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Citizens Union


Helping Men Be Fathers

My father was not much of a family man. He was always in and out of prison. Growing up in foster care, I missed having a dad to help me learn how to read and write, to play sports and talk to. I wanted him to help me answer questions such as, "Can I make it in life?" and, "What is my purpose?"

I'm not alone in missing a dad. More than half of all black children do not live with their fathers, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And at least one in four Hispanic kids and one in five white kids live without their dads.

This has an effect on individual families and on society in general. Research shows that kids who don't have dads are much more likely to be depressed, fail school, commit crimes, have sex early on and (for girls) get pregnant. Nationally children without fathers are 10 times more likely to be extremely poor than other children.

As a result, a number of programs have been launched nationally and in New York City to try to help men be better fathers. New York City has a Fatherhood Initiative and allocates $3 million in federal Community Service Block Grants to 12 community organizations working with local dads. (For more on city programs to help fathers, see Gotham Gazette.)

One of these groups is STRIVE (Support and Training Results in Valuable Employees). It, in turn, runs a program in East Harlem called POPS (Providing Opportunity for Parental Success) that works mostly with black and Latino fathers 18 to 35 years old. It offers an eight-week workshop that helps fathers reunite and connect with their children, and also provides counseling, mediation with family members and legal help. Once a man participates in POPS, he can come back for help throughout his entire life. "We're like a leech. We latch on and don't let go," said Robert Sanchez, the program manager.

In POPS, dads learn how to hold a newborn and how a baby communicates his needs by crying. POPS shows men how to play with their children, help them with homework, ask about their interests, or discover something new by taking kids on outings. Dads learn child development, how to be patient, and how to solve a child's problems without criticizing a child or making her feel bad.

POPS advises men not to give up on having a good relationship with their children -- even if a dad has been told he can't see his kids or feels the kid does not appreciate him, Sanchez said. If the mother won't let a father see his kids, POPS workers take the dad to family court and help him exercise his legal rights to see his children.

Beyond the legal barriers, many men stay away from their children out of fear, Sanchez said. Having a child is scary. "A lot of guys worry that they don't know how to care for a child and don't want to look stupid."

Some men don't stay because of "baby mama" drama. "Fifty percent of our fathers have a volatile relationship with their child's mother," and almost none are married to them, Sanchez noted. Frustrated with their child's mother, men may stop seeing their kids to avoid fights and conflict, or the mothers may not let them visit.

Other dads disappear because they get caught up in the streets or prison. Black men in particular are at risk for getting locked up. Over our lifetimes, we face a 32 percent chance of spending at least a year in jail, Inside Higher Educationreported. White men face a 6 percent chance.

And lots of fathers have no idea how to be a good parent because they never had one themselves. At least 15 percent of the men who participate in POPS were in foster care when they were boys, Sanchez noted.

Many men believe a father's only role is to provide for their children. Men with jobs are more likely than unemployed fathers to be present in their children's lives. Those without money or jobs may "associate fatherhood as an extension of their pocket, and think 'I'll stay out of the child's life until I have money,'" Sanchez explained. This has a big effect on black families in New York City where, according to a report by the Community Service Society, only 51.9 percent of black men ages 16 to 64 were employed.

But Sanchez emphasizes that even the poorest fathers can support their children in important ways. "One question I ask my fathers is, 'What is one great thing you remember about your dad?'" Their answers, Sanchez said, never have to do with money. "That child is not going to remember the sneakers, but he does remember the time you took him to the park, or to a baseball game, or made him feel good about himself," Sanchez.

Sanchez's own history explains why he is so passionate about fatherhood. At 18, Sanchez fathered a daughter. He was also arrested in an apartment where drugs were found and sent to prison for 15 years. While incarcerated, he wrote to his daughter, had her visit and kept communication open with the girl's mother. When he came out of prison, he gave his daughter a cellphone to stay in touch with him. His feelings were hurt when she did not use it much.

One day Sanchez watched a Spanish film, "Mi Familia," In it, a character returns from prison and tries to force his child into a relationship. The child rejects him. An older, wiser relative tells the man, "You can't come home and demand a relationship."

"That, to me, was a lesson," Sanchez recalls. "Her feelings were legitimate. I had been out of her life for 14 years and had to give her space and room to feel what she's feeling."

Sanchez let his daughter know he would always be there for her, but that she could have some say in how much time they would spend together. Now they see each other about twice a month.

Sanchez believes that, to be a good father, a man needs to understand his own anger, his past, and his parents. To end his own family's pattern of absent fathers, Sanchez did not use drugs or alcohol. He went to college and earned a master's degree, and forgave people who had wronged him.

New York City dads, like Sanchez and the men in the POPS program hope to stay in the lives of their children. They want to break the cycle of missing fathers. When it is my turn, I am going to try to break that cycle as well.

Antwaun Garcia is a writer at Represent, a magazine by and for teenagers in foster care that is published by Youth Communication.

Cuomo Proposes a New Agency to Help Disabled

Photo provided by the Office of Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed legislation on Monday that would create a new state agency to investigate and prosecute cases of abuse and neglect of disabled people, strengthening protections for New Yorkers with special needs.

