In November 1995, the death of six-year-old Elisa Izquierdo sparked controversy surrounding New York City's Child Welfare Administration—now known as the Administration for Children's Services (ACS)—for what was seen as a failure of the agency to intervene and save a child from her mother’s abuse. Eleven years later, ACS came under scrutiny once again when the abuse and death of seven-year-old Nixmary Brown drew intense public attention and media coverage critical of the city’s failure to prevent her murder at her father’s hands. More than a decade of reform separated these two incidents, yet these and other high profile cases have spurred urgent assessments of policy and practice in the world of child protection and services for families.
Founded in 1997, Child Welfare Watch (CWW) has long been involved in this debate. The Watch is a policy research project led by Andrew White at the Center for New York City Affairs, an institute based at the Milano School of International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy. Its semi-annual report, Child Welfare Watch, provides comprehensive information on child and family services in New York.
“The Watch follows the real-life impact of public policy and reform initiatives on families and the people who work with them,” says White. The report—and the project’s occasional news briefs published on the Center’s website—have been highly acclaimed as an information resource for practitioners working in social services and for its journalistic approach to investigating critical issues concerning New York City youth and families. It has been frequently quoted and referenced in forums surrounding child and family welfare services, from the New York Times to the Daily News, WNYC New York Public Radio, and many other media outlets.
According to White, Child Welfare Watch is meant to inform and improve the effectiveness of local programs and services provided by organizations and agencies that work directly with low-income and working-class families. The project provides information to a number of stakeholders, from service organizations and government officials to the media. “Many nonprofits, for example, use our data and information to more effectively target their services, fundraise for their own programs, or explain complicated issues to laypeople,” notes White.
The report also seeks to improve and address the role of media coverage in child welfare cases: “We work closely with reporters from major news outlets to improve their coverage of child welfare issues in New York City. We [help] reporters, editors, and producers in the daily press see the more nuanced and difficult problems that deserve attention, and we try to move them away from reflexive, scandal-focused coverage of child welfare issues. Scandals can help focus attention but they can also force politically inspired reforms, like a big increase in foster care placements that hurt families. We tell reporters they have to be careful and aware of the impact of their work.”
When Child Welfare Watch began, the average caseload per worker was remarkably high (in 1996, the average caseload was 24:1, whereas in 2010, the average caseload decreased to 9:1) and preventive support services for families were badly underfunded. Given these demands on the system, CWW emerged with the intent of helping to develop and introduce strategies for evaluating and implementing “best practices on the ground and [within] the neighborhoods where people live and work,” according to White. Over the years, the project’s focus has continued to inform strategies on the ground, while also seeking to inform policy-level decision making through objective analyses and reporting. One recent issue of CWW points to the need for educational and vocational resources for young adults still in foster care, noting that “nationally, four years after leaving care, one-quarter of former foster kids have been homeless, 46 percent have graduated from high school and fewer than 20 percent are self-supporting.”
The project has been supported by grants from foundations including the Child Welfare Fund, the Ira W. DeCamp Foundation, the Viola W. Bernard Foundation, and the Sirus Fund. The grants support two reporter-editors, a team of graduate student research assistants, and outside researchers as well as supplies, public forums, design, and printing involved in the research and production of Child Welfare Watch.
For more information about the project, visit www.newschool.edu/milano/nycaffairs/publications_cww.aspx, or go to the center’s homepage at www.centernyc.org.
Andrew’s advice in the areas of sponsored research and grant seeking: Think like an entrepreneur. Raising money is a big part of it, but if this kind of research is going to make a difference, it’s also about creating solid relationships with people in the media, community groups, and government.