Audit Rips ACS as Agency that Puts ‘City’s Children in Harm’s Way’

Audit Rips ACS as Agency that Puts ‘City’s Children in Harm’s Way’

PHOTO: Stringer has released two audits of ACS in June. Courtesy of City Comptroller’s Office

By Michael V. Cusenza

Investigations characterized by City Comptroller Scott Stringer as “incomplete,” “inconsistent,” and “shoddy” put abused City kids at risk for years, according to a blistering audit of the Administration for Children’s Services released last week by Stringer’s office.

ACS, Stringer said, is potentially putting thousands of children “in harm’s way” by violating its own requirements on how to properly investigate allegations of abuse.

“After years of horror stories about children dying under their care and pledges by ACS to reform itself, our audit uncovered an unchanged agency, rife with mismanagement and bureaucratic inaction,” Stringer said. “No child should have to spend a single night in an unsafe home, and it’s government’s job to make sure that doesn’t happen. This agency must take responsibility for decades of inaction and make the desperately needed changes to protect our City’s most vulnerable residents.”

Auditors found multiple instances in which ACS regularly failed to conduct required check-ins with alleged victims of abuse or neglect on a regular basis, didn’t evaluate homes for signs of domestic violence, and ignored staff members’ concerns about being overburdened by high caseloads, Stringer noted.

According to the comptroller’s office, ACS investigates an average of 60,000 reports of child abuse and neglect each year through its Division of Child Protection. Each case is handled by a team consisting of a Child Protective Manager, a supervisor and a caseworker. Upon receiving a complaint, the team is expected to determine the safety risk level of every child in a household.

The audit probed ACS’s protocols for handling of child abuse and neglect allegations from July 1, 2013 through May 31, 2015 and examined a sample of 25 cases. Auditors focused on whether the agency had adequate controls over its processes to investigate allegations of child abuse, which included whether supervisors enforced its policies and procedures.

Among the major findings of the audit:

ACS did not properly oversee investigations of alleged child abuse, as required by the agency’s own policies, Stringer noted. During the course of an investigation, ACS staff must meet with children every other week to make sure that they are safe.

  • Out of 25 abuse cases reviewed, auditors found that these required regular meetings occurred in just one case. In the most egregious instance, as Stringer put it, no contact was made with a child for 31 days.
  • In one example an allegedly intoxicated father of a 15-year-old girl grabbed her by the hair and slapped her across the face, then threw the child’s mother to the floor, slapping and choking her – seriously injuring both the daughter and mother. However, instead of meeting with the teen every other week to ensure her safety, nearly a month passed between visits from the child’s caseworker.
  • In an investigation of neglect, a mother told caseworkers that her child was absent from school because of asthma, but didn’t provide any evidence to back up her claim. There was no record in ACS files that the caseworker had followed a supervisor’s directive to verify the child’s condition with their pediatrician and ensure the absence was due to asthma and not abuse or neglect.

ACS supervisors and managers are supposed to monitor how their staff tracks each abuse case on a regular basis, Stringer said. These reviews would allow supervisors and managers to assess the progress of investigations, offer guidance to case workers, and ensure children are removed from dangerous situations before tragedy strikes.

  • Auditors found that managerial reviews for two-thirds of “high-priority” cases – those that involve fatalities or families with a history of four or more prior instances of abuse – weren’t completed on time.
  • In a sample of 25 abuse cases, which should have been reviewed by supervisors 75 separate times, auditors found that 27 percent of reviews were late and 11 percent were never completed.

ACS guidelines require caseworkers to do a domestic violence screening for all families as part of an investigation. In another sample of 25 cases analyzed by auditors, nearly half involved some form of domestic violence, however:

  • In 16 of the 25 of the cases reviewed, however, auditors identified problems with ACS’s screenings. Issues included six cases in which there was no evidence that any screening took place and ten cases where screenings began, but were never completed.

According to Stringer, each ACS case worker is responsible for overseeing at least 10 cases, and typically conducts dozens of interviews per case to determine whether children are at risk. ACS policy requires case workers to take notes and enter them into a computer database – this helps case workers keep track of details, allows supervisors and managers to review progress, and ensures children aren’t left in unsafe homes.

  • Auditors found that staff did not keep any notes for 20 out of 25 cases; and in the five other cases, notes were conflicting, mixed with other information, or otherwise insufficient.

ACS employees repeatedly told auditors that staffing resources were not adequate to fully investigate all cases of child abuse and neglect. For each investigation, caseworkers are responsible for conducting safety assessments, interviewing dozens of witnesses, and conducting home visits. In addition to these duties, when necessary, caseworkers also set up additional services for children, testify in court, and work with contractors to place at-risk kids in foster care.

  • Caseworkers repeatedly told comptroller’s office auditors that staffing resources were inadequate to fully investigate all allegations of abuse and neglect. Employees were required to work 10-12 cases at a time – double the number they said they could reasonably handle.
  • Leadership at ACS claimed that the caseworkers’ workload was manageable, but could not show that it had any data to back up that claim.

Stringer said that ACS did not agree with the audit’s findings and continued to maintain that it is able to ensure the safety of children.

“Children are being left to suffer in abusive households, and in the face of this damning audit, ACS has the audacity to claim that everything is under control. With our children’s lives at stake, we simply cannot let this go on any longer,” he added.

“The de Blasio administration has invested over $122 million to strengthen the child welfare system, $50 million alone to increase staffing and training for those who carry out the critical work of protecting children,” agency spokeswoman Carol Caceres told The Forum. “ACS will continue to strengthen our administrative processes. However, it is important to note that in each of the 25 cases that the comptroller reviewed, the children involved are safe and the families have received appropriate services.”

ACS also questioned the durability of Stringer’s audit:

According to the agency, the ACS Division of Child Protection staff investigates over 60,000 reports of child abuse and neglect every year involving more than 80,000 children. In this report, the comptroller reviewed only 25 cases – an extremely small sample given the thousands of cases each year.

Additionally, ACS noted, the agency has among the lowest child protective caseloads in the United States. At 10.2 cases per CPS worker, the ACS 2015 average caseload remained under the internal target caseload of 12 cases per CPS worker. This target was set in accordance with a research-based and widely acknowledged standard developed by the Child Welfare League of America.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>