The worrying welfare of ACS workers

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With her resignation as the commissioner of the city’s Administration for Children’s Services late last year, Gladys Carrión joined a talented group of child-welfare leaders who saw tragic deaths of children on their watch.

Both Nicholas Scoppetta and John Mattingly – heads of ACS during Rudy Giuliani’s and Michael Bloomberg’s tenures, respectively – oversaw workforces that seemingly bungled the cases of Elisa Izquierdo, Nixzmary Brown and Marchella Pierce who, like Zymere Perkins, were terribly abused and mistreated before they died.

With the appointment of an independent monitor, and later this year a new commissioner, more reforms might be on the horizon.

But I have a grim prediction: There will be unexpected deaths on these new leaders’ watches, too – quite possibly of children, but also of child-welfare workers.

I make this prediction based on grim facts from my experience as an ACS consultant over the past 20 years, developing with others a training program for 1,500 supervisors and managers as well as executive coaching and team building.

Some in the city conjure an image of ACS workers as can’t-be-bothered bureaucrats who sit around and collect their paychecks while children are at grave risk of abuse.

The supervisory staff I got to know were smart, hardworking and committed to the agency mission of protecting children. All worked at least a 40-hour week, many far more.

Most were African-Americans who saw the agency’s children as their own. The majority were deeply religious, viewing this as their calling to do God’s work.

Yet horrible staff deaths occurred – caused, as far as I could tell, by the burden of doing the job and a lack of consistent support.

Case in point: One day I was set to meet with ACS’ assistant commissioner for the west part of Brooklyn. Turned out, the borough office manager had dropped dead. The meeting was canceled.

Two weeks later, another meeting was canceled. The assistant commissioner’s deputy director, a woman I had watched effortlessly give a presentation a month earlier, had been hospitalized.

Only in her 40s, she was expected to pull through and be back at work in two weeks, and until then the office staff had to increase their work loads.

She didn’t pull through. Suffering from a rare blood disease, she died a month later. Her doctor noted that her immune system was so worn down from stress that she did not have the strength to combat what an average 40-year-old should have.

Given such losses, I pushed for a meeting to discuss staff well-being. The assistant commissioner arrived late. It turned out that two ACS staffers had had car accidents the previous day.

Two car accidents among a staff of 20? I asked the assistant commissioner to check with her five office directors for a quick tally. The results: In a three-month period, from among 250 or so employees, nine staff members had been hospitalized and 14 had had car accidents or broken arms or sprained ankles due to falls.

Child-welfare staffers are neither chronically bad drivers nor inherently clumsy. Rather, in my view, the vicious cycle of staff commitment and child crises breeds exhaustion, stress and accidents that result in more crises, understaffing and overwork for those who remain.

Here’s my recommendation for the new ACS leadership, if they want kids to be truly protected: Don’t begin with more oversight pronouncements. Instead, try to implement two reforms.

One, mandate that any worker who has to remove a child from the home receive counseling and care to relieve the secondary trauma each removal creates. Police officers who discharge guns get counseling; so should ACS workers.

Second, convene city, state and federal officials to review the duplicative, out-of-date and often irrelevant oversight mechanisms that leave too many workers bound to their desks and not with the children and families they seek to serve .

Great leaders and dedicated staff on their own cannot end the deaths of all children at risk. They will do far better when a mix of better funding and greater accountability is combined with a genuine belief that people in child welfare matter: not only the children and their parents, but the very people we pay to keep families safe.

Burghardt, MSW, Ph.D., is a professor of social work at the Silberman School of Social Work-Hunter College and a human services consultant and trainer.

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