Back to press

A Broken Wheelchair and Clothes that Don’t Fit: Judge Holds New York City Child Welfare Commissioner in Contempt Over Agency’s Treatment of Disabled Teen

imprint logo

by Michael Fitzgerald

In late 2017, a teen with severe disabilities found himself in New York City’s temporary shelter for foster youth. His doctor soon recommended a new wheelchair to replace his broken one. His school recommended physical therapy to address his impairments. The 17-year-old had also outgrown his clothes and shoes, and asked for things that fit.

Meanwhile, a family friend was available to take the boy out of the crowded shelter and into his home.

Despite a judge’s repeated orders to make these things happen, the city’s child welfare agency and the boy’s school hadn’t followed through on any of them by late January of this year. They may not have followed through on them still today. And in a clear sign of frustration, the judge held the child welfare agency’s director in contempt.

Judge Emily Olshansky hit David Hansell, commissioner of the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS), with an order of civil contempt in late January, The Imprint has learned from court documents the judge chose to make public. In the contempt ruling, the judge slams the agency for repeatedly missing deadlines to help a boy identified only as Kenneth.

“The record here is clear: Kenneth suffered as the result of ACS’s repeated failure to comply with orders of this court,” Olshansky wrote in the order. She added that it was “particularly risible” that the child welfare agency requested to pass the teen’s case to the city’s housing agency for an independent living program, given ACS’s failure to provide supports that would enable him to live independently.

As a penalty, the agency has to purchase a government bond worth over $17,000, for the teen to redeem when he turns 21.

The ruling also described how the state’s Justice Center, which investigates claims of abuse or neglect in state-regulated facilities, confirmed “substantial systemic problems” around the teen’s case, including “inadequate management, training and supervision” where ACS housed him for more than a year, at the Nicholas Scoppetta Children’s Center in Manhattan. These findings typically come with recommendations and ongoing audits from the Justice Center, which declined to comment on Kenneth’s case.

“This case is heartbreaking and disturbing. The judge’s ruling raises serious questions around protocols at the Children’s Center: what led to this young person being at the center for over a year and why has ACS failed to comply with multiple court orders issued by the judge to alleviate the suffering of this young person? How did ACS allow this to go on for so long?” said Stephen Levin, chair of the City Council’s General Welfare Committee, which oversees ACS.

“When youth enter the Children’s Center they are the most vulnerable people in our entire city; we need to make sure we are doing everything we can to help young people recover in their lives. As General Welfare Chair, I will be looking into this issue further over the next few months and meeting with ACS to examine any systemwide improvements needed.”

The Children’s Center opened in 2000, and is designed to serve as a short-term placement option for youth of all ages who have just entered foster care. Built originally to house 55, the facility has been expanded and was housing 80-some youth as of January, more than half of them younger than 12 and eight of them older than 18, according to ACS data.

Kenneth, who turns 19 next month, was moved out of the center in February, according to the nonprofit legal aid firm Lawyers For Children, which represented him in court and argued for the contempt order against ACS.

“Our attorney fought very hard and tried every possible way, including with our social work staff, to find alternative placements and get basic care for Kenneth, until the only remedy was contempt. It’s the last thing we want to have to do,” said Karen Freedman, executive director of Lawyers for Children. “Were we outraged? Absolutely. It’s a ‘complex case,’ but that means there is an especially needy child who needs more attention rather than excuses for providing less.”

Asked to confirm whether or not Kenneth had received a working wheelchair, clothes and shoes that fit, or the medical evaluations and therapies the judge had ordered, Freedman said, “This case and the litigation are very much ongoing.”

ACS Spokesperson Chanel Caraway said confidentiality laws prevent ACS from commenting on Kenneth’s case, and would not comment on whether the agency intended to appeal Judge Olshanky’s contempt order.

“At ACS, we understand the unique needs of youth who have special medical needs and that’s why we have strengthened our policies and protocols to ensure those youth get the care and attention they need to thrive,” said Caraway, via e-mail to The Imprint. “At the Children’s Center, we now provide on-site case planners for youth with complex needs, which means more individualized time and attention for those youth. In addition, we’ve significantly increased training for staff on how to work with children who have special needs.”

A New York City Department of Education spokesperson declined to answer questions about its role in arranging the speech, occupational and physical therapies that were recommended for Kenneth in his Individualized Education Plan, referring The Chronicle back to ACS.

Kenneth was struck by a car at age 14, leaving him with traumatic brain injury and spinal cord injuries. He entered foster care at age 17, with an impaired memory and difficulty walking and speaking. He was prescribed a variety of weekly therapies that were not provided in his time at the Children’s Center. He was also denied more basic needs: He was unable to access the bathroom during visits with his family, leaving him sitting in his own urine.

Freedman and other advocates for children in the city argue that there have been significant gaps in services for youth like Kenneth with more complex needs. The ongoing high populations at the Children’s Center are also cause for concern.

“My staff still report significant delay in finding placement and many issues persist,” said Dawne Mitchell, head of the Legal Aid Society’s Juvenile Rights Practice, which represents Kenneth’s siblings. “Children, particularly the most vulnerable, and those identified to have special needs and being difficult to place in a foster home wait far too long at the Children’s Center for placement in a home. In Kenneth’s case, ACS’ malfeasance is outrageous and indefensible. The contempt finding and order of sanctions is appropriate.”

A source at ACS attributed the higher population to a surge in reports of child abuse and neglect that ACS has received since two high-profile child deaths in late 2016. The agency has made recent changes at the Children’s Center, including adding a full-time psychologist on site; moving case planning responsibility for children with complex needs from child protection staff to the center staff; the agency also expanded training for working with children who have special needs to all staff at the center.

Former ACS officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to speak candidly about their former employer suggested that the center’s population increase is tied to a sharp increase in emergency removals. Typically, a judge has to approve any child removal ACS requests. But in cases where the agency (or police) perceive the risk of imminent harm to a child, they can act unilaterally, placing the child in the Children’s Center if no suitable relatives or other family foster home is available.

Emergency removals represented about half of all cases where children were placed in foster care, and involved a total of 1,854 children in 2018. The numbers were up 30 percent in the 20 months between October 2016 and May 2018, compared to the prior 20 months. The issue was the subject of a city council scrutiny at a hearing in November, and the role of police and prosecutors in such removals at another hearing last week.