Upstream City #1: How investment in social supports and community can go further than family surveillance in New York City

Upstream City” by FPP Director Nora McCarthy ran as a column in The Imprint from 2022-2023.

On Dec. 30, New York City Mayor Eric Adams announced the appointment of his new child welfare commissioner by tweeting that “For too long, we have taken a downstream approach to children’s welfare, setting up too many kids — particularly in Black and Brown communities — for a lifetime of challenges.” Adams vowed that the city would “take an upstream approach for young New Yorkers at risk.” 
 
For city advocates focused on child welfare, the promise of an “upstream” approach was both exciting and a bit worrisome. An upstream approach could recognize that targeting community conditions and investing in family health can better serve the majority of families and improve the overall health of our city. At the same time, upstream has often been used to mean services that expand the footprint of child welfare agencies. Parent activists have rejected the notion that a system with the power to separate families — and that has been the agent of generations of traumatic loss and terror — should position itself as their locus of support.  

For city advocates focused on child welfare, the promise of an “upstream” approach was both exciting and a bit worrisome. Poverty, social isolation and lack of access to basic needs are major drivers of child welfare involvement. Black families in New York City, in particular, have borne the brunt of a policy approach that stresses and then punishes parents. An upstream approach could recognize that targeting community conditions and investing in family health can better serve the majority of families and improve the overall health of our city. Investment at the roots of family distress could lift families above survival mode and disrupt cycles of crisis and state intervention.

At the same time, upstream has often been used to mean services that expand the footprint of child welfare agencies. In 2018, the U.S. Children’s Bureau broke ground with a memo calling for primary prevention networks and approaches because it acknowledged that many families simply need peer support and “very basic concrete supports.” Yet models like ACS’ Family Enrichment Centers, or New York State’s new cash transfer program still rely on the child welfare system to engage with families. Parent activists have rejected the notion that a system with the power to separate families — and that has been the agent of generations of traumatic loss and terror — should position itself as their locus of support.  

In this new Imprint opinion series, I will explore the complexities of what an upstream approach might look like in New York City. Without question, tens of thousands of families each year are experiencing a terrifying investigation when, at most, they need access to basic resources and caring support. Just as intentional planning sharply reduced family separations in the city over the past 20 years, visionary leadership and partnership can shift our city away from surveillance and intrusion in stressed families and toward a new blueprint for direct investment in family health and networks of community care. 

I will examine what we’re trying to get upstream from, how this term relates to increasing calls for abolition, and what has already been tried, including the many pilots and small-scale approaches that have demonstrated positive impact but not been invested in. Emerging practices hold much to learn about building community care and addressing harm without dynamics of threat, coercion and loss of control. By taking a close look at New York City, I hope to offer Imprint readers across the country an opportunity to listen in on the conversation here as you think about family investments in your own communities. 

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Stepping back, let’s take a minute to situate ourselves. New York City’s child welfare system is enormous. It runs on a budget of more than $2 billion through contracts with dozens of private social service agencies, each carrying as many “cases” as many county systems across the country. This vast system impacts almost only Black and brown families. Citywide, almost 45% of Black and Latino children experience an investigation of their family by age 18. In a city where about 60% of kids are Black and Latino, they account for about 90% of children in the system. As ACS’ 2019 race equity plan documented, Black families are less likely than other families to be mandated to services in place of removal, are disproportionately separated and experience longer spans in foster care.

All of that is true even as New York City has a robust and longstanding advocacy community that has won unusual protections for families. The majority of families here have access to high quality legal representation. We have long made use of exemptions to protect some families from the harsh timelines in federal law governing termination of parental rights. And while many states are just beginning to develop systems of secondary prevention to keep children out of foster care, New York City spends $300 million annually on these programs. 

The city’s preventive array is often hailed nationally. It is presented by ACS leadership as a softer, voluntary alternative to state intervention. However, preventive services have come to function as mandated extensions of child protective investigations. Until 2007, fewer than half of families in prevention were referred through ACS investigations; currently, that number is 91% and only 2% of parents walk in. Some preventive staff I know say these services have become “foster care lite.” 

Despite this massive service investment, investigations hit all-time highs until the pandemic. Court-ordered supervision of families also shot up under our last commissioner. In 2018, more families entered into some form of court oversight than in any previous year. 

In short, NYC has expanded surveillance, but has not grappled with a real strategy to ensure that Black children, families and communities are safe. It has a system to intervene in crises but not a wider vision to support family flourishing. 

And, as with all crisis intervention, child welfare costs a lot. Considering that $2.2 billion would make child care free for all low-income New York families, the $1.2 billion that ACS spends on investigations and foster care/adoption alone could go a long way if redirected. 

This series of columns will be organized to reflect the societal scaffolding that surrounds all families. Family life is affected by state and city policies (like minimum wages), neighborhood infrastructure (libraries, playgrounds), the array of locally available services and supports, and the interpersonal networks that knit people together to take action. Every one of these levels impacts the likelihood that families will be able to cover their basic needs and cope with life’s setbacks. 

We know from research that policies like paid family leave have direct downstream effects. High rates of child welfare involvement emerge as a symptom when communities are under stress and duress. Investing in equitable family policy and neighborhood conditions can shift the entire bell curve of healthy family life. 

Looming over all of that is federal law, which for decades has incentivized child investigations and family separations while Congress has hollowed out welfare and afforded tremendous latitude to states to ransack the safety net to pay for punishment. But that’s a different column! Here we’ll look at how flexible federal dollars could be spent differently in NYC but mostly explore what’s possible even in the absence of major shifts at the federal level.

Likewise, it’s important to note that a great deal of families don’t need a report or support. Two-thirds of investigated families were cleared of any allegations in 2021 — and that’s before a higher legal standard of proof went into effect this January. So we’ll also look at avenues to limit reports. 

The goal is to share possibilities. In NYC during the pandemic, we saw a drastic drop in child welfare involvement without any indication that children were less safe. We also saw a tremendous outpouring of direct economic support and collective care to families. So many of us are asking: How can we sustain that investment in families, particularly Black families? How can we continue to build networks of collective care and action, and shift resources to target community conditions instead of targeting families? 

This series will seek to offer concrete information and a spirit of exploration so that families impacted, advocates, community groups and policymakers nationwide have even more tools to build their own vision for transformative change.


Read the Series: