Exclusive: New ACS Commissioner Outlines Plan

Ron Richter heads an agency that gets 60,000 calls a year about child abuse and neglect.

By Melissa Russo
|  Tuesday, Dec 20, 2011  |  Updated 7:49 AM EDT
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The new commissioner of the city's child welfare system has a tough job ahead of him -- the agency receives some 60,000 calls a year reporting child abuse or neglect, and like all city agencies, the department has to manage with a tight budget. Melissa Russo reports.

NBC New York

The new commissioner of the city's child welfare system has a tough job ahead of him -- the agency receives some 60,000 calls a year reporting child abuse or neglect, and like all city agencies, the department has to manage with a tight budget. Melissa Russo reports.

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The new commissioner of the city's child welfare system has a tough job ahead of him -- the agency receives some 60,000 calls a year reporting child abuse or neglect, and like all city agencies, the department has to manage with a tight budget.

Commissioner Ron Richter sat down recently for an exclusive interview with NBC New York and said one of his top concerns is that one-third of the agency's calls are repeat complaints.

That suggests that whatever the Administration for Children's Services did the first and second time on those calls didn't work -- and that children might still be suffering.

"Once we've been there we really shouldn't have to come again," he told NBC New York. "If a family keeps coming back to us it may be that the way that we intervened didn't actually have the effect we wanted it to have."

Improving child abuse prevention is one of several priorities outlined in Richter's new plan as he takes over the agency. Another is ensuring the safety of babysitters 

Thousands of city parents receive taxpayer-funded vouchers to bring their children to informal day care providers, like a neighbor who watches kids in her home. But state law actually blocks ACS from doing full background checks on those informal providers.

"We spend $300- or $400 million a year on this. but we have very serious limits on how we can check if the neighbor is in fact a felon," he said.

Richter's main job is protecting children. But he says he's also extremely concerned about protecting his caseworkers..

Caseworkers have to show up alone, knocking on doors of homes plagued with domestic violence and drugs, asking questions about what kind of parenting is going on. These caseworkers are generally not well received. 

ACS tells NBC New York that assault on ACS caseworkers is a problem.

Dozens of times a year, family members unhappy with ACS's involvement get violent.  Just last month an angry grandmother knocked a worker to the ground after a decision to keep her granddaughter in foster care. 

"Assault a bus driver and it's a felony and it should be," Richter said. "Assault a child protective specialist and it is not a felony."

Richter says he will fight to change that.

And as he picks up the job of keeping children and his workers safe, Richter plans to hire another 60 investigative consultants -- former detectives who will advise ACS caseworkers on their investigations. It will bring to 100 the total number of such consultants in the department.

He also is planning a new intensive effort on teenagers, amid an increase in cases to the ACS hotline about teens and parents having trouble managing them.

Part of that plan includes a pilot program that envisions social workers spending considerable time in homes where there is trouble with teens, helping parents get control. The pilot begins in Manhattan and the Bronx and will be expanded next year.

The goal is to prevent teens from coming into foster care, keeping them home with their families.

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