December 16 , 2010—Mayor Michael Bloomberg's latest strategy to reduce city expenses includes yet another round of budget cuts for programs that serve low-income children, youth and families.
As part of his midyear financial plan, released in late November, the mayor directed city agencies to cumulatively carve nearly $1.6 billion out of their budgets for Fiscal Years 2011 and 2012, in an attempt to help shrink a city deficit that amounts—by the mayor's reckoning—to more than $3 billion. Many of the cuts will likely go into effect on January 1st, causing programs to scale back or close immediately.
Among the agencies likely to take significant hits are the Administration for Children's Services (ACS), which must cut more than $60 million over the next two fiscal years, and the Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD), which plans to pull close to $26 million from the community-based organizations it funds. This is the ninth time the agencies have been called on to trim their programs since 2008.
The mayor contends the city has no choice but to cut costs, and starting well in advance of the next fiscal year will minimize the damage to city programs. "The idea is if you start now you make it a more gradual process," says Marc LaVorgna at the mayor's press office. "The further ahead you're planning, the better the chance you have of lessening the impact on people and families served."
Advocates and providers counter that the mayor's plan hurts vulnerable New Yorkers at a time when the safety net has already been weakened. "The agencies that protect and nurture children have already eliminated any duplicative or nonessential services," Stephanie Gendell, an associate director at Citizen's Committee for Children, testified to the City Council last week. Further cuts, she said, "will have a profound negative impact on children."
The mayor's planned cuts have not yet been approved by the City Council, but fiscal analysts on both sides say the legislative nod is likely for the reductions in current fiscal year spending. The larger proposed cuts for the fiscal year that begins in July 2011 will be part of the spring budget negotiations between the mayor and the council.
CHILD PROTECTIVE SERVICES
Over the last few years, ACS has lost 1,000 staff through layoffs and attrition, coupled with a reorganization within the agency. With the November cuts, ACS will eliminate 257 more positions, including 80 managers in the division that investigates allegations of child abuse and neglect. Since the 2006 death of 7-year-old Nixzmary Brown, a child known to ACS who was killed by her stepfather, the number of abuse and neglect reports ACS investigates has remained far higher than it was even at the height of the crack epidemic in the early 1990s. Managers in child protection will now supervise more frontline workers.
ACS will also lay off 118 clerical workers by early spring, while further reducing staff at the agency's training academy. The agency also plans to cut 27 specialists who facilitate case conferences, scaling back a key initiative.
ACS plans to restructure homemaking services, a foster care prevention program that provides several months of in-home support to families who might otherwise lose children to foster care. Going forward, the program will focus on short-term help for families with children in danger of imminent removal from their home. While providers support using homemaking services as a way to stabilize families in immediate crises, they say it's critical the program continue serving families who have longer term needs, as well.
About one-third of the families that Brooklyn Community Services now serves are headed by a parent with a medical or mental disability, says Norma Martin, the organization's assistant executive director. One mother in her mid-sixties has cancer and is very sick, says Martin. A homemaker helps her take care of her 13-year-old daughter, who was adopted as an infant and has special needs. "What's going to happen to the little girl?" asks Martin. "Where is she going to go? Foster care?"
HOMELESS AND RUNAWAY YOUTH
DYCD plans to eliminate street outreach for homeless and runaway youth, and to cut funding to drop-in centers for young people on the street.
Youth shelters have been filled to capacity for more than two years, and often turn away youth who have nowhere to sleep. "Balancing the budget on the back of children sleeping on the streets is absolutely unacceptable," Councilmember Lewis Fidler said at a council hearing last week.
At the hearing, DYCD Commissioner Jeanne Mullgrav testified that very few young people went to shelters as a direct result of street outreach, making the program vulnerable to being shut down.
But staff at Safe Horizon's street outreach program point out that their mission goes far beyond steering young people to shelters. Outreach workers bring young people on the streets supplies like food, condoms and coats. It can take weeks or months of outreach before a young person visits a drop-in center or accepts other services.
Johanna Westmacott of Safe Horizon's street outreach program testified that the new cuts will force her organization to turn away even more young people with no place to go. "I cannot describe what it feels like to look a child in the eye who is desperately seeking help and the best advice you can offer them is to find a buddy to take turns sleeping in public and try not to get arrested for trespassing," she said.
