The number of homeless children in New York City is rising and gaining public attention. The excellent five part series in the New York Times by Andrea Elliot (December 9-13, 2013) demonstrates the growing problem and increasing public concern. The relationship, however, between the increased number of homeless children and families and the decreased number of children in foster care needs further review.
The number of children living with their families in New York City’s homeless shelters rose from 5,000 in 1992 to 22,000 today. During the same time period, the number of children in New York City’s foster care system decreased from almost 50,000 to fewer than 12,000 today. The intersection of these two trends, first brought to my attention by Nina Bernstein, author of The Lost Children of Wilder, is important for the new administration and the general public to understand if we are to reduce the number of children and families suffering homelessness, keep the foster care population low and insure that children are safe and well cared for.
Beginning in the early 1990s parents whose children had been placed in foster care organized for the first time in history to pressure the Administration for Children’s Services to help families stay together rather than remove their children. Parents, mostly mothers, worked with their allies—lawyers, social workers, foundation officers, and three forward-thinking commissioners of ACS—to reform the child welfare system. As a result of pressure from parents and their allies, and the responsiveness of the commissioners, the child removal rate dropped dramatically and children who were in foster care returned home more quickly. In FY 1998 12,000 children were placed into foster care; in FY 2013 only 4,316 children were placed into care.
The problem is that families whose children were diverted from foster care did not receive the help they needed when their children remained with them. The Bloomberg administration was happy to save money by reducing the number of children entering foster care (at an average cost of $49,000 a child per year in 2010; an annual savings of $1.8 billion with 38,000 fewer children in care). But the Bloomberg administration did not use the lion’s share of the savings to increase the supports these vulnerable families needed. Services such as housing assistance, drug treatment, home visiting or child care that would enable a child to remain safely at home did not increase proportionately to the number of children who were diverted from foster care. In fact, many of these supports decreased. Preventive services for example, were provided to 33,022 children in FY 2008. Last year only 25,762 children received preventive services. Without the needed supports to families who might previously have lost a child to foster care, many families became more vulnerable, lost housing and in time became homeless.
As described by Andrea Elliot, subsidized housing also became less available to poor and vulnerable families. In 2004 the Bloomberg administration adopted policies that it mistakenly thought would reduce homelessness. The administration no longer gave homeless families priority access to public housing, Section 8 vouchers and subsidized city apartments. Instead, through a program called Advantage, the city provided short-term rent subsidies which soon ran out. When the subsidies ended more than a quarter of the families became homeless.
Public policy in New York City and across the nation promotes keeping families together as the first response rather than removing children and placing them into foster care. This policy is based on decades of research which documents that if children’s safety can be assured, they are better off with their families than in an out-of-home placement. The de Blasio administration needs to recognize the relationship between homelessness and the lack of support for families at risk of foster care. Affordable housing is essential for struggling families and so are quality services and jobs that improve a family’s functioning.
Reducing the number of children in foster care by 75% in the past 20 years is an extraordinary accomplishment for which ACS, parents and their allies should feel proud, especially when the national foster care population decreased by only 33% from its high point. But keeping children out of foster care without adequately helping their families, was a penny wise and pound foolish policy for which the de Blasio administration will now have to pay the bill.