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DiNapoli Urges Changes to Protect Children Placed in Custody of Relatives or Guardians

The state Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS) is not doing enough to ensure adequate protections are in place for children who are placed in the custody of relatives or another suitable person outside the foster care system, according to an audit released today by State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli.
“The Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS) needs to do more to protect children placed with relatives or guardians outside of foster care from harm or neglect,” DiNapoli said. “OCFS lacks adequate oversight and uniform standards to ensure children in direct placement are not put into another bad situation and are kept out of harm’s way. OCFS attempted to dismiss the serious findings of our auditors rather than take proactive steps to address these glaring issues. I urge the agency to act on our recommendations.”
OCFS oversees the state’s child welfare system and is responsible for supervising and coordinating child welfare services, which are administered by 58 local Departments of Social Services (local districts) throughout the state. One alternative to foster care is direct placement, where a child is placed in the direct custody of a relative or another suitable person. In direct placement cases, courts usually order the local district to supervise the placement. State regulations require local districts to document that a family member or suitable person can safely provide for the needs of the child.
DiNapoli’s auditors found OCFS does not maintain adequate oversight of direct placements to ensure that local districts comply with applicable laws and regulations and that children are placed in safe environments. The agency does not have procedures for monitoring local districts’ handling of direct placement cases, and does little to assess their performance.
-A case where siblings were placed with an adult relative who had a history of domestic violence and suspected drug use. Despite numerous conditions that raised red flags, including a police report stating the relative kept a loaded shotgun in one of the bedrooms of the placement home, auditors could not find any indication that these conditions had been communicated to the court.
-In another case, the placement home had garbage and dirty dishes constantly present throughout the home, along with medications within children’s reach.
Local districts must also follow certain regulatory requirements, but OCFS has not developed the same kind of centralized standards, policies or procedures for the districts to follow when supervising direct placement cases, as it has for similar child welfare services such as foster care, auditors found. This includes minimum standards for home investigations.
DiNapoli’s auditors interviewed officials from 53 local districts and found that their supervision of direct placement varied, with not all cases receiving the same level of attention across, and possibly even within, the local districts. For instance:
-Local districts varied in their documentation of home investigations. While some included explicit details–for example, noting smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, sleeping spaces, and weapons–others were vague and nondescript.
-Local districts also varied in the frequency of their follow-up visits. Of the sampled cases, auditors found that, in the majority, local districts visited the placement home once a month, while others visited twice a month, weekly or less than monthly.
Local districts must also provide the court with information to make decisions regarding the safety and well-being of a child. Information on children in direct placement is tracked in CONNECTIONS, the system of record for child welfare in New York state.
OCFS uses the CONNECTIONS computer system to document information about children who are in direct placement. However, auditors found errors and discrepancies that render the data unreliable for reporting and performance measuring purposes, not to mention for accurately tracking children who have been placed. During the review of the 30 case files, auditors identified four cases where children were misclassified as being in direct placement. Additionally, while pulling the sample cases, OCFS identified and corrected discrepancies for another eight cases.
DiNapoli recommended OCFS:
-Develop procedures for monitoring local districts’ handling of direct placement cases;
-Develop procedures for county supervision of children in direct placement to ensure greater consistency across the state;
-Establish minimum standards for the safety of children in direct placement; and
-Correct the errors identified in the direct placement data and implement ways to prevent and detect input errors to ensure that information in CONNECTIONS is complete and accurate.
OCFS officials disagreed with the audit’s conclusions and the audit scope. The agency’s response, as well as replies by the auditors, are included in the audit.

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