Tuesday, August 1, 2017

A00772 - Bracha Graber, Whistleblower Who Spurred Changes in New York Foster Care

Bracha Graber in 2016. She filed suit in 1993 under the False Claims Act, a Civil War-era law passed by Congress to guard against suppliers’ defrauding the Union Army. CreditCaren Graber
Bracha Graber, whose whistle-blowing over widespread fraud in New York City’s foster care bureaucracy in the 1990s was a catalyst for an overhaul of its practices, died on July 5 in Los Angeles. She was 68.
The cause was complications of lung cancer, her son Daniel said.
Ms. Graber, a midlevel city official, filed a lawsuit for damages in 1993 only after being repeatedly rebuffed by her bosses and disregarded by outside investigators when she confronted them with evidence that her agency was defrauding the federal government.
She accused the agency, the Child Welfare Administration, of claiming tens of millions of dollars in federal reimbursements that it had not been entitled to.
To qualify for those funds, paid to the city for providing foster care, city officials were required, every six months, to review how foster children were faring in private homes and under the supervision of private agencies.
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On the basis of those reviews, caseworkers rated the private agencies and sought to steer children requiring foster care to those that scored highest.
But as the city faced severe budget constraints in the early 1990s under the administration of Mayor David N. Dinkins and during the first year of Rudolph W. Giuliani’s mayoralty, hundreds of caseworkers responsible for monitoring children quit their jobs or were let go, even as the recession was driving up the foster care population to roughly 45,000.
According to Ms. Graber’s lawsuit and subsequent litigation by the Justice Department, city officials became so desperate to qualify for federal funds that they inflated the number of oversight reviews they had conducted.
Federal prosecutors concurred in their own suit that there was no evidence that caseworkers had performed a “substantial percentage” of the required reviews. They accused city and state officials of being complicit in the deception.
Ms. Graber filed her suit under the False Claims Act, a Civil War-era law passed by Congress to guard against suppliers’ defrauding the Union Army. The suit sought $112 million in damages.
But Judge Denny Chin of Federal District Court in Manhattan balked at that amount. He ruled that the False Claims Act had been enacted only to protect federal taxpayers against actual losses from inflated invoices submitted by private individuals and companies — an estimated $37.2 million in the foster care case. The law had not been intended, he said, to punish local government officials by assessing additional penalties.
In 1998, the city and the state agreed to repay $49 million to settle the federal claim.
The settlement provided Ms. Graber personally with a $4.9 million bounty under the federal whistle-blower law. The money largely paid for legal fees, taxes, college costs for her two sons and a $360,000 grant to establish a foundation to deliver music, art, dance and other cultural experiences to children in foster care.
The city settled without admitting wrongdoing. It insisted that Ms. Graber’s charges had been investigated and were unfounded.
“I didn’t grow up in New York,” Carl H. Loewenson Jr., one of her lawyers, said at the time, “but back where I come from, you don’t pay $49 million unless you did something wrong.”
Ms. Graber was born Bracha Friedman on Dec. 9, 1948, in Tel Aviv to Israel Friedman, who was executive vice president of the Religious Zionists of America, and the former Rivka Hershman. When she arrived in New York with her parents at age 11, she spoke no English.
Ms. Graber attended the Ramaz Upper School in Manhattan and graduated from the Stern College for Women at Yeshiva University in Upper Manhattan, where she majored in psychology. She earned a master’s degree in social work from Fordham University while working as the only Jewish caseworker at Catholic Guardian, a private foster care agency run by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn. She began working for the city’s child welfare agency, in its program assessment unit, in the early 1980s.
In addition to her son Daniel, she is survived by her husband, Bernard Graber; their other son, Michael; five grandchildren; a sister, Tova Friedman; and a brother, Avi Friedman.
Ms. Graber returned to the private sector in 1983 to be the director of adoption and foster care services for Graham-Windham, a private, nonprofit agency. There, she once recalled, she opposed her own staff and a Family Court judge who wanted to return 6-year-old twins to their father, an ex-convict. Her stubbornness won a crucial six-month delay, she said; before it expired, the father was arrested and charged with murder.
Ms. Graber rejoined the city agency in the late 1980s as caseloads were ballooning, the staff was dwindling, and a recession was delivering more children into foster care.
Meanwhile, the city was reporting nearly perfect compliance with federal monitoring mandates — an apparent subterfuge with which she refused to cooperate and that potentially placed foster children at risk.
“In effect they were billing the federal government for services they weren’t providing,” Ms. Graber told The New York Times in 1998.
As acting director of the Office of Case Management, she challenged the popular but beleaguered commissioner, Robert L. Little, on the city’s insistence that it was complying with the federal monitoring requirement. She also contacted several city and state monitors, to no avail.
Her suit was later credited with prompting the city to correct deficiencies in the review process.
“People may be not as complacent, and the system has changed a lot in terms of reporting requirements,” Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of A Better Childhood, an advocacy group, said in a phone interview, crediting Ms. Graber’s efforts. But Ms. Lowry also suggested that overall improvements to the system were still needed.
Jose Bayona, a spokesman for the New York City agency, which is now called the Administration for Children’s Services, said in an email that, with the introduction of preventive services and other improvements, the number of children in foster care had dropped below 10,000 and worker caseloads had been cut to record lows.
After 28 years, Ms. Graber left her city job in 1999 and moved with her husband to Sherman Oaks, Calif., where she worked for a private foster care agency before retiring.
Her scrupulously high standards were established with the first child she placed in foster care when her career began — a baby boy named Eladio who had been living in an institution. He was immediately embraced by the foster mother Ms. Graber had recruited.
“She took him in her arms with such love,” Ms. Graber told The Times. “I thought, ‘That’s the kind of thing that should happen to every foster child.’”

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