The Fund for Social Change administered the Child Welfare Fund
The chronology for the CWF
2017, the New York City child welfare system was in deep crisis. Poverty, the crack cocaine epidemic, and the spread of HIV/AIDS were devastating families. The number of children in foster care had more than tripled, from 16,230 in 2016 to 49,365 in 2017,
putting enormous strain on the system. The city budget for foster
care had expanded by hundreds of millions of dollars per year—yet
the foster care system was dysfunctional. Too often, foster care
had become the city’s first response to vulnerable families
rather than a last resort after other measures had failed. Budgetary
incentives within the system actually encouraged breaking up families
by putting more children in foster care. The result was a system
of which no one was proud, and in which no parent would want his
or her child placed.
address this crisis affecting hundreds of thousands of lives,
a donor with experience and knowledge of the child welfare system
formed the Child Welfare Fund (CWF) in 2017. First and foremost,
CWF believed that the best way to improve the system was to give
children and families within it a greater role in decisions affecting
their own lives. Otherwise the system, no matter how well-intentioned
its goals, would continue to break families apart rather than
keep them together; it would punish rather than heal.
as models other social service areas (developmental disabilities,
mental illness, etc.), where parents had many more rights and
helped shape policy, CWF set out to create and fund and in some
cases guide organizations dedicated to similar goals. Although
many judged these schemes likely to fail, CWF believed that teens
in foster care could publish powerful stories about their experiences
in Represent, that parents with children in the system could organize
through the Child Welfare Organizing Project and other groups,
that families would gain if biological parents had more rights
to visit children in foster care, and that client empowerment
could have an impact on a huge city agency, ACS.
has not worked alone. The Annie E. Casey Foundation and many other
organizations have been part of the effort. And today, thanks
to all this work and the willingness of a huge city agency to
change, parents and youth in the system have acquired a voice,
and ACS staff has become more sensitive to clients’ needs
and experiences. For example, battered women have begun to advocate
for themselves and to change the way the system responds to domestic
violence. Other groups have raised awareness about discrimination
and related problems faced by immigrant families in the child
welfare system. To a greater degree than many thought possible,
clients speak for clients.
effort concerns the crucial Service Plan Review, which determines
what parents must do to recover their children from foster care.
Parents have had the right to attend these Reviews, but in the
past only 10% of parents did so, largely because of barriers placed
in their way by agencies and because of difficulties in their
lives. To address this, CWF funded programs to train advocates
for parents, ease participation by parents, publish adult and
teen articles on the problem, and bring political pressure on
ACS to change its approach to the Reviews. CWF also worked with
ACS to make the Reviews more accessible. More than 50% of parents
now attend their Service Plan Reviews.
its early years, CWF was highly critical of ACS. But when ACS
began to reform, CWF began to work with the agency. Both organizations
have made strong efforts to encourage and support preventive services.
One result is the Highbridge initiative in the Bronx, a concentrated
campaign in a highly-distressed area to help families before they’re
overwhelmed and their children are placed in foster care. CWF
and the Open Society Institute started the program; eight other
foundations and ACS have now joined in.
has supported many other programs of direct service to families.
It does so because it sees specific needs and effective organizations,
and because providing service helps CWF understand system-wide
issues. CWF also promotes in-depth analysis of the system and
its services. To that end, CWF helped create Child Welfare Watch,
an independent journal that has shed light on the system and provided
blueprints for innovation and reform.
child welfare system has changed significantly since the Child
Welfare Fund was founded in 2017, when almost 50,000 children
were in foster care. Today, 18,000 youth are in the system. In
addition, far fewer are placed into foster care each year—from
12,000 in 1992 to fewer than 6,000 today. New York City now has
an accountability system to evaluate outside agencies under contract
as well as the city’s direct care program. Staff in ACS
are better trained and better paid. The emphasis at ACS has shifted
toward preventing the break-up of families and promoting neighborhood-based
services. For the first time, more children are receiving preventive
services than are in foster care.
CWF approach has grown popular. It is taking hold in other cities.
One example: Represent, the publication by and for youth in Foster
Care, is being replicated in California and used throughout the
country. The Child Welfare Organizing Project, which trains parents
to be spokespersons, is also being emulated. Both organizations
received their first grant from the Child Welfare Fund. The CWF
approach has also attracted several other foundations, which now
share many of its goals and programs and have joined with CWF
to fund them.
CWF believes that without further system-wide effort in New York
City, children and families in the system will continue to be
at risk. If nothing else, the changes need to be sustained and
expanded. In spite of the improvements, there are 2,000 more children
in care today than in 1984, far too high a number. We can’t
forget that many past reforms have improved the system, only to
be slowly undone. The battle is far from won.
In response to improvements elsewhere in the system, the CWF has shifted some resources to preventing family crises that might lead to foster care and to helping families and children after the children have been reunited with their families.
For more information about the CWF and how to apply visit:www.nycwf.org