Foster Care Horrors?

To the editor:
Condemning family preservation, as does Dennis Saffran, because some children die horrifying deaths ("Fatal Preservation," Summer 1997) is just as absurd as condemning foster care based on similar horror stories.

Between 1991 and 1995, when family preservation allegedly dominated child welfare in New York, total child-abuse deaths in the city fell from 60 to 29. In Illinois, where authorities did exactly what Saffran suggests and drove family preservation almost to extinction, the foster care population soared, forcing children to sleep in hideous shelter conditions where vulnerable younger children mixed with streetwise teens. Deaths in foster care hit a record high, and total child-abuse deaths went up for two years in a row. In New York, since the city vowed to curb family preservation, foster care placements have gone up 30 percent. At least a thousand children, as reported by the New York Times, have been forced to sleep in offices.

None of this made it into Saffran’s article. Indeed, his lone statistic is the most misleading in all of child welfare: that about half of child-abuse deaths involve children previously known to the system. This statistic is meaningless. If, for example, a hypothetical community returns 10,000 children to their own homes and one dies, while another child, unknown to authorities, also dies, that means 50 percent of the child-abuse deaths in that community were known to the system. But it also means 9,999 children returned home safely.

A. Griffin
Chair, Advocacy Committee
National Family Preservation Network

Dennis Saffran responds:
Though one wouldn’t know it from Mr. Griffin’s letter, the key policy change my article advocates is merely that the "family" should not be preserved "when a parent has starved, tortured, sexually abused, severely injured, or abandoned a child." Many of Griffin’s statistics are simply false. He says, for instance, that child-abuse fatalities in New York City declined from 60 in 1991 to 29 in 1995, but according to the city’s Administration for Children’s Services, there were 70 child abuse deaths in the city in 1995. And if he thinks that family preservation has been driven "almost to extinction" in Illinois, I refer him to the current controversy in Chicago over an abusive mother who has been receiving $61,000 a year in family preservation assistance from the state Department of Children and Family Services—including baby-sitting and housekeeping help even though she does not work and is not incapacitated. Lastly, as anyone who reads the paper should realize, the death rate of children in foster care is much lower than the death rate of children left with or returned to abusive parents. Children die in foster care only when gross negligence prevents the system from functioning as intended, while the risk of death is inherent in family preservation.

Homeless Advocates To Earth

To the editor:
Drawing on my experience, I have a very different perspective on what it means to be homeless in New York than does Heather Mac Donald ("Homeless Advocates in Outer Space," Autumn 1997).

As anyone knows who has attempted to "outreach" to a homeless person, or visited a soup kitchen, or simply spoken to a homeless person on the streets, most homeless people (unlike Heavy, one person Ms. Mac Donald mentions) are happy for the contact. Not that homeless individuals will always quickly move off the streets. If you have lost—or never had—family, belongings, and housing and have found a way to survive day-to-day, you are unlikely to risk the little stability you have by trusting a total stranger who invites you to a shelter, when shelters haven’t had sterling reputations in the past.

Homeless people, like everyone else, are likely to resist change unless they trust that the change will be safe. The isolation they face makes even the smallest step seem an impossible risk. Each person is unique, and services must therefore start where the client is, not where you or I might think the client ought to be. Outreach will fail if we don’t proceed at the client’s pace.

It’s true that homeless services, including outreach, may seem time consuming, but time is vital to their success. Ms. Mac Donald says that homeless advocates use expensive service strategies to keep themselves in jobs and to lash out against capitalism. Nothing could be further from the truth. As homeless-service providers, our goal always remains to put ourselves out of business.

Nancy Wackstein
Executive Director of Lenox Hill Neighborhood House

To the editor:
In "Homeless Advocates in Outer Space," (Autumn 1997), Heather Mac Donald ignores the facts.

Across the country, cities and business groups are attempting to "sweep" homeless people off their streets by pressing for and enforcing laws that make it a crime to sleep, lie, or even sit in public places. But in cities pursuing such policies, there are more homeless people than even emergency resources to help them, based on the cities’ own estimates. New York City estimates that there are up to 81,000 homeless, but only 27,000 placements for them. Punishing homeless people for living in public places when they have no alternative is cruel, irrational, and ultimately, futile.

In the Times Square area, the BID is trying a more constructive approach: it has hired social workers to conduct outreach, opened a seven-bed shelter, and established links to refer people to existing permanent-housing programs. A report on the project, cited by Ms. Mac Donald, notes that in the first year of outreach, few had used the shelter beds and only two had been placed in housing. But in a postscript—not mentioned by Ms. Mac Donald—the report says that two months later, the shelter was constantly full and four more people had been placed in housing. As of today, the BID reports that a total of 12 have been placed in housing and that the shelter has generally been full over the past four months.

Rather than discussing constructive solutions to homelessness, Ms. Mac Donald’s article focuses on ad hominem attacks, incorrect information, and false accusations. This approach does not help to advance informed debate or efforts to respond to a human issue that is critically important for us all.

Maria Foscarinis
Executive Director
National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty

Heather Mac Donald responds:
True to form, Ms. Foscarinis comes up with a real whopper: New York City, she claims, estimates that there are an astounding 81,000 homeless on its streets. Officials at the Department of Homeless Services, however, have never heard of that figure: indeed, they do not even estimate the number of homeless because of methodological difficulties.

But let’s say Ms. Foscarinis is right. She finds it significant that, to date, the Times Square BID has placed 12 people in housing. That is fewer than five a year, at a cost of $172,916 a person—merely for placement, mind you, not for the housing itself. Anyway, it would cost over $14 billion to place all of New York’s alleged 81,000 homeless, and it would take 16,200 years. Ms. Foscarinis undoubtedly finds that reasonable, but most taxpayers would not.

