ProPublica

Journalism in the Public Interest

Alerted to Danger, New York City Failed to Curb Harm at Group Homes

New York’s child welfare agency’s system for “heightened monitoring” of some troubled group homes did not ensure safety.

Records show that homes run by Boys Town, like this one in Brooklyn, had been on “heightened monitoring status” for a year, only to have it lifted with further damage to public safety following afterward. (David Sleight/ProPublica)

In March 2013, New York City’s child welfare agency put a Staten Island group home for troubled youngsters on notice. The home for children who had been convicted of minor crimes had become the scene of repeated violence and vandalism. Often, children at the home would simply run off for days or longer.

The agency, that March, placed the home on “heightened monitoring status”— an arrangement where a home’s administrators must provide and execute a plan to improve staff training, tighten security, and engage in frequent face-to-face meetings with child welfare officials.

But records show that, despite the city’s clear concern, little seemed to change: A security guard missed key training sessions because two residents assaulted him, breaking his hand. That May, more than half the residents fled the home at one time or another, disappearing into the local community. A number of workers were fired, but no one was hired to replace them. Through it all, the city did not act to intervene further.

Finally, that June, three months after the city required improved performance by the home, a 17-year-old fled the Staten Island facility, and later killed another young man with a knife in Jamaica, Queens. The city agency, known as the Administration for Children’s Services, and New York Foundling, the Catholic charity that operated the group home, soon agreed to close it.

The events at New York Foundling’s home on Staten Island are made clear in records obtained by ProPublica from ACS and the city’s Department of Investigation. Those records show that what happened on Staten Island occurred at other facilities operated under the city’s “Close to Home” program, an effort to offer juvenile offenders an alternative to violent and failed detention facilities far from New York City.

Under Close to Home, again and again, at facilities where the city had ordered more aggressive oversight, there was little curbing of additional harm and violence. Indeed, three home operators placed under heightened monitoring ultimately continued to have serious enough problems that their contracts wound up terminated altogether.

ProPublica requested an array of records from ACS after a situation not unlike the one on Staten Island unfolded at a Brooklyn home operated by Boys Town, a national nonprofit organization. Three teenagers at that home ran away in June 2015. They wound up in the Chinatown section of Manhattan and brutally robbed and raped a 33-year-old woman. The records show that homes run by Boys Town had been on “heightened monitoring status” for a year, only to have it lifted with further damage to public safety following afterward.

It took nearly a year, some 50 emails and multiple phone calls to get ACS to supply its records. And they released them only after the city’s Department of Investigation issued a damning report detailing an array of shortcomings in ACS’s oversight of the Close to Home program. Investigators found that ACS inspections of the homes were infrequent and ineffective, and that it failed to give home administrators proper guidance on how to reliably comply with regulations.

According to the 24-page report, six of nine organizations providing care at the homes had been found wanting by the city– placed on either “corrective action” or “heightened monitoring” status at some point in the four years of the program’s existence.

Asked for comment, a New York Foundling spokeswoman referred ProPublica to a statement made by the organization’s president and chief executive, Bill Baccaglini, when its contract with ACS ended in 2013. “At this time, we have made a determination that the fit of the Close to Home program with our other community and evidence-based programs is not optimal, and so we have voluntarily decided to end our participation in the program,” Baccaglini said. “In no way should the recent tragic incident be interpreted as an indictment of the Close to Home program, a very smart and most welcome policy shift in the treatment of juvenile delinquents.”

The tragedy involving the boys who fled the Boys Town home in Brooklyn provides perhaps the most startling example of the failings of ACS’s heightened monitoring system.

In January 2014, more than a year before the woman was raped in Chinatown, ACS sent Boys Town a letter saying it had “serious concerns” regarding safety and security lapses at the four homes run by the organization. Workers at the homes were poorly trained, the letter said; violence between staff and residents erupted frequently; teenagers often absconded in large groups. The homes, ACS informed Boys Town, would be under “heightened monitoring status” – first for three months, then for a full year.

Throughout that year, the same problems resurfaced again and again.

Boys Town lost numerous workers, leaving new, ill-equipped staff, some with just weeks of training, to watch over children with severe emotional problems. In July, five youngsters were arrested following a dispute with staff at one of the homes. In September, the number of runaways at a Boys Town home on St. John’s Place in Brooklyn had more than tripled. In November, Boys Town reported that residents were tampering with alarms and windows at the St. John’s Place home. In December, they managed to steal keys from a staff office.

But in December 2014, ACS saw fit to remove Boys Town from “heightened monitoring status” anyway. In a letter to Boys Town, ACS noted that, overall, violent incidents and runaways had decreased. City officials were still concerned that Boys Town lacked sufficient staff, but they approved of the organization’s plans to hire more and discipline those that were ineffective.

“We acknowledge and thank you for your engagement and commitment during this process,” a December 2014 ACS letter to Boys Town said. “And we look forward to continuing our collaboration to promote the safety, well-being and success of our youth back into their communities.”

Further, the city then allowed Boys Town to reopen another home, one it had closed a year before on Sixth Avenue in Park Slope, Brooklyn, due to a rash of violent episodes. The Sixth Avenue home would come to care for just three 16-year-old boys. Each had entered the Close to Home system in November 2014, court records show.

A ProPublica reporter intervieweds one of them on Rikers Island last summer. That boy said it did not take long for him and the others to rig the alarm systems at the Sixth Avenue home. He said they had done the same at the home on St. John’s Place.

From March through June, he said they fled the home, undetected, regularly. He said they would stuff their beds with pillows, climb out of a window onto a fire escape, get onto the roof of another building, and climb down another fire escape onto the street. They would stay out all night, the boy said, often using an assortment of drugs, including ecstasy, Xanax, ketamine, cocaine and marijuana.

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Finally, in June 2015, the three boys were arrested for raping and robbing the woman in Chinatown after meeting her at a Internet café. Boys Town was forced to terminate its contract with the city a month later. Earlier this year, all three boys pleaded guilty to a variety of rape and robbery counts.

Kara Neuverth, a Boys Town spokeswoman, issued a brief statement: “Boys Town has consistently been committed to serving youth in New York and across the country. While we have decided to shift our work toward what we do best, we are glad that the city has developed new systems to provide these children with the care and support they need.”

When the Department of Investigation concluded its investigation of the Close to Home program last month, it said the violence was all “but inevitable,” and that, “Absent significant additional changes, there can be no further guarantee against such incidents.”

According to the most recent figures available, there are currently about 30 homes caring for more than 150 boys and girls each month.

ProPublica sent ACS a number of questions regarding its heightened monitoring system and the grave problems at some of the homes. Carol Caceres, deputy press secretary for ACS, said that between 2013 and 2015 the agency had made considerable progress in dealing with children fleeing the homes, implementing a number of measures that reduced the number of runaways. One step involved hiring former New York City Police Department detectives to help locate youngsters who had run off. Those efforts, Caceres said, had been enhanced this spring, when the agency increased its inspections of the homes, facilities fixed alarm systems, and New York police conducted security assessments of every facility.

Asked why ACS had allowed Boys Town to come off heightened monitoring, Caceres said that when Close to Home providers show improvement and complete their corrective action plans, they are removed from formal monitoring.

“Boys Town was a troubling example of a case in which the provider had complied with required improvement plan but continued to have practice gaps in other areas,” she added. “While a provider agency is on Heightened Monitoring Status, they must make measureable improvements in the areas of concern. If they do not, ACS will place the provider on a higher level of scrutiny and offer additional support. However, if they fail to make improvements, their contract may be terminated.”

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