MANHATTAN — The number of children placed in foster care in New York City has been cut nearly in half in recent years, statistics show.
Data from the city’s Administration for Children Services show a steady decline in the number of children who were sent to foster homes as the city strives to deploy an array of social services to troubled families to keep them whole.
For example, 7,406 children were removed from their parents and caretakers in 2009.
The following year, the number declined to 7,108 and fell even more in 2011 to 6,356.
That number dropped to 4,134 by 2015. That's a 44 percent drop from 2009.
Experts say the downward move mirrors a nationwide trend with social service agencies adopting a philosophy of trying to keep kids in their homes rather than yanking them out at the initial signs of trouble, theorizing that it is more destructive to remove children rather than shore up the family with a continuum of prevention services.
"New York City’s investment in preventive services is key to the large reduction in the foster-care population," an ACS spokesman said. "Given the city’s investment in preventive programs that have been proven effective, we are able to keep more children at home safely."
ACS keeps families intact by providing parents and caretakers with anger management sessions, introducing drug or alcohol treatment to them, or insisting they take classes to enhance their parenting skills.
Some veteran law enforcement and social service experts who deal specifically with child abuse, however, question whether the city is now leaning too heavily on saving families that simply cannot be kept together, further risking children such as 6-year-old Zymere Perkins, who was beaten to death last week in Harlem.
"You need a license to own a car, but you don’t need a license to have a child, and some people are unilaterally unable to care for themselves much less a child," said a veteran lawman who investigates child abuse and homicides.
"The city wants to keep the family together, and that is a noble notion, and it's all fine as long as nothing terrible happens," he continued. "Sometimes where the child is, is worse than where they are going."
In Zymere's case, the little boy showed up in April at his Harlem elementary school with a bruised leg that caught the attention of teachers.
Sources say the boy told his teachers, ACS workers and NYPD investigators that he had suffered the wound when someone rammed it while riding a scooter. The issue wasn't pursued.
Officials now say that at least five prior allegations were made against Perkins' mother, Geraldine Perkins, and her live-in boyfriend, Rysheim Smith. It is not clear what action, if any, was taken in the other cases and whether the history was even disclosed to investigators probing the April incident.
Zymere eventually suffered a barrage of physical abuse that police say culminated with his mother's boyfriend battering the child with a wooden broomstick and then hanging him by his T-shirt on a bathroom door hook.
His mother eventually took him down, placed him on a bed, and read the Bible as his life slipped away, police said. Perkins and Smith have since been charged with child endangerment.
Zymere's death coincidentally occurred as another Manhattan woman pleaded guilty to the death of 4-year-old Myls Dobson, who died in 2014 from abuse in another case that raised widespread concerns about the city’s handling of child abuse allegations.
On Tuesday, Mark Peters, the city's Department of Investigation Commissioner, told DNAinfo's "On the Inside" that his agency "has issued a number of reports concerning ACS, most recently this past May, demonstrating real, systemic failures to protect children."
In the May report, the probe of several child fatalities found a litany of “investigatory failures and deficient casework, lax oversight of foster care providers, and a lack of data collection by ACS making it impossible to identify and/or track problems.”
As far back as 2007, the Department of Investigation also probed several children's deaths, finding serious deficiencies and outlined dozens of recommendations to strengthen ACS's investigative processes in protecting children and families at risk, some of which were implemented.
And Public Advocate Letitia James has filed a pending class action lawsuit against the city alleging that the ACS and its providers are not doing enough to make better placements for children in foster care, where they can be subjected to additional abuse or maltreatment.
Dr. Jeremy Kohomban, chief executive of Children's Village, the largest foster care agency in the city, said the system "has made tremendous improvements" over the years, "but whenever a tragedy like this happens it is time to take a deep look at what we do because the system will never be 100 percent perfect."
"The big question is whether red flags were missed, and did we make the right decision leaving this child in the home," he added.
Mayor Bill de Blasio has decried the city's handling of Zymere's case.
“We must do something about it,” he said at a recent press conference.
So far, five ACS welfare workers — including two supervisors and a manager — were reassigned to desk duty as the investigation into Zymere's death continues.
And the mayor said he will hold a press conference Wednesday with ACS officials to update the public on the tragedy.
Meanwhile, the Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance Jr., Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Comptroller Scott Stringer and the Department of Investigation are also investigating Zymere's death.