AFTER-SCHOOL AND HOLIDAY PROGRAMS
The cuts also hit families who depend on city-run programs that provide child care, academic enrichment and social support to kids outside of school hours.
Each of the 66 city-funded Beacon programs, which serve as school-based community centers, will lose 10 percent of their DYCD fundingâ€”or about $38,000. Though the programs have been much lauded by the city, they already operate on less funding than when they were launched 19 years ago.
"Working families need a safe place for their children to go so they can keep working," says Anthony Ng, deputy director of policy and advocacy at United Neighborhood Houses. "Beacons are already operating on bare bones and the funding continues to erode."
DYCD has attempted to help programs absorb cuts by reducing the number of people each center is contractually required to serve, but providers say they're not willing to turn young people away half-way through the program year. "No one's going to tell the 101st kid who comes to the door, "Sorry, you can't come in,'" says Gigi Li, a policy director at the Neighborhood Family Services Coalition.
DYCD also funds nearly 500 after-school programs across the city through its Out-of-School Time (OST) initiative. Beginning January 1st, those programs will lose 9 percent of their OST budgets.
The city adjusted after-school agencies' contracts, allowing programs to operate on fewer holidays than are currently mandated, but providers say the money they'll save through holiday closings doesn't make up for the funding that's being cut.
"We just can't see where the money's going to come from," says Amy Mereson, director of youth education and arts programs at University Settlement. "Our options are to close down for significantly more time, or we cut all the stuff that makes programs rich—chess, dance, theater, sports—the things that make a quality program, it's all taken away."
"The city's approach to trying to find what's ultimately pocket change on the backs of these populations that we serve, I can't wrap my brain around it," Mereson adds. "The assumption is always that community-based organizations will find a way. We're getting to the point where we can't find a way."
SEPTEMBER 16, 2010—Administrative confusion in city government has left thousands of families with children at risk of entering foster care without help from critical support services in recent months, according to data released by the Administration for Children's Services. Despite an influx of emergency funding, the number of families taking part in programs that provide everything from counseling and case management to drug treatment and housekeeping fell 21 percent between April and July of this year, ACS data show.
The number of children taking part in these "preventive" programs, which are designed to stabilize families in crisis and protect kids from abuse or neglect, has dropped to a 10-year low since April. New enrollments are down nearly 40 percent compared to last year, a dramatic reversal of a core city policy long intended to make sure children are safe at home while parents receive help dealing with extreme poverty, domestic violence, mental health issues and other difficulties.
The disclosure comes in the wake of the September 2nd death of a malnourished, medically fragile four-year-old Brooklyn girl, Marchella Pierce, whose mother has been charged with assault, drug possession and endangering the welfare of a child. The family had been receiving preventive services from the nonprofit Child Development Support Corporation, but the agency apparently stopped monitoring the family when its contract ended in June.
Preventive service programs have been hit by a triple-whammy of budget cuts, operational errors and strategic planning decisions that many advocates describe as both shortsighted and dangerous. "It's a train wreck," says Michael Arsham, executive director of the Child Welfare Organizing Project, a self-help and advocacy organization of parents involved with the child welfare system. "The provider community is in chaos."
Preventive services have been on the city's chopping block since ACS issued its most recent request for contract proposals this spring. In anticipation of a budget squeeze, and as part of a plan to provide more intensive services over shorter periods of time, the agency planned for a reduction of 2,400 (out of about 11,000) preventive service slots.
By the time ACS finished evaluating proposals this April, 600 more slots had fallen to budget cuts. Nine agencies were told they wouldn't be awarded contracts with the city, and many more were instructed to shrink their services and begin closing or transferring cases. "Child safety and risk were carefully considered in these assessments," says Laura Postiglione, a spokesperson for ACS. "Where families were found to need continued child welfare services, those families were transferred to another preventive program or re-referred to child protective services."
But administrators at preventive service agencies describe the period of caseload reduction as disorganized and painful. "It's not possible to cut 3,000 cases without putting children in danger," says Robert Gutheil, the executive director of Episcopal Social Services of New York, which was slated to lose nearly 50 slots at its Bronx preventive service site. "You have no choice but to reduce intake, which means only those with the most glaringly obvious problems are going to get any attention. Just as night follows day, we're going to have horror stories."
