The New York City Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) recently announced new contract awards to nonprofit agencies to provide preventive services; most are members of the Council of Family and Child Caring Agencies (COFCCA), a statewide association that I have headed for the past 20 years. The intent of preventive services is to support families who have experienced challenges in caring for their children in cases where ACS has found that, with the right supports, children can be kept safely at home and out of foster care. The key to success in preventive services is the development of a solid, trusting relationship between the parents, the caseworkers, and related staff.
The new contracts were awarded through a rigorous request for proposals (RFP) process mandated by the City Charter and applicable laws. And therein lies a major problem. Because the result is that some current provider agencies will no longer be funded to provide these services, while other agencies with existing contracts may continue to do so but, in many instances, they are to be assigned to serve families in different communities. There will be months of upheaval as agencies close down in a community, some workers will move to new assignments, and some will resign and seek other jobs.
Good or bad as all of that will be, it shouldn’t be the main focus. The real and deeply disturbing problem with this required RFP process is that thousands of New York City families who are working hard to improve life for their children will, in effect, need to start the process over. They will be told that their case worker is gone, but “don’t worry, you’ll get a new one.” They will be told that they will no longer be with the agency that they have been working with (and in many cases chose for themselves) and will instead be working with a new, perhaps unknown, agency. Trust and real relationships, the core of the preventive work, will cease. New workers and new agencies will try to rebuild it, but trust, once broken, is hard to re-establish. ACS and the preventive services agencies will all diligently try to make these transfers as seamless as possible, but it will in no way be enough.
How would you react if, while doing what ACS and maybe a Family Court judge told you would enable to you to keep your children, the “system” somehow changed its mind? No, that agency is no longer able to help you, although they will be re-assigned to another community to help families there. Why? Well, because the current agency scored enough points in a review of a written proposal to win a new contract somewhere else, but they didn’t score well enough to deserve a contract to stay in your neighborhood to finish helping you.
RFPs are good ways for government to be sure it’s getting the best product at the best cost. They work for re-paving streets and buying paper and equipment for office workers. Is it the best way to choose these social services providers? Absolutely not. Ironically, over the past 20-plus years ACS has developed sophisticated measurement systems to determine which providers are meeting dozens of both performance and outcome goals, and the agencies work hard to meet those targets. Does that matter in this process? Very little or not at all. What matters is how well written a proposal is as scored only by City staff who, in all likelihood, have never visited your community or seen the work of the agency. There simply has to be a better way.
None of this is to say that all current providers should be guaranteed the contracts they have forever. ACS does – and should – monitor every aspect of performance. When they find that performance is lacking, they take active steps to remedy the problem. These measures include heightened monitoring, reducing the size of the contract, or terminating it. In fact, after the last RFP nine years ago, ACS awarded contracts to 65 agencies. The current number is 40. A few of these agencies merged, but most of this reduction is attributable to contracts that were terminated for less-than-adequate performance as determined by ACS.
At a minimum, agencies with a solid track record serving families in a specific neighborhood which are deemed to be eligible for new contracts should be able to stay where they are, while new providers are assigned to communities where the existing provider failed to meet whatever criteria the City deems appropriate. Anything less is leaving families to fail.
Instead, in the coming weeks there will be many plans and meetings, people will resign or be laid off from their jobs, agencies will close offices while other agencies hire new staff and rent new offices. The world will move on. But the families, who must meet new, perhaps less-experienced and less-trained staff who will attempt to convince them anew that they are on the right track to improving their parenting, will suffer — and their children will too. This is not the state-of-the-art approach New York City should be proud of.
We call on the mayor and City Council to consider whether the RFP process makes sense for human services contracts, like foster care and preventive services, and whether the City Charter and other regulations couldn’t be changed to create a new system. Because we need a new system that’s fair to the City, allowing it to weed out underperforming agencies’ that’s fair to current and new service providers, allowing new service models and minimizing wasted time and resources; and most importantly, that’s fair to families and children, and that ensures safety, strengthens communities, and maximizes the potential of all New Yorkers.
Jim Purcell is the President and CEO of the Council of Family and Child Caring Agencies. This article was originally published by Urban Matters.