To determine whether the Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS) has effective controls in place to ensure that children placed in the direct care of relatives or a suitable person via Family Court Act (FCA) Section 1017 are placed in a safe environment. The audit covers children who were in direct placement between January 1, 2014 and December 31, 2017 and includes subsequent documentation and information provided by OCFS through August 26, 2019.
About the Program
OCFS oversees the State’s child welfare system, and its Central Office is responsible for supervising and coordinating child welfare services, which are administered by 58 Local Departments of Social Services (Local Districts) throughout the State and include preventive services focusing on averting scenarios that could result in the placement of a child in foster care. One alternative to foster care is direct placement, where a child is placed in the direct custody of a relative or suitable person under the jurisdiction of the court. In direct placement cases, the court will likely order the Local District to supervise the placement. Most of the standards for foster care do not apply to children in direct placement. However, the New York Codes, Rules and Regulations require Local Districts to document that a placement can safely provide for the needs of the child. Local Districts must also provide the court with information to make decisions regarding the safety and well-being of a child, such as details of the child’s service plan and the family’s progress. Information regarding children in direct placement is tracked in CONNECTIONS, the system of record for child welfare in New York State.
- OCFS does not maintain adequate oversight of direct placement to ensure that Local Districts comply with applicable laws and regulations and that children are placed in safe environments. Of 30 direct placement cases we sampled, 10 lacked evidence that the Local District provided the courts with all critical case information, which the courts rely on to make decisions regarding the safety and well-being of a child.
- While Local Districts must follow certain regulations, OCFS has not developed the same type of centralized standards, policies, or procedures for supervising all direct placement cases that it has for similar child welfare services, such as foster care. This includes minimum standards for home investigations, which the FCA states may be done “pursuant to regulations of OCFS.” As a result, we found that not all cases are receiving the same level of attention across, and possibly even within, Local Districts.
- Direct placement data in CONNECTIONS was not always complete or accurate, which may compromise its integrity and usefulness for OCFS’ data analysis, reporting, and performance measure purposes, as well as the reliability of direct placement case tracking. For example, we found discrepancies between source information and CONNECTIONS data for 23 of the 30 cases we reviewed. Additionally, the field indicating why a child was removed from direct placement was blank for over 40 percent of the children whose placement had ended. We also identified four cases where children were misclassified as being in direct placement.
- Develop procedures for monitoring Local Districts’ handling of direct placement cases.
- Establish minimum standards for the safety of children in direct placement.
- 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.
Throughout its response to the draft report, OCFS attempts to minimize our audit findings and deflect attention from the report’s core issue of child safety. In general, OCFS officials took issue with our “flawed” audit objective, proclaiming that the scope of our audit terminates after the court has placed a child. However, OCFS’ assertion is wrong. We explained to officials throughout the audit that we were evaluating OCFS on its responsibilities related to the safety of the children before, during, and after the court placement decision. OCFS’ response acknowledges it has the legal authority to provide oversight before and after court placement. Rather than attempting to challenge our audit scope and minimize the findings of this audit, we urge OCFS to consider our recommendations and implement changes to better ensure the health, safety, and welfare of children in direct placement.
OCFS also states that our “narrowly construed” scope places OCFS in an “impossible” position to satisfy our recommendations and that our findings presume that OCFS has the authority to overrule a court’s placement decision. However, nowhere in the report or during the audit did we make such a claim.
In addition, OCFS indicates that supposed errors and lack of detail in our findings prevented it from providing a full response. In part, OCFS states that our report assumes children placed into direct relative custody follow a statutory schedule for permanency hearing and that our findings were not backed by specific examples or cases for OCFS to review. Yet we did not state that children in direct placement follow such a schedule and only considered a permanency hearing report to be missing if there was a court order for a permanency hearing. We provided detailed information to OCFS for any cases that we found to be missing permanency hearing reports, some of which OCFS was able to provide. OCFS also finds fault with the two case examples in our report, stating, in part, that there were no immediate safety concerns. However, one of the case records had a document stating that there was enough credible evidence to support allegations of insufficient guardianship, as well as inadequate food, clothing, and shelter. We are concerned by OCFS’ unwillingness to recognize areas for improvement, given the vulnerable population it serves. Also, OCFS states that the tone of our report contains “pejorative generalizations about local caseworkers.” It’s worth noting that we visited numerous counties during our audit, who, by and large, agreed there are no minimum standards for handling direct placement cases. Accordingly, we found that counties throughout the State handle direct placements differently.
Lastly, OCFS states that, due to their concerns about OSC’s ability to protect the confidentiality of OCFS records, OCFS and OSC entered into a confidentiality agreement that would guarantee access to complete and accurate records. OCFS adds that this necessitated an extensive redacting process and that our follow-up questions about the redacted files involved requests for additional documents not required under the confidentiality agreement. Despite the confidentiality agreement “guaranteeing access to complete and accurate records,” OCFS required that we amend the original agreement before providing us with data we had requested for months. Included in the amendment was OCFS’ requirement that files be redacted and scanned to us electronically, rather than allowing us to visit counties to view the files with the assistance of an OCFS representative. We did not request information in violation of the confidentiality agreement or federal and State confidentiality laws. In fact, the follow-up documents we requested from OCFS for certain cases (e.g., permanency hearing reports), had been included in some of the case files OCFS provided initially, and thus were covered under
the confidentiality agreement.
OCFS’ response includes multiple misleading and/or inaccurate statements. Furthermore, its dismissive response is not indicative of an appropriate agency control environment, particularly given the vulnerable population it protects. Consequently, we urge OCFS to reconsider its position relating to the audit’s findings and recommendations to enable it to better fulfill its vital mission. Our responses to those comments are included in the report’s State Comptroller’s Comments, which are embedded in OCFS’ response.