Upstream City #3: How Neighborhood Conditions Drive Child Welfare Involvement

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

In 2016, South Bronx Rising Together ran student absence numbers for schools in the Morrisania neighborhood and found that 40% of kids were missing a month of school or more each year. 

In 2018, United for Brownsville learned that the Brooklyn neighborhood had very low rates of enrollment in Early Intervention services, which support kids under 3 to reach developmental milestones. 

While it wasn’t the goal of either organization, both unearthed key opportunities to prevent child welfare involvement. Both situations can put families at risk of an investigation. School absences can trigger an educational neglect allegation. So can developmental issues that go undiagnosed, such as babies being underweight or parents struggling with kids’ challenging behaviors. Mandated reporters frequently call the abuse and neglect hotline on parents that seem “overwhelmed” with family challenges even when they don’t suspect maltreatment. 

These organizations have close relationships with parents and providers in their communities and dug in to learn more. 

In Morrisania, they learned that asthma was a significant factor in school absences. Ensuring access to better medical care could improve school outcomes for kids. So could lowering asthma risks, such as pollution and infested apartment buildings. 

In Brownsville, they learned that referral rates to early intervention services were low. Pediatricians and other providers weren’t suggesting services to families.   

In both cases, neighborhood conditions were at the root of children’s challenges. Families’ access to health, not parents’ choices, needed to be addressed first. 


Going “upstream” to target conditions instead of individual families is about sifting deeper to understand how neighborhood conditions impact families and addressing the conditions that raise the risk of child welfare involvement. Decades of research has documented that neighborhoods impact a wide range of health outcomes. Even side-by-side communities with similar demographics can have very different health profiles, including rates of child abuse and neglect, domestic violence, asthma, teen pregnancy and crime. 

This holds true even as residents move in and move out. Neighborhoods exert their own influence. That’s visible in New York City, where the 15 neighborhoods that drive child welfare involvement have remained largely the same for two decades. 

Well-kept playgrounds, quality health and mental health providers, converging transportation lines that put jobs within reach, and even a shady canopy of trees — all of these intangibles ease the burden on parents. Neighborhood greenspaces enhance children’s cognitive functioning and social well-being. Libraries and safe places to play give parents a breather. 

One participant in a study about the built environment and child maltreatment summed it up bluntly: 

“They’ve got [to have] a place to go to…Like a computer room for the kids… swimming … Have something to do…[s]o they won’t be all in their [parent’s] face and hair all the time about every little thing. It can be aggravating…It really can be.” 

A father noted that family joys come easier when community life is well-resourced: 

“[T]hings in the community, [like] parks…just getting out and walking with your kids, jogging, different things like ice cream [shops], a lot of things that are just outlets for, you know, mentally going crazy. So, you just gotta keep yourself occupied and you know, also keep your kids on the same level.”

Parents who have money and time are able to select neighborhoods for their families that come closest to hitting “the package deal”: a spacious home, good schools and local amenities. These families also have the means to buy into privatized family supports — YMCAs, pricey indoor playspaces and baby music classes, and parks and schools enriched by money-raising PTAs and “Friends of Parks” associations. 

Low-income families, by contrast, move often and in a hurry, responding to “shocks” like a job loss or an apartment that becomes uninhabitable because of landlord neglect. They must prioritize immediate needs — any affordable apartment close to jobs and child care. This is particularly true for New York City families locked out of market rents and trying to find a landlord who will take a city voucher. Paradoxically, the families most dependent on neighborhood amenities to enhance their quality of life must make do with the conditions wherever they land. 

These neighborhood conditions that support healthy family life are recognized by New York City planners. A 2008 report from the city’s Planning, Health and Economic Development departments spelled out the health and stress impacts of living far from grocery stores and in 2018 the city launched an incentive program to attract grocery stores. Likewise, the city’s planning department strives for walkable parks in every community and an optimal ratio of 2.5 acres of open space per 1,000 residents.

Even so, in Brownsville, the open space ratio is .64 acres per 1,000 residents, approximately one-fifth the proposed benchmark. It is one of the top 10 districts citywide for child welfare involvement. Similarly, seven out of 10 New York City districts with the highest rates of foster care entries in 2019 were considered underserved by grocery stores. 

These inequitable conditions are not happenstance. As the Department of Health documented, they reflect the legacy of redlining and decades of racist deprivation and disinvestment. While economic growth and gentrification have reshaped much of Manhattan and Brooklyn, the six Bronx neighborhoods with the highest percentage of residential land classified as “hazardous” under redlining are those with the highest number of investigations and removals today. 

New York City does not have an intentional, coordinated plan to address neighborhood health inequities that make family life precarious. Instead, the city depends on nonprofits with deep ties and an organizing mentality, like Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation and the Center for Family Life in Sunset Park, to cobble together dozens of city contracts to take on planning for their communities. It also depends on low-income families with the least time and resources to hold the burden of advocating for utterly basic needs, like broken and missing sidewalks on the North Shore of Staten Island and unsafe playgrounds in Corona and Elmhurst, Queens. 

Building sturdy scaffolding to redress neighborhood neglect requires more than grassroots hustle. United for Brownsville got Early Intervention results when it hired a passionate outreach coordinator to assist providers with referrals and built a welcoming space to host appointments. Within a year, the referral rate for Black families rose by almost 30% and by 2021 its rate of successful referrals far outpaced the city average. 

But in Morrisania, while South Bronx Rising Together successfully raised children’s school attendance rates by offering parents an incentive — free donuts and coffee — the group has not undertaken the grueling, political work of improving asthma care or conditions. 

Equity planning is the role of city government. Too often, it’s the neighborhoods least resourced to address disinvestment that hold the most responsibility for battling its effects, leaving families at the mercy of geography. 


It’s possible to map patterns of child welfare involvement down to the block and examine the protective assets and barriers in families’ environment that could be addressed by city planning. The city has begun to use this approach around community safety, and has committed to distributing new child care slots to neighborhoods most in need — which are largely the communities with the highest child welfare impacts. 

Neighborhood neglect is the opposite of “upstream” investment. Rough conditions act as an undertow, sweeping precarious families into deeper waters. The costs — for families, and in dollars — are high. By making investments now that can reduce crisis spending later, New York City can shore up the firmaments of neighborhood health and family life.

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