NYC children's agency adds staff to tackle larger load

Monday, December 11, 2006

NEW YORK -- In the year since a 7-year-old was found beaten to death in a rodent-infested room in her family's apartment, the city's child welfare agency has improved staffing, case tracking and coordination with other city agencies.

At the same time, however, it has seen an extraordinary increase in the number of child abuse and neglect reports, the agency says in a progress report due for release today. The Administration for Children's Services has received about 64,000 reports of abuse and neglect this year -- up about 33 percent from last year.

"We've dealt with a challenge that I have never seen the like of anywhere in the country -- a huge explosion in the number of reports," agency commissioner John Mattingly said.

Several agencies, including schools and police, knew about the living situation of Nixzmary Brown before she died, and several employees of the child welfare agency were suspended for failing to respond aggressively to reports of problems at her home. Her stepfather, Cesar Rodriguez, and mother, Nixzaliz Santiago, have pleaded not guilty to murder, manslaughter and other charges in her death.

Children's Services leaders weren't surprised that reports spiked after the highly publicized death in January. But the increase in reports apparently wasn't temporary. The numbers dipped during the summer but rose again, partly because school resumed -- school officials now face specific timeframes for investigating pupil absences.

It has become easier to report abuse, partly because the city's 311 information line operators will transfer calls to the appropriate hot line, said Sharman Stein, a Children's Services spokeswoman. She also said a new ombudsman's office has become a resource for callers who want to follow up on cases.

The agency is better equipped to deal with the increase after several initiatives to improve responses, plus an additional $16 million in funding from the city. And while it had fewer than 900 caseworkers at the end of last year, it expects to have 1,300 by early next year, Mattingly said.

"To the credit of ACS ... it's a lot easier to report than it used to be," said City Councilman Bill de Blasio, who chairs a committee that oversees the child welfare agency. "I also think a lot of us, whether it's the council or ACS, have tried to keep people focused even after the tragedy. I believe this higher-level reporting is much more reflective of what's going on."

De Blasio expressed concern about attrition at the agency; some months, 25 or more workers left, though others were being hired.

"This is very tough work," he said. "If they can't hire as quickly as they lose people, it'll be hard to keep the ratio down."

Another challenge has been keeping the caseload down. By the end of the summer the average was 12 per worker, but it has since edged up to about 15 cases per worker citywide. Nonetheless, that's an improvement from the average of 21 that the smaller staff handled in the spring, according to the report.

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