THE BLOG
11/30/2016 05:25 pm ET Updated Oct 16, 2017

A Better, But Still Broken, NYC Child Welfare System Means Another Child Murdered

Co-Authored by Jess Dannhauser, President and CEO, Graham Windham and Bill Baccaglini, President and CEO, The New York Foundling

On September 27th, Zymere Perkins was murdered. Zymere was only six years old when he was beaten and his lifeless body hung off a bathroom door. In the hours following his death, we learned that Zymere's abuse was reported on at least five occasions. However, in each instance, the Administration for Children's Services (ACS), the City Agency tasked with child abuse investigations, found no reason to remove Zymere from his mother. In the days following Zymere's death, the chorus demanding accountability and reform has grown. We know of at least 5 investigations launched by Governor Cuomo, NYC's Department of Investigations (DOI), NYC's Comptroller, Scott Stringer, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance and the internal investigation promised by ACS. As of today, a number of ACS employees, probably as many as seven, have been suspended pending the outcome of the investigation, and Mayor de Blasio announced that these suspensions are "only the first step."

Zymere Perkins' death is heartbreaking. The loss of any child is painful; a loss that could have been prevented is almost too much to bear. As CEO's of three of the oldest and largest charities serving New York City's children, we are determined to learn any lesson we can to protect children from harm. We stand with all New Yorkers in demanding accountability, and we want to see pragmatic and meaningful reform that truly protects children.

Working alongside ACS, we will muster our collective professional experience, call upon the best and brightest in our profession, and take a hard look at practices. We know that there is no margin for error - we know that a bad day, a missed sign, an unreturned phone call, a delayed visit, could potentially result in the loss of a child's life.

It is not unusual for our staff members to walk into dangerous situations, as do the caseworkers at ACS, armed only with a cell phone and a notebook. Our foster families care for many children who are in great pain. Together, we wade through the most complex of family circumstances, exacerbated by poverty, social isolation, racial segregation and, sometimes, serious mental illness. Around the clock, we engage parents and help them improve their own lives, as well as the lives of their children. We do so, always, with a close eye on the safety of children and our work has profound intergenerational implications.

While ACS should be held accountable for any mistakes and misjudgments made, the City must commit - as it is already doing - to additional investments that build on the lesson learned. We must also recognize that today's child welfare system overall is far different and much improved from the child welfare system of 20 years ago, when ACS was created.

New York City has made smart investments over two prior Mayoral administrations, and these investments have moved us forward significantly. Now, Mayor de Blasio has made a $100 million investment in the child welfare system, which will enable ACS and Commissioner Carrion to continue to invest in our work and to improve care of our children. Some examples of successes include:

  • The foster care population is the lowest it's been in decades as more children are being adopted and fewer are growing up without family.
  • Our preventive services system is helping families stay together, overcoming a historical gulf of distrust between families and the system by providing them with tools to succeed and closely monitoring their progress. This model is the envy of other cities around the country.
  • New York City is a national leader in implementing evidence based practices - programs based on measurable results - that are keeping more children out of harm's way.

We will surely learn more about the Perkins case in the days ahead. Mayor de Blasio and Commissioner Carrion have already announced thoughtful reforms, especially the guidance to schools, where signs of abuse can often be spotted early. We are eager to apply any additional lessons learned over the course of this investigation.

We must hold the City accountable for its role in Zymere's murder. Let's be transparent about our failures, learn from them, and make improvements. Let us also recognize an agency that literally saves thousands of lives every year, whose leadership and professionals are as dedicated as any we've seen in our decades of work in this field. All of us who do this work carry with us the pain of children we know who've been hurt by someone close to them. For all of those children, and for Zymere, we must come together to get this right. To be sure, the most effective way to do so is to build on what is right in our system, in our families and in our communities.