broke laws or regulations, they can set forth corrective action plans.

James said in an email to the Law Journal that the settlement would bring critical reforms. "We can no longer wait for change at a glacial pace when our most vulnerable children are suffering."

Southern District Judge Laura Taylor Swain  must approve the settlement.

Lauren Shapiro, attorney-in-charge of the Brooklyn Defender Services Family Defense Practice, said Wednesday the suit is based on "faulty premises," such as its focus on the length of time that children remain in the foster system. "Any reform effort based on the premise of the lawsuit, we think is wrong," she said.

The legal services providers did not deny that the city's foster system needs reform, but said that their organizations have joined ACS working groups dedicated to reforming the agency in areas like housing and school stability for foster children, and that more resources should be provided to social services for the clients they represent.

Steckler said the plaintiffs have focused too much on how the data for New York City's foster system compares with other jurisdictions, which may include suburban and rural areas and places where there is less poverty, and that comparing the data to other locales can be like comparing "apples to oranges."

"The names and faces behind the data have the complicated, complex story of all families," Steckler said. "None of them or their cases fit into neat categories."

Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of A Better Childhood and counsel for the plaintiffs in Elisa W., said that while the agreement would prevent further class action suits while in effect, it allows for individuals to bring suit against the state.

With regard to the appointment of a monitor, Lowry said the current system has little oversight and "what oversight it has is poor."

"Anyone who thinks that this is a well-run system is not in the majority," she said.

Cravath, Swaine & Moore partner Julie North and associate Nicole Peles are also representing the foster children in Elisa W.  North was unavailable for comment Wednesday.

Monica Mahaffey, an OCFS spokeswoman said in an email that while the agency appreciates "the views of non-parties to the litigation," it has a statutory obligation to protect children in the state's foster care system.

"The settlement agreement provides further supports for appropriate oversight of the system in New York City, which is the only system that contracts out case management services to third party vendors," Mahaffey said.



Daily News
EXCLUSIVE: New York City foster care system to see big reforms as Gov. Cuomo settles Public Advocate's lawsuit
BY Jennifer Fermino
October 20, 2015

The state agreed to a series of reforms aimed at improving the lives of thousands of kids stuck in the city’s dysfunctional foster care system in a new legal settlement announced Tuesday.

The settlement follows a lawsuit that children’s rights advocates and Public Advocate Letitia James filed against the city and state, alleging widespread mismanagement that leads to huge delays finding kids a home.

New York City is one of the slowest foster care systems in the country when it comes to reuniting kids with their families.

In addition, kids spend more than twice as long on average in foster care in New York City than kids in other parts of the country.

Under the terms of the deal, the state will hire a monitor to work with James’ office to evaluate the system and suggest improvements.

That monitor will also work with “A Better Childhood,” the advocacy group that sued along with the Public Advocate.

The state will pick up the bill.

The lawsuit alleged that the city’s Administration for Children’s Services, headed by Commissioner Gladys Carrion, pictured, dragged its feet in finding homes for kids.

It will also require the city — which administers the system — to hire a “research expert” to conduct case record reviews once a year.

"This case is about compassion and the true nature of human justice,” Cuomo said in a statement. “I am proud that we are taking this action, because it is the right thing to do."

James said the settlement will help right some of the long-standing problems that have hurt the close to 11,000 kids in foster care.

“Our agreement with the State will result in real reform and oversight,” she said. “This is a big step forward to protecting our most vulnerable children.”

The settlement does not bring a close to the case, however. New York City and the Administration for Children’s Services, which were both named in the suit, have not agreed to the terms and that portion of the suit will move forward.

But the state oversees the city, so it can implement the changes it agreed to without the city’s approval.

“The issues raised by this settlement are already being addressed by ACS' aggressive efforts to protect New York City children and continuously improve . . . services for our children and families,” said city spokeswoman Ishanee Parikh.

The LegalAid Society said it is “concerned’ the settlement will hinder some of the reforms it is working on with the city.

“We will be reviewing the document carefully over the next few days to ascertain its effect on our clients,” said Tamara Steckler.

James reaches settlement with state in foster care suit
By Laura Nahimas
Oct. 20, 2015

A little more than three months after she filed a federal class-action lawsuit against city and state child protective services agencies alleging mismanagement in foster care, Public Advocate Letitia James on Tuesday announced she had reached a settlement with the state, but not the city.

Its terms include a provision requiring the state’s Office of Children and Family Services to install a new monitor to oversee the Administration for Children's Services, a city agency it already oversees. But the settlement may also mark the newest chapter in an ongoing proxy war between Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio.

The city and ACS were left out of the settlement agreement entirely. In an important detail relegated to the last line in a press release issued Tuesday announcing the settlement, the Public Advocate's office revealed that her office is still, in fact, suing the city and ACS.

“The City of New York and ACS are not parties to the agreement, and that portion of the lawsuit will move forward in Court,” the release said.

A spokeswoman for James said that Cuomo’s office reached out to the public advocate immediately after she filed the lawsuit in early July, at the height of de Blasio’s feud with Cuomo.

Cuomo's office and even the governor himself quickly responded as soon as James filed the lawsuit, a spokeswoman for her office said Tuesday.

The governor, she said, wanted to reach an agreement quickly, and negotiations began faster than James's office expected, she said.

Under the terms of the settlement, the state will appoint a monitor for at least three years, who will produce twice-yearly reports on the city’s foster care system. The settlement also requires the city to appoint a research expert, selected with help from the state and the plaintiffs in the case, to review individual child welfare cases. If either monitor finds any problems or failure to comply with the laws, the monitor will submit reports outlining the deficiencies to the city and the courts, and can require the city to submit clear plans and timetables for corrective action.

In response to the lawsuit, ACS has repeatedly said that the problems raised in the initial 111-page complaint cannot be solved through litigation.

"All of the issues raised by this settlement are already being addressed by ACS’ aggressive efforts to protect New York City children and continuously improve and increase services for our children and families,” ACS spokesman Christopher McKniff said in an emailed response to the settlement announcement.

“Advocates for children and families throughout the city are collaborating closely with ACS in this process, and the administration will continue to diligently move forward in implementing these improvements," he said.

Some child advocacy organizations criticized the lawsuit when it was filed as unnecessary, saying it could be potentially harmful to clients.

On Tuesday, Tamara Steckler, the attorney-in-charge of the juvenile rights practice at the nonprofit Legal Aid Society, a group that represents roughly 90 percent of the children who appear in the city’s family court system, said she had not been consulted about the settlement among James’s office, the plaintiffs and the state.

“Preliminarily, we are concerned that the settlement will distract from the constructive reform efforts currently underway in the City,” Steckler said in an emailed statement to POLITICO New York.

“As we were not consulted on the terms of the settlement, we will be reviewing the document carefully over the next few days to ascertain its effect on our clients.”

The settlement was reached in an extraordinarily short period of time. A study published in 2010 by the American Bar Association showed the median length of time it took to reach settlement agreemens in civil rights class-action lawsuits was 45 months, or almost four years.