The story was cast was as follows:
* Historically, white-led “charitable” organizations originally provided these services;
* eventually, as city demographics changed, these organizations served more and more children of color;
* leaders of color objected to this mismatch between providers and recipients of services — asserting that there were cultural considerations in serving the children of communities of color that could not be recognized adequately by organizations that were staffed and led predominantly by whites;
* state leadership eventually accepted this proposition and began to shift funding to locally based foster care and adoption agencies led by people of color;
* growth — sometimes enormous growth — occurred quickly but administrative and management capacity did not keep pace, particularly compared to older, better-financed, connected, and capitalized white-led institutions;
* staff at these newly funded agencies began to drop the ball in their interactions with other state authorized systems and with the families — and children began to fall through the cracks — some died horrible deaths;
* the boards of these organizations often stayed a step removed from the fray — either by their own or the executive’s choice;
* the articles conclude that this “experiment” has largely proven to be a failure.
Without excusing the failures in these agencies or minimizing the unconscionable neglect that was present in the situations as they were reported, much of this story rings familiar to us. The story conveys a negative judgment about the basic strategy of providing culturally-based service to children and a negative judgment about the capacity of people of color to run these types of organizations. Such conclusions should be spit out as racist poison.
What probably happened in the organizations is something very different. Nonprofits groaning under the weight of too many public contracts are common, and they exist in every type of community. Those nonprofits that have grown large over time learn what they can do to survive, if not thrive in the face of low and late reimbursements (even without large endowments to offset shortfalls), and increasing application, reporting, and regulatory demands. Many of them have grown primarily if not exclusively on contracts with paper-thin and frail administrations that are sometimes propped up by staff’s willingness to work extraordinary hours . . . and sometimes not.
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On top of that, staff recruitment and retention in these agencies is almost always an issue and the technical concerns that have to be attended to are often enough to drive board members — particularly on a relatively unseasoned board — to take a step back in deference to professional staff. Further, managing the increased complexity of agencies with multiple, restricted funding streams requires building the overall management capacity of the organization, and ensuring that there is funding and support for managers who can take on the work of administering the necessary bureaucracy that comes from these contracts. Otherwise, the resulting organization is missing the essential support beams that hold up the house, creating a fundamental and major structural flaw that eventually puts the whole enterprise at risk.
So when the state decided to fund this set of agencies which clearly had to ramp up quickly, mightn’t it have thought a little more about the capitalization and technical assistance needed to ensure their success? Especially in the field of foster care where there is clearly an assumption of shared responsibility between state contractors and the agency, and where there are such disastrous consequences for inadequate practice?
It is easy to point the finger at the organizations that asked to be included in the funding loop and ultimately did not deliver. But the state shares responsibility in the failings of this “experiment.” This shift required a commitment to respectful, culturally competent practice that went beyond tossing money at the agencies. Years of under-funding and lack of infrastructure do not disappear overnight because a funder finally acknowledges that an organization has something important to offer the community. Both the agencies and the state should have realized that it would take more than government contracts to meet the needs of families and children in crisis. This situation needed a wholesale assessment of what was required to ensure that these agencies performed well and the necessary support for getting there. It also needed an honest conversation about the performance benchmarks that would be used, support for meeting them, and consequences for failing to deliver. The Times mentioned that there were many occasions when the state backed away from accountability conversations with these agencies. It is not clear why this happened, but organizations with clear culture-based strategies, and, more importantly, the people they serve, should not be subjected to such avoidances.
So we walk away with two concerns:
1. We need to acknowledge the real capital needs of agencies, whether majority- or minority-led, that are, in all ways, primarily delivery mechanisms for the state where vulnerable populations are at risk. This is especially true in communities that have been marginalized and under-funded for years. We know of countless examples where agencies working under similar circumstances performed and delivered beyond what was expected. But that happens after a thorough understanding of what it takes to perform well and supporting organizations to take more than an assembly line approach to dealing with enormously challenging and very human tribulations.
2. Conversations with race as a central dynamic must be more than grotesquely stylized dances of unrelated parties. We need real, honest conversations, based on mutual respect and accountability, that seek to support and acknowledge the profound, gut wrenching work and enormous responsibility involved in dealing with people in crisis. It is not cheap or easy; the conversations should not be either.
Let us be crystal clear, we do not believe that either the state agencies or the community agencies involved in this evidently badly-handled situation can be let off the hook. It would be nice, though to learn real lessons instead of false ones from something so horribly costly. We deserved more from the New York Times.
Lissette Rodriguez and Ruth McCambridge for the editors