More than two months into the caseload cuts, a whole new layer of administrative chaos hit the system when the administration announced it had made a mistake in scoring contract proposals, and that its award recommendations, which had sent agencies scrambling in the first place, would be rescinded. Meanwhile, in June, the City Council announced that it would restore funding for 2,900 of the 3,000 lost preventive service slots.
ACS sent a memo to contracted providers, asking them to halt reductions. The administration reverted back to its previous set of contracts, extending all but two until the end of June, 2011, and asking provider agencies to ramp back up to their previous service levels. But by that time, many agencies were well into shut-down mode. Several had laid off staff, some had terminated leases and many had announced to clients they were cutting back on services.
"It's more than fair to say that hundreds of families fell out of the system," says Sophine Charles, a program director at Steinway Child and Family Services, which was scheduled to close after it didn't receive a contract award from ACS. "Now we're required to go back to our original utilization rates, but it's starting from scratch. How do you hire staff when your funding is only secure for the next eight months?"
The number of families participating in preventive services fell from more than 15,200 in June 2009 to just 12,230 in July 2010, according to data recently released by ACS (click to view chart). New enrollments fell from more than 1,100 in the month of March 2010 to just 579 during July (click to view chart). Many families must enroll in these programs under court order; others attend voluntarily with the encouragement of ACS child protective caseworkers, or they are referred by social workers, physicians or others in their communities.
Child welfare advocates, as well as members of the City Council, are pushing to have the money from the council's restoration funding baselined into the mayor's budget before the next fiscal year, which begins in July 2011, so that agencies have the ability to develop stable, long-term planning. The council's General Welfare Committee plans to hold a hearing on the changes to the preventive service system on September 28th, says Meghan Lynch, chief of staff for the committee's chair, Annabel Palma.
Public Advocate Bill de Blasio has also launched an inquiry into preventive service reductions, linking the cuts to the death of Marchella Pierce. In a letter to ACS Commissioner John Mattingly, de Blasio called on the agency to review every case that was closed during the April-to-July reduction period. "The heartbreaking circumstances surrounding Marchella Pierce's death raise troubling questions about ACS policies and practices and the possibility of systemic problems that could leave an untold number of children at risk," he wrote.
MARCH 1, 2010—More than two months after it revoked Section 8 rental assistance vouchers from 2,597 low-income households and put a freeze on new enrollments in the federal program, the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) says it has no clear plan for resolving the crisis.
At least, that's what NYCHA Chairman John Rhea told City Council members at a hearing last Tuesday.
Citing a budget shortfall, NYCHA announced last December the cancellation of the previously issued housing vouchers, most of which had been given to people facing housing emergencies. These included more than 1,500 families who had moved out of the homeless shelter system, 492 domestic violence survivors, as well as young adults aging out of foster care and parents ready to reunify with children leaving foster care.
Rhea said that a change in federal policy caused a $21 million shortfall in his agency's Section 8 budget, and there was no choice but to revoke the vouchers. "They created a problem," he said.
In fact, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) informed NYCHA in March 2009 that it had reached its limit of 99,732 active vouchers citywide, Rhea said. Nonetheless, the agency continued to give them out through December, totaling out at 101,895 vouchers.
Section 8 is a coveted, long-term federal subsidy for low-income people renting apartments on the private market. The voucher pays the difference between 30 percent of a household's income and the actual rent. The rent subsidy program is separate from public housing, which NYCHA also manages.
Asked to explain why the agency had continued issuing vouchers it couldn't afford, Rhea said NYCHA did not want to cut the program off and leave vulnerable families stranded while NYCHA awaited more federal funding. "We got a lot more families in housing from May to December than we would have if we had terminated vouchers and stopped issuing vouchers at that time," he said.
Commissioners Rafael Cestero of the city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development and Robert Hess of the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) also testified at the hearing. They said there was little they could do right now other than reassign vouchers that are turned in by people who leave the subsidy program.
Rhea said NYCHA has sought additional funding from HUD, but has received nothing.
"NYCHA has zero in its reserves," Rhea said, adding that his agency has already taken $10 million from an administrative fund to try to fix the problem. There is still no timetable for when Section 8 will become available again, Rhea said, adding that the budget HUD presented NYCHA for 2010 would not meet NYCHA's need.
