By SEWELL CHAN
February 28, 2007
Nearly 500 child welfare caseworkers have graduated in the last two weeks, part of the surge in hiring by the Administration for Children’s Services since Nixzmary Brown, a 7-year-old girl in Brooklyn, was beaten to death on Jan. 11, 2006, prompting intense scrutiny of shortcomings at the agency.
Yesterday, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg shook hands with one of the two classes of graduates at a ceremony at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, telling them he will appeal to the State Legislature to enact laws and increase training to help them cope in a field that has been plagued by extremely high turnover.
About 240 new child protection specialists graduated at yesterday’s ceremony, joining the 246 who graduated on Feb. 16.
The two waves of graduates raise the number of frontline caseworkers to 1,210, up from the 896 caseworkers in January 2006. In addition to the caseworkers, the city has about 100 child protection specialists who work on nights and weekends or who focus on special investigations involving children already in foster care. But caseloads have not been significantly reduced, officials conceded.
“We haven’t come far enough,” Mr. Bloomberg told the new caseworkers, adding that Nixzmary’s death made the city resolve “to do all we could to prevent anything like it from occurring again.”
In a speech to the graduates, the mayor called on Albany to make assaulting a caseworker a felony. “This is a protection already granted to teachers, police officers and transit workers — why not to A.C.S. members?” he asked to great applause and cries of “That’s right.” In the last two fiscal years, five caseworkers have been assaulted while working.
Second, the mayor called on the Legislature to allow caseworkers for the first time to look up the criminal records of parents accused of abusing or neglecting their children.
Currently, the caseworkers who learn of allegations of criminal activity by a parent or guardian have to rely on the adult’s word or wait for the Correction and Police Departments to look for records.
John B. Mattingly, the commissioner of the Administration for Children’s Services since 2004, conceded that the child welfare system can often seem like a thicket of unwieldy bureaucracies.
But he said the agency’s mission could be summarized by four goals: making sure that every child who comes into contact with the agency will not “struggle alone with abuse or neglect”; that every family gets the help it needs to keep children safe; that every child gets services that the family cannot provide; and that every child who enters foster care will leave with “a strong, caring, committed family.”
Mr. Mattingly suggested that the new caseworkers call him directly if “you believe our agency is getting in the way of doing what you believe we should do, to accomplish those four goals.” He surprised them — and even some of the officials gathered with him on the stage at the college’s Gerald W. Lynch auditorium — when he asked them to write down his office and cellphone numbers.
The challenges the agency faces remain formidable.
The number of abuse and neglect reports soared after Nixzmary’s death, largely because of increased awareness of child welfare issues and training.
High turnover among caseworkers, who often become burned out or demoralized, has resulted in an annual attrition rate of 20 to 30 percent. New workers start with an annual salary of about $38,000. A state-run child protection database that city caseworkers are required to use has been widely derided as cumbersome and inefficient. Mr. Mattingly said the Spitzer administration was helping to resolve the problems in the database.
Mr. Mattingly cited improvements that have occurred since Nixzmary’s death. The city has revised the “instant response teams,” made up of police officers and caseworkers, who respond to the most severe cases of abuse. The agency has also hired 20 retired law enforcement officers — some 900 résumés were submitted — as “investigative consultants,” reporting to Susan Morley, a former deputy inspector at the Police Department.
The agency has restructured training for caseworkers and will open a Leadership Academy for Child Safety in April to give additional training to managers.