ACS Commissioner David Hansell, with Mayor Bill de Blasio (Photo by Sabina Mollot)
By Sabina Mollot
After a particularly troubling year for the city’s child welfare agency, Mayor Bill de Blasio last Tuesday announced a new pick for commissioner of the Administration of Children’s Services.
David Hansell, who was previously the chief of staff at the New York City Human Resources Administration from 2002-2006, was named as the replacement for Gladys Carrion. Carrion resigned after the high-profile death of an abused six-year-old named Zymere Perkins who’d been under the ACS’s radar.
The introduction was made at a packed press conference at the ACS’s First Avenue headquarters in Kips Bay, with reporters asking about systemic failures at the agency, which the mayor to some degree denied. De Blasio said many of the problems at the agency during the Perkins case had to do with individual employees not doing their jobs and that those individuals had either been fired or “reprimanded in another way.”
Hansell, meanwhile, said he had not yet taken a “deep dive” into the agency’s past failures, but said he hoped his managerial experience would help fix any lingering problems in policy.
De Blasio praised Hansell for his “compassionate leadership,” adding that his takeover comes at a time when the agency is facing up to 60,000 cases a year.
“Often complex and painful situations that don’t present themselves obviously in a lot of cases,” the mayor said. “There are times we don’t have an indication that a family is in danger. Our job, our mission is to save every child. David Hansell understands that.”
The mayor’s statement is a contradiction of Carrion’s, who once reportedly said that not every child could be protected.
Hansell, who also worked for the Gay Men’s Health Crisis during the height of the AIDS epidemic, said he felt there was “no greater calling” than the opportunity to serve vulnerable communities.
“I worked on the front lines at the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and it’s shown me what happens when the government takes a callous attitude to those who need help the most and also showed me what can happen when the government cares.”
More recently, he spent five years as managing director of the Global Human & Social Services Center of Excellence at KPMG, a tax advisory and auditing firm. Before that, he served as acting assistant secretary and principal deputy assistant secretary for the Administration for Children and Families in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. He’s also held other government positions.
As for the ACS, he said he planned to take a “top to bottom” look to “protect what’s working and change what is not,” using “metrics-based” management. Hansell added that he welcomed working with an independent monitor that’s been assigned by the state to oversee the ACS and looked forward to working more closely with the NYPD to protect children as well as ACS staff from dangerous situations.
Hansell also said he was a “great admirer” of Carrion, saying they’d worked together in Albany, though, he added, “There are things we’ll do differently.”
He said he was looking into the “child-stat” program that’s similar to the NYPD’s Crime Stat program for tracking crime. “My job will be to make sure it’s as effective as it can be,” Hansell said, adding that he was also planning on making sure ACS employees had proper training. The mayor said $49 million was being spent on improvements, including in training.
When reporters asked the mayor about how recently caseloads have gone up at the ACS, de Blasio responded that this was typical after a high-profile case like Perkins’.
After months of physical abuse, Perkins died after being beaten with a broomstick by his mother’s boyfriend, who then hung him by his shirt on a door.
De Blasio said he expected he would “not be surprised” if caseloads would start to decline with Hansell’s hiring.
He also disagreed with a reporter who’d heard that preventative services were not available enough, although he admitted, “It’s not where we want it to be.” He also said he would make sure the ACS was supported in getting resources. Asked about a recent state report about the the agency, the mayor said he thought it was “simplistic” to expect a report to be completely accurate.
Dr. Herminia Palacio added, “We need to be cautious about making some extrapolations. We need to be judicious and informed about the way we move forward.”
De Blasio said he had seen the agency when he agreed there were in fact system-wide problems, which came under a spotlight after the fatal beatdown of Nixzmary Brown. Seven-year-old Brown died at the hands of her stepfather, who also had sexually abused her, in 2006.
“Every New Yorker felt the loss personally because there were many chances to save her,” the mayor said. “One of the things that became clear after that was that there weren’t enough communications between the NYPD and the ACS. A lot was done in the aftermath to change that. No one disagreed that the two agencies were missing an opportunity to work on a common cause but we constantly see a need for more.”
He also pointed to cases in the more recent past where the ACS has pushed for removal of children from homes only to have a court not approve the request.
“The challenge is how do we get that agreed upon by a judge?” said de Blasio. “That’s one of the big challenges here.”
Another goal, he said, was to lower foster placements, with the mayor saying placing a child who’s been removed from parents with nuclear family members was preferable, and reduced reports of abuse.
Hansell, asked why he was taking the job considering the risks of being called a failure should there be another child death, answered, “I know it won’t be easy.”
Palacio also pointed out that New Yorkers could also play a role in saving abused or neglected children by speaking up. “If you feel a child’s life is in danger, pick up a phone,” she said.