Hess announced that DHS will create a $1 million "housing flex fund" through its HomeBase program, to aid those who are being threatened by homelessness again. When asked if $1 million is enough to cover the 1,505 former shelter families that lost Section 8, Hess answered "I do not know." He said that some of those affected by the freeze are still at risk of becoming homeless.
"It is clear that we need your help," Rhea said, in a plea to the Council to work alongside NYCHA in finding a solution instead of against the housing agency. But the public officials on the other side of the dais weren't ready to go along.
"I think the notion that the administration would simply allow this problem to continue unaddressed or partially addressed, for a lot of us is unacceptable," said Public Advocate Bill de Blasio.
"It is my belief that this population and this constituency has never been a priority for this administration," added Councilmember Letitia James of Brooklyn.
Meanwhile, uptown, Shaquana Hawkins of the Bronx is also awaiting answers. She wants to move with her daughter to another part of the city to get away from her abusive former partner. She had her brand new Section 8 voucher revoked in December.
Hawkins, a 25-year-old Bronx native, lived in South Carolina when the abuse started.
"I moved back to New York to get away," Hawkins said. But that didn't help. Her abuser, a South Carolina native, moved to the Bronx and knew exactly where to find her. The abuse began again, but with greater violence.
"My daughter's father was trying to kill me. He jumped on the hood of my car and broke all of the windows on my car while I was driving," Hawkins recalled.
The police took him to jail, but it only made matters worse.
"Even though they locked him up, he got out a few days later and was still stalking me," she said.
Hawkins opened a restraining order against her former abuser and entered the emergency shelter system. She received a short-term "Work Advantage" rent voucher from the city, which has been paying $962 of her monthly rent for nearly two years. This voucher expires in April. Section 8 was to be her next step. Now, she does not know what will happen next.
Hawkins said NYCHA placed her on "top of the list" for a new Section 8 voucher when funding becomes available. But that could be a long wait. She's not sure she has the time.
"As soon as somebody pops up dead on the news, they want to act like they are doing something, but I have been telling them I need help all along," Hawkins said.
"When I ask them [NYCHA] questions, they act really nasty on the phone. They tell me not to take it personal. But what are me and my daughter supposed to do?"
DECEMBER 10, 2009—Over the current city fiscal year, more than 2,000 formerly homeless New York City families will reach the expiration date of temporary rent vouchers that helped them move out of shelters. Advocates say they fear hundreds of them may end up homeless again.
"The city has no comprehensive plan to address the needs of those families," says Patrick Markee, senior policy analyst at Coalition for the Homeless. "It is a ticking time bomb... It cuts families off no matter what their circumstances."
City officials counter that families whose temporary rent vouchers are expiring—and who are at risk of becoming homeless—are in many cases eligible for other subsidies. These include a welfare-based housing allowance or, for those whose incomes are too high for public assistance, a federal Section 8 housing voucher.
Section 8 provides long-term rent subsidies to more than 100,000 low-income New York City families, but homeless families have not been prioritized for the program since a Bloomberg administration policy change in 2004. In practice, however, some formerly homeless families facing eviction can now obtain the federal rent subsidy.
"Section 8 is prioritized to families at risk of entering shelter," says Eileen Lynch, assistant commissioner for policy and planning at the Department of Homeless Services (DHS). She explains that formerly homeless families in the city's short-term Work Advantage voucher program who fear they may lose their home should contact one of the 13 DHS-funded Homebase offices to find out if they are eligible for assistance.
Housing support providers describe the practice of shifting families from short-term Work Advantage vouchers to more permanent Section 8 rent subsidies as "an open-secret safety valve."
Providing Section 8 to homeless families has long been a point of public debate: officials in the Bloomberg and prior administrations have at times described eligibility for Section 8 as an incentive for families to enter the shelter system.
The Work Advantage program is the most recent in a series of city programs providing short-term rent subsidies to homeless families while not guaranteeing long-term support. During the last city fiscal year, which ended on June 30, the city placed 3,105 families in apartments using Work Advantage vouchers.
