Despite recent deaths, youth care contract on track for renewal

The New York City Administration for Children’s Services is renewing a contract for housing developmentally disabled young people with the Pennsylvania-based foster care agency Woods Services, despite the deaths of two Woods Services residents over the last two years.    

Both deaths occurred under alarming circumstances. Last August a 20-year-old with severe autism, Bryan Nevins of Oceanside, Long Island, died from heat exhaustion after being left unattended for more than five hours in a van during an off-campus trip, according to court fillings and news reports. The temperature outside was higher than 90 degrees. Stacey Strauss, the social worker supervising Nevins, was convicted this March of involuntary manslaughter, and Pennsylvania authorities revoked Woods Services’ license to operate one of its residential buildings.

In 2009, 17-year-old Robert Percato was killed in an auto accident after falling from an overpass of Route 1 highway during an attempted escape from the Woods Services main campus in Langhorne, PA., reported The Intelligencer of Doylestown, PA.

The agency said it has changed its safety policies since the incidents, and that the New York State Education Departmenthad accepted its plan for correction following an investigation by the state’s Commission on Quality of Care and Advocacy for Persons with Disabilities. “New York conducted its review and we complied with all the questions they were asking us,” said Cheryl Kauffman, a spokeswoman for Woods Services.

Kauffman said that following Nevins death, the agency created a uniform policy for supervising clients during trips off campus, in which both staff and supervisors must certify clients’ safe return with their signatures. She said that all front line staff had been retrained on how to carry out the new policy.

She said Woods Services was also in the process of replacing the fence that surrounds its roughly 300-acre campus, increasing its height from six to eight feet and using new materials that make it impossible to climb.

“The fence is wrapped in this plastic coating which makes it impossible for anyone with larger fingers to stick their fingers in and grab hold of it,” Kauffman said.

The contract remains on track for approval after a routine public hearing on its renewal was held on Wednesday without any objections, said Rafael Asusta, a contracting officer with the Administration for Children’s Services. ACS has not yet responded to our requests for comment on its review process, nor released its records on Woods Services’ performance or the investigation of the incident.

Andrew White, the editor of Child Welfare Watch, a publication that covers New York’s child and family services, said Woods Services planned response to Nevins’ death appeared to be a step in the right direction.

“On the one hand, it seems like this is the right solution for the management problem of failure to properly attend to a client on a trip,” White said. “But then the question becomes, are they following through?”

The New York City contract that is being renewed will cover the residential care and education of four clients. The city will pay $385 per day for their care, a rate that White described as far higher than the average per diem for residential homes. The contract specifies that the services are for clients with extraordinary needs, who require greater staff attention and resources than other youth.  

Kauffman, the Woods Services spokeswoman, said that the New York City clients covered under the contract will be housed at the main campus, the same site where the deaths took place. More than 90 percent of Woods Services residents live there, she said.

Two of the clients are over eighteen years old, and Kauffman said that no suitable places in New York State have been found that could house them.  Most youth end up in ACS care due to allegations of abuse or neglect, but Kauffman said that Woods Services specializes in housing youths with significant behavioral problems or special needs, who are often referred by their school districts or their parents.  Both she and White said that there are few agencies that can take on the types of difficult cases handled by Woods Services – a circumstance that leaves the New York City with few options if something goes wrong at Woods.

“New York doesn’t have enough facilities that can handle these kinds of challenging behaviors. That’s how we’ve come to serve so many New York kids,” Kauffman said.

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