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Shelter Where Kids Went Missing Lacks Permit to Operate Legally, City Says

By Heather Holland | September 16, 2014 11:20am
 The Children's Center, a 55-bed ACS Facility at 492 First Ave., provides temporary housing for children who are court-ordered to be taken from their families and placed into foster care.
The Children's Center, a 55-bed ACS Facility at 492 First Ave., provides temporary housing for children who are court-ordered to be taken from their families and placed into foster care.
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DNAinfo/Heather Holland

KIPS BAY — An Administration for Children's Services center where nearly 1,600 kids were reported missing over the last year does not have the proper city certificate to operate as a shelter for children, DNAinfo New York has learned.

The 55-bed center at 492 First Ave. was once an office building, and it has not received an updated certificate of occupancy, a city permit that allows a building to operate legally, since it was converted to the Nicholas Scoppetta Children's Center in 2001, according to officials and city records.

"Altered building occupied without a valid certificate of occupancy," reads a violation the Department of Buildings issued to the state in 2002, which was still open this week. "Remedy; obtain valid certificate of occupancy or discontinue use."

Even without the necessary certificate of occupancy, which would prove the building was safe for children to inhabit, the center has continued housing 10,000 children per year, including many who have been abused and neglected, as they await foster care placement, officials said.

The Children's Center received permits from the Department of Buildings to convert the building to residential use, but state and city officials never finished the process by getting a new certificate of occupancy for the space, Department of Buildings spokesman Alex Schnell said.

"If they want to use the second floor the way they want to use it, they need to modify the C of O to reflect that," Schnell said Tuesday morning. "They're in the process of modifying it."


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DNAinfo New York first reached out to the DOB and ACS asking about the missing certificate of occupancy on the week of Aug. 11.

A week later — and about 13 years after the center first opened to children — the ACS finally put in an application for the modified certificate of occupancy on Aug. 21, Schnell said.

As of Tuesday morning, DOB still had no record of the final certificate of occupancy being approved for the building, Schnell said.

The Children's Center received several temporary certificates of occupancy for the space over the years, but the most recent one expired in 2005, and it's only now that the city is working to get a new one, according to Schnell.

To get a permanent certificate of occupancy, the center needed to fulfill "26 outstanding requirements" that had not been met as of 2005, documents show. DOB would not disclose exactly which documents are still missing to finish the process.

Schnell said it was "uncommon" for a government agency to delay getting necessary approvals for a building. The Department of Buildings does not have the authority to inspect the government-owned facility unless it receives a complaint about it, Schnell said.

The building has been allowed to function as a shelter during the past nine years without the proper certificate because an order from DOB's Manhattan commissioner had given temporary permission for the center to operate as long as the center secured a certificate at some point, Schnell said. The commissioner did not give a time limit, he said.

Schnell declined to provide a copy of the commissioner's order or disclose when it was issued, saying DNAinfo would have to file a Freedom of Information Law request to get it.

ACS spokesman Chris McKniff said on Monday that the Children's Center has a certificate of occupancy, but he did not provide a copy of it.

“The ACS Children’s Center has a current Certificate of Occupancy," McKniff said in a statement.

"Upon renovations done to the facility, ACS worked with the city to secure a modified Certificate of Occupancy to include additional overnight living space," his statement continued. "During this time, the Department of Buildings had in place a written order that permitted the second floor of the Children’s Center building to be occupied for overnight shelter. This property is being used according to all zoning regulations and there are no open complaints on it."

Meanwhile, city and state officials disputed who actually owns the facility.

The Administration for Children's Services and the Department of Buildings initially said the center was owned by the state, but ACS admitted on Monday that it was owned by the city.

The Department of Finance, which holds the city's property records, could not say on Monday who owned the facility.

A Department of Finance spokeswoman said the Children's Center is just one piece of a larger site that is partially owned by the state. However, she said it was unclear which part of the site the state owned and who owned the other parts.

Officials with state agencies, including the Dormitory Authority of the State of New York, which manages state property, said the Children's Center is unequivocally owned by the city.

Parents and children described the Children’s Center as a chaotic place plagued by bullying, theft and cramped sleeping conditions. Children who complained about problems with the facility were told by ACS staff that they could leave, and many did, according to families and records.

As DNAinfo New York exclusively reported Monday, ACS responded to runaways by filing missing reports with the NYPD, and often requested an arrest warrant from Family Court, which allowed the NYPD to bring the children back to the city’s custody in handcuffs, according to court officials, lawyers, children and families.

ACS Commissioner Gladys Carrión released a statement on Monday in response to DNAinfo's reporting.

"ACS is committed to providing the best care possible for the children and young people who come through the Children’s Center," Carrión said in a statement.

"Since taking office in January and acknowledging the issues these facility [sic] has faced for a number of years, I have been making improvements in the Children’s Center operations. ACS is working extensively with the NYPD on protocols around young people leaving the center without permission. Instead of seeking warrants in order to bring missing children back, we are filing missing person’s reports, which accomplish the same goal — returning the child to care — in a less harmful manner."