The city has broadly expanded its use of so-called "shallow" or short-term rent supports in order to help more families move from shelters into apartments. As the number of families in shelters grew from 7,100 in 2002 to more than 9,300 last summer, DHS more than doubled the number of homeless families it placed into permanent housing—from about 3,500 families in FY02 to 8,810 in FY09. The city-funded Work Advantage program has been a key part of this increase.
The value of the Work Advantage voucher is based on family size. For example, the voucher covers $1,020 in monthly rent for a family of three or four; the tenant is expected to pay an additional $50 per month. Voucher holders are supposed to be employed at least 20 hours per week and are guaranteed to receive their rent subsidy for one year. If they still qualify after 12 months, they can receive a second year of assistance.
City data show that participants in the Work Advantage program are employed an average of 31 hours per week and earn an average $9 per hour.
Some are tenuously employed. After the second year, those with incomes low enough to qualify for public assistance can receive an eviction-prevention housing allowance from the city and state, which provides about $900 in rent support for a family of four. This allowance can last as long as three years, says Jeff Gaskell of the Center for Employment and Economic Supports in the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance. The state agency approved this switch-over for Work Advantage recipients in August, he says.
But many—perhaps most—families in the program don't qualify for public assistance because of their earnings, and are therefore not eligible for the eviction prevention allowance.
Several advocates and nonprofit housing organizations have long pressed the city to resume the once-standard policy of giving homeless families priority for Section 8 vouchers. More recently, homeless families with disabilities or children involved in the child welfare system have been prioritized for Section 8, but those in the much larger Work Advantage program were not officially included.
Nonetheless, some in the program are today moving onto the more substantial federal subsidy. For example, Tasheema Bannister, a mother of four from East New York, Brooklyn, says she will lose her Work Advantage voucher this month, but a city caseworker referred her to a community-based Homebase office which helped her apply for a prioritized federal voucher. "Section 8 is supposed to be my next step," Bannister says.
Markee of the Coalition for the Homeless says the city's approach is simply inadequate for the fast-growing need. "A family timing out of Work Advantage is not guaranteed a Section 8 housing subsidy," he says. "DHS must be doing this on a case to case basis. That is not the way to solve homelessness," he adds. "It ends up being a fairly small amount."
"The program does not recognize that, even in a good economy, some families are still not going to be able to have the funds to keep an apartment," says Markee. He advocates a policy where homeless families are broadly prioritized for Section 8.
Carol Corden, executive director of New Destiny Housing Corporation, says the fundamental problem with the short-term subsidies is that parents in low-income working families face inadequate pay and poor job opportunities. "Unless people are able to attain a job that pays a living wage, they may be left on their own," she says. "There is clearly a benefits cliff" in the Work Advantage program from which families may fall, she says.
Indeed, some families are losing rent supports and facing eviction. Karen Haynesworth, a 25-year-old single mother from Brooklyn, says Work Advantage worked well for her at first, but now things are different. Her voucher expired November 1, and she has received an eviction notice. "The man wants us out of this apartment next month," Haynesworth says.
Haynesworth's rent is $1,070 per month, but she earns only about $638 every two weeks, she says. She says she has also been cut off of her public assistance, Medicare and food stamps. When she attempted to apply for Section 8 over a year ago, a Homebase center told her Section 8 was "closed."
A recent letter from DHS told her to contact Homebase again about preventative measures that could keep her family out of a shelter. This time, Homebase helped her apply for a Section 8 voucher, but told her the application process would take 8-to-12 months and in the meantime she would have to fend for herself. She says a DHS worker advised her to find roommates to ease her expenses. "Now I am at the end of these two years and nobody has any answers for me," Haynesworth says.
"My goal is to pay my rent on my own, but I still need help right now," Haynesworth adds. "I don't want to end up homeless again. I have a 4-year-old child. I have no support system and I have nowhere to go."
Nyshell Ghee, a mother of five in East New York, says she has not had the option of applying for Section 8. Her Work Advantage voucher was worth $1,431 but it expired November 1. Rent for the month of November has been covered, but not December. "I am going to be homeless again," Ghee says.
Ghee's husband earns about $500 a week, which won't cover the family's $1,650 monthly rent. "I will not be able to pay rent, the gas bill and the light bill," she says, adding that a caseworker recently recommended she move her family to the Bronx to find a cheaper apartment.