After years of telling the public that the homeless are just like you and me, the advocates now stress that they are incredibly different. Ms. Wackstein’s gingerly approach to taming the homeless—place sandwhich on basket, retreat, watch if the homeless person moves to accept it, and repeat—surely strikes common sense as bizarre. If the homeless are so incapable of accepting needed help, why do advocates like Ms. Foscarinis think we should let them colonize public streets? A sane homelessness policy would begin by replacing the term "homeless" with addict, alcoholic, psychotic, hobo, or bum. The category "homeless" is a purely political construct, created to rebuke and plague an allegedly heartless nation.

Public School Lessons

To the editor:
I would like to thank Sol Stern for his many kind words for our school, P.S. 87, in his article, "My Public School Lesson" (Autumn 1997). I can also appreciate his criticisms. Certainly our school, like every school, needs to work harder to provide all students with the best possible education. And no sane person can take exception with his description of the New York City Board of Education and its ever-shrinking budgets, strangling bureaucracy, and frustrating layers of administration.

But where Mr. Stern and I part company is in his judgment that P.S. 87, which he names "the very best the school system can do," is just not good enough.

Mr. Stern bolsters his critique with snide comments on the methods we use at P.S. 87—methods that have withstood time and standardized tests. Those of us old enough to remember the bad old days of desks lined up in rows, facing a teacher who stood all day at the blackboard while we silently copied down her chalk marks, recognize how much easier that earlier method of teaching was. The fact that P.S. 87 students scored in the highest category in the standardized writing skills assessment test last year underscores the validity of our approach.

Can we do better? Of course. To balance a classroom filled with richness and creativity with a learning environment that adheres to basic standards and imparts important skills is quite a challenge. Over the last few years we have had staff retreats, task forces, and standards development teams to focus on the importance of these tasks.

If Mr. Stern finds himself frustrated with the city’s bureaucracy and politics and the difficulties of dealing with the Board of Education, I can understand. If the fact that the children of minority families in this city are not getting a fair deal upsets him, I applaud his attention to their plight. But if he claims that his children (who, by the way, went on to attend a gifted middle-school program and the elite Stuyvesant High School—not a bad record for former P.S. 87 boys), or any children, got less than an excellent education here at P.S. 87, I question his vision as a reporter. And if he truly felt that in ten years this school was not meeting his children’s needs, then I question his observation as a parent. That’s an awfully slow learning curve.

Steven Plaut
Principal, P.S. 87

To the editor:
Thank you for your article on "progressive" education. I am a "common sense" fourth grade math teacher in another Teachers College-dominated elementary school. As scathing as your article was, I do not think it went far enough.

Many times my colleagues and I have paid a price for not adapting to the Teachers College philosophy. Now our school hires new teachers only from Teachers College. More traditional teachers are pressured by peers and administration to conform; the joke runs that some of us wait until the principal is out of the building to teach skills—so we won’t get caught being "traditional." Meanwhile, in my class even the brightest students have difficulty composing a literate piece of writing—let alone doing math—with any proficiency. How can a program supposedly so wonderful be creating so many kids lagging behind?

Name withheld on request

Sol Stern responds:
Many thanks for the letter from the "common sense" teacher. To Mr. Plaut, o.k., I’ll admit it, I am not an educator. But then, only an educator would believe that in the "bad old days," teachers "stood all day at the blackboard" and students were robots who "silently copied down her chalk marks," but now, liberated by the gospel as preached at Teachers College and other progressive ed schools, public school teachers are doing much better and turning out knowledgeable adults. Who else but an educator would delude himself into thinking that his school’s students write at a high level of competency because they scored well on tests graded by their own teachers—the same progressive teachers trained to regard sentence structure, spelling, and punctuation as relics of those "bad old days"?

Alas, I am merely a parent who entrusted my children to Mr. Plaut and his fellow professional educators, and a taxpayer who pays their salaries. As such, I expected a little more in the way of accountability than Mr. Plaut’s assurances that his teachers "have had staff retreats, task forces, and standards development teams." What I observed—as a parent—is that P.S. 87 doesn’t even have a curriculum and, therefore, cannot enforce the "basic standards" Mr. Plaut says he favors. He is a decent, hard-working administrator, caught in an excellence-squelching system. If he and his colleagues were willing to work with parents to change that system, and if, during the past 10 years, there was even the semblance of an open debate at P.S. 87 about the merits of progressive education, I would be less disillusioned with the public schools in general, and P.S. 87 in particular. And then Mr. Plaut wouldn’t have to complain about my "slow learning curve."

Reconstructing Columbia

To the editor:
In his piece "Now They’re Deconstructing the Columbia Campus" (Autumn 1997), David Garrard Lowe charges that Columbia has bowed to political correctness and anti-Western canon sentiment in its choice of Bernard Tschumi to build a new student center.

Even a modest familiarity with Columbia’s undergraduate program, the Core Curriculum, belies that charge. At nearly 80 years old, Columbia has the oldest continuously operating Western civilization program in the country; clearly, the university has maintained its commitment to that program in all political climates.

It would be better not to read too much into a disagreement about aesthetics.

Emily Lloyd
Executive Vice President for Administration
Columbia University

David Garrard Lowe responds:
Emily Lloyd’s response to my article is a curious bit of obfuscation. Whereas I was writing about the inappropriate design of Bernard Tschumi’s new Alfred Lerner Hall, Ms. Lloyd talks about Columbia having "the oldest continuously operating Western civilization program in the country." I find it interesting that Ms. Lloyd says not a word in defense of Mr. Tschumi’s grotesquely intrusive structure. That omission speaks louder than any admission.


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