For the time being, Ghee's future is uncertain. "My husband is a veteran, we shouldn't have to go through this," she says.
JULY 30, 2009—New York City shelters for homeless and runaway youth have turned away dozens of young people this summer because of lack of space, shelter operators and advocacy groups say. Advocates attribute the problem to the economic downturn, which they say has made it more difficult for older adolescents and young adults to find the jobs and housing necessary to become self-sufficient.
"Programs around the city are either totally full, or turning away people," says Margo Hirsch, executive director of Empire State Coalition of Youth and Family Services, an organization that advocates on behalf of runaway, homeless and street youth. "It's definitely related to the economy. Young people who could marginally hold on to a job and stay with relatives, maybe paying a little rent, can't do that anymore."
Streetwork, a program of the nonprofit organization Safe Horizon that serves homeless and runaway youth ages 16 to 21 in Manhattan, turned away 33 young people who requested shelter in April, 26 in May, and 40 in June, according to the agency's vice president David Nish. Last year, he adds, they turned away no people during those three months.
A group of 10 young people who were turned away one day this summer returned the following day, saying they'd spent the night in Central Park, says Nish. "Young people are coming to us looking for beds, and we don't have anywhere to refer them," he says.
Covenant House, which has an emergency shelter in Manhattan for young adults from ages 18 to 21, turned away 46 young people in June, according to Hirsch. "Normally we would accept anyone who came to the door, and we can't do that at this point," says Nancy Downing, Covenant House director of advocacy.
Covenant House reports a 40 percent increase in young people seeking shelter since October 2008. For a few months, the shelter tried to accommodate everyone by increasing the number of young people housed on each of the shelter's five floors from about 45 to about 75. However, in March, staff reduced the number on each floor back to 45. "We simply don't have the funds to increase our staff to be able to accommodate the larger numbers," says Downing. Because of a tight budget, Covenant House has been forced to close programs designed to help prevent homelessness among youth, Downing says.
"It's almost a moot point for us to do referrals at this point, because everyone is full," agrees Frances Wood, an administrator at Sylvia's Place, an emergency shelter in Manhattan for gay, lesbian and transgender youth under the age of 24 run by the Metropolitan Community Church of New York. "Everyone is overflowing and has a long waiting list. It's a really frustrating situation."
She says Sylvia's Place has seen an increase in teens seeking shelter and is housing about six more young people each month than usual. Wood says they have also turned some people away in recent months, although she didn't provide statistics. She adds that she has seen more young adults who don't identify as gay or lesbian asking if they could stay there, for lack of other options.
Legally, young people ages 18 to 21 are eligible to enter adult shelters, but in practice, the adult shelters frequently refer people in that age range to Covenant House, advocates say. Runaway youth under the age of 18 who were abused or neglected at home are potentially eligible for foster care, but in practice it is difficult to get older adolescents placed in the foster care system, says Hirsch. Indeed, 16- and 17-year-olds have a legal right to leave home on their own, without a parent's consent, for as long as 30 days if they enter a shelter for runaways.
Susan Haskell, assistant commissioner for the city's Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD), which funds services for runaway and homeless youth, says the crisis shelters for youth have been operating at 100 percent capacity for the past several years. She says the number of crisis shelter beds doubled from 60 in 2006 to 113 last year. When demand outstrips supply, the shelters give priority to 16- and 17-years old and often refer 18- to 20-year-olds to the city's adult shelter system, she says.
Covenant House receives funds from both private and public sources, and private donations have decreased recently, Downing adds. The City Council increased DYCD's budget for runaway and homeless youth from $4.6 million last year to about $5.9 million for the fiscal year that began July 1. City Councilman Lewis Fidler, D-Brooklyn, who has advocated for more money for homeless youth, says the funds were approved in June and should be distributed in August. He says the increase will help but will not solve the problem. "The pie here is not big enough," he says.
Before the current recession, more young people may have made the fragile transition to self-sufficiency by relying on the hospitality of relatives, friends, and parents, advocates say. But as adults lose their jobs and sometimes their homes, fewer families may be willing to support children after age 18, says Nish.
"Right now a lot of young people who would be able to enter self-sufficient adulthood are really being delayed in that process because competition is much fiercer, availability of jobs is much less," says Theresa Nolan, director of New York City programs for Green Chimneys, a nonprofit agency that runs a wide range of youth programs. Budget cuts at nonprofits, meanwhile, make it more difficult to serve young people in need. Green Chimneys has temporarily closed 10 beds in its 20-bed program for homeless gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender young people because of city budget cuts. (Nolan hopes to be able to reopen those beds in August with new city funding.)
A 2007 survey by the Empire State Coalition of Youth and Family Services estimated that there were 3,800 homeless people between the age of 16 and 24 in New York City on any given night. Of those, about 1,600 had spent the night sleeping outside, in an abandoned building, at a transportation hub, or in a car, bus, train, or another vehicle. Another 150 spent the night as a sex worker, according to the survey.
JULY 2, 2009—The city has delayed plans to move some 500 foster children from institutions to family settings after foster care agencies complained that the moves were poorly planned and rushed, according to foster care agencies, children's law guardians, and the city's Administration for Children's Services (ACS).
In the past two years, some children were sent to relatives who couldn't care for them, some were sent from one institution to another, and still others were discharged from care to live on their own before they were ready, foster care providers say. In addition, some children were sent to foster parents who had not yet been trained, the providers say and the city acknowledges.
"Some moves happened very quickly. Speed became important as opposed to accuracy," says Irwin Moss, director of social work at Leake and Watts' residential campus, which was the campus from which about 130 children moved over the last 18 months. "Some [kids] went to situations that weren't the best. Many went to independent living before they were ready." One young woman, Brandy Allen, 19, told Child Welfare Watch she was sent from Leake and Watts' campus to a group home while ACS was authorizing another home for her to live in. The group home did not have a bed for her to sleep on, Allen says. Instead of sleeping on a couch, she went to a friend's house, she says.
The Administration for Children's Services acknowledges there have been problems in the city's plan to move 1,000 children from institutions in the 21-month period that ended June 2009. ACS Deputy Commissioner Lorraine Stephens says about 500 children were moved by the end of June, but the agency delayed the timeline for moving the remaining 500 children after it received complaints from foster care providers. ACS now hopes to reach its goal by June 2010, a year later than anticipated, Stephens says. She says ACS is working more closely with foster care agencies and children's law guardians to make plans for which children will move and where. "I think how we included providers in the discussion has changed," she says.
The plan to move children out of institutions, including residential treatment centers and group homes, is part of a wider effort by the city to keep more children in family settings. A growing body of research suggests young people fare better living in families than in group care. Of the over 16,400 kids in foster care, about 2,100 now live in institutions. That's a reduction of 2,200 children in institutional care since 2003, when more than 4,300 New York City foster children lived in group care.
While almost all child welfare practitioners agree with efforts to keep children out of group care whenever possible, some say the plan was driven by ACS's desire to reduce the number of institutional foster care beds rather than by the individual needs of children.
Only six of 16 children who were moved from Green Chimneys, a foster care provider in Brewster, N.Y., found stable family placements, says Debbie MacCarry, compliance and risk manager for the agency. Two ended up in psychiatric hospitals. Two others went home, but ended up back at Green Chimney's campus after that did not work out, and eventually moved to another group living situation, she says. Many of the children had serious mental health issues.
Moving children to homes that are tenuous sets them up for the trauma that results from a failed placement, she says. "Failing for them is re-traumatizing them, sometimes causing a subsequent hospitalization," says MacCarry.
Lawyers representing children in foster care say more recent moves have been less chaotic. "They aren't closing placements with the same kind of blind urgency that seemed to drive the process when it first started," says Betsy Kramer, director of policy and special litigation at Lawyers for Children.
"They also seem to be concentrating on replacing smaller numbers of children at a time—which is a huge improvement on the massive wave of bed reductions that happened in the beginning—this smaller scale makes it much easier to really focus on the young people, what their options are, and where they should go. The process has not been without problems, but it has definitely improved."
April 30, 2009—The federal government has paved the way for the cities and states to move thousands of children off the foster care rolls and into long-term "subsidized guardianship" with relatives, but New York State isn't likely to come up with the necessary matching dollars any time soon.
State legislators, local officials and advocates are meeting this spring—with the first session slated for May 1—to develop new legislation that would establish the details of a New York guardianship program. There is no funding for such a program in the fiscal year 2010 budget, which means it will most likely be at least one more year before such a program begins.
Supporters argue that in other states, government-subsidized guardianship has relieved pressure on foster care systems and saved money, while allowing families more independence and greater control over their children's lives.
In New York City, nearly a third of the 16,500 children in foster care live with relatives in kinship foster homes. Subsidized guardianship would allow many children in long-term kinship care to leave the foster care system. They would remain with their relatives for as long as necessary, but without the same degree of intense oversight and costly monitoring by the government and nonprofit agencies—and without severing a child's legal ties to his or her parents.
"This is a win-win situation all around, for the children, for the family caregivers and the foster care system," says state Senator Velmanette Montgomery (D-Brooklyn). "Children will have a safe, permanent home with loved ones. Family members will get the help they need to properly care for their kin, and the foster care system saves money because it will administer fewer cases."
Then-President George Bush signed the federal Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008 into law in October 2008. The law was modeled after the Kinship Caregiver Support Act, which former New York Senator Hillary Clinton long championed. New York is one of a handful of states which does not yet have a subsidized guardianship program.
The federal law provides support for caregivers looking after their nieces, nephews, grandchildren and other relatives outside of the foster care system. To receive federal dollars, the state legislature must establish a subsidized guardianship program and figure out how to cover 50 percent of the cost of the program.
Stakeholders will meet this spring to discuss program details, including who would be eligible. While advocates hope that New York will be able to pass legislation this session, no one knows how long it will take to hammer out the fine points, says a source in the legislature. Senator Montgomery and Assemblyman William Scarborough (D-Queens) are among the legislators backing the effort.
Currently, many relative caregivers in New York receive financial support either as foster parents or adoptive parents. Advocates of subsidized guardianship point out that both routes pose problems. Foster parents looking after their relatives for long periods of time often complain that constant monitoring by the child welfare system is invasive. Because foster care is considered a temporary placement, relative caregivers also face pressure by child welfare workers to adopt. But adopting a family member's child can fuel familial tensions, and older children may not want to sever ties with their parents.
In Chicago, a subsidized guardianship program freed up the city's Family Court system and saved money because guardians, unlike foster parents, do not receive ongoing supervision by caseworkers and judges, say observers of that foster care system. In New York, they say, subsidized guardianship could help reduce the number of cases in the city's backlogged Family Court.
However, John Mattingly, commissioner of the city's Administration for Children's Services, warns that a bill must be crafted carefully so as not to dissuade foster parents from adopting.
"Those of us who have been in the field long enough know that most times, relatives will adopt if reunification is not a live option, if the agency supports them in their decision, and if it will achieve permanence for the child," Mattingly wrote in an email. "In sum, kinship guardianship can be the best option for a small percentage of children, but the State of New York needs to be careful to craft regulations for its use that will continue the emphasis on adoption for most children who cannot return home." Moreover, Mattingly says, the state should not move forward with kinship guardianship until there is permanent funding for the program.
Advocates say one of the main challenges is determining how the program will be funded: federal money will cover only 50 percent of the costs, and the state and the city must negotiate how the remaining costs will be divided. There is also the question of whether the state's portion will come out of the foster care block grant—which is capped—or from a different source. Taking money out of the block grant would mean less money for foster care, but it would allow the program to begin sooner.
"This will be hardest the part, especially given the budget," says Stephanie Gendell, associate executive director for policy and public affairs at the advocacy organization Citizens' Committee for Children of New York. "There is so much support behind the concept that hopefully the money won't derail it from becoming a reality."
Complicating matters, no one has pinpointed how much the program will cost, or how many New York City children living with relatives would participate. Most likely, children living with relatives in kinship foster care will be eligible only if they are expected neither to return to their parents nor to be adopted. If the program provides these families with a stipend comparable to that which foster parents receive, it could cost about $7,500 per child, per year, one source in the legislature estimated. Adding services to help these families succeed—such as respite care or family therapy—would bring up the cost.
The cost of foster care is far higher, however, because of the substantial cost of case management, administrative oversight, support services and Family Court involvement.
"More news at 11 around guardianship," said William T. Gettman Jr., executive deputy commissioner of the state's Office of Children and Family Services, in a recent briefing about his agency's budget. "But I think there's a general consensus that we want to move forward."