The new agency being proposed was created with the help of advocates and would have an inspector general and special prosecutor. Any potential criminal cases would be referred to local district attorneys, who could then pursue charges.

“This is about safeguarding the civil rights of the more than one million New Yorkers with disabilities and special needs, who for too long have not had the protections and justice they deserve,” the governor said at a news conference in Albany.

Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos described Cuomo's proposal as a "package of thoughtful reforms." Assembly Leader Sheldon Silver congratulated Cuomo on his legislation. “The governor has outlined a plan to inject much-needed accountability into the system for the care of individuals with developmental disabilities and to eliminate abuses," he said.

The lawmakers said they expected Cuomo's legislation creating the new agency, which would be known as the Justice Center for the Protection of People with Special Needs, could be passed by the end of this session. There are 20 session days remaining.

In a series of articles last year, New York Times reported on abuses under the current state system for protecting the developmentally disabled. In one case highlighted in the series, a 13-year-old autistic boywas asphyxiated when he was crushed to death in the back seat of a van by a 200-pound state employee.

The worker was a ninth grade dropout who had been convicted of selling marijuana and hadn’t had a day off in 15 days. The driver of the van, who had been fired from four different organizations that helped the disabled until he was hired by the state, watched as the boy died without saying much, the Times reported.

Cuomo’s plan would centralize background checks for workers and create new laws with clearer definitions of abuse.

Barriers Keep Many Disabled New Yorkers Trapped in Poverty

Photo by Euan Slorach

As dire as the economic situation is for New Yorkers overall, the challenges confronting those with disabilities in this economic climate loom as truly staggering. Almost one third -- 32 percent -- of all disabled New Yorkers live in poverty.

The median household income for these disabled city residents is $30,555, compared to about $58,072 for the working-age population without disabilities. This income gap of $27,517 is substantially greater than the divide in the United States and somewhat larger than that for New York state as a whole.

No single reason accounts for the difficulties facing disabled New Yorkers. Some of it, of course, arises from the overall high rates of of poverty and homelessness in New York City, a crisis the Bloomberg administration by many accounts has been slow to address.

Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hungerand a frequent administration critic, said the data has finally captured the mayor's attention. However, Berg wrote, his administration still doesn't quite get it.

Human Resources commissioner Robert Doar "continues to make the argument that NYC is doing a fine job fighting poverty because we still have lower overall poverty rates than Detroit of Philadelphia,” Berg complained in an email. "I am surprised he doesn't brag that we are doing better than Burkina Faso and North Korea."

As poverty increases, advocates say people with disabilities face a series of obstacles -- starting with shortcomings in special education and continuing on to problems in health insurance, job placement programs and the very government offices designed to address their needs. Those with disabilities face systemic discrimination and barriers within both the public and private sectors. Together, all of this traps many disabled New Yorkers in a sequence of poverty.

The Statistical Story

Whatever the reasons for the distress, the numbers portray a serious crisis. Over the summer, the Center for Independence of the Disabled, New York released a report analyzing the state of people with disabilities in New York 20 years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

"We are more likely to be hungry and impoverished than our non-disabled counterparts and rely on food and health safety-net programs for survival," it said. "The problem of disability-based disparities in access and outcomes has consequences for our state and city that have not been fully explored or addressed."

Its findings include:

  • Among people living in poverty, the gap between people with disabilities and those without disabilities is 18 percentage points -- roughly 32 percent versus 13.6 percent, respectively.
  • People with disabilities are about twice as likely to rely on food stamps than their non-disabled counterparts.
  • Median yearly earnings of people with disabilities in New York lag more than $25,000 behind those of other New Yorkers. The 441,598 working-aged (18 to 64) individuals with disabilities in the city also are less likely to have jobs than residents without disabilities.

An Achievement Gap

Educational disparities play a key role in the sequence of poverty. People with disabilities are less likely to graduate high school than other New Yorkers, with only about 30 percent completing high school in four years. "If the education gap is greater, then poverty is greater," Hunter College professor and center board member John O’Neill said, adding if people with disabilities "can acquire better education, prospects for earning over a lifetime are better like [with] everyone else."

Despite many efforts to place students in the least restrictive possible settings, many disabled students remain isolated from other students. Maggie Moroff, coordinator of the ARISE Coalition, which was created to advocate on behalf of children with special needs, and coordinator of special education policy at Advocates for Children said the city Department of Education has made some improvements” in special education. However, Moroff said, the department still needs to integrate more students into the general school population and increase the quality of education offered students in special education.

"Teachers were trained to meet all needs but [the] academic [ones]," Advocates for Children executive director Kim Sweet elaborated. "Many special education teachers lack training in academic content, such as history or math, particularly at the high school level.”

More than one third of city special education students attend separate classes, a higher percentage than in Chicago or Los Angeles, WNYC reported recently.

Two reports issued by Arise, Out of School and Unprepared and Educate! Include! Respect! shed further light on the struggles of special ed enrollees, particularly minority children. For example, ARISE found, over 90 percent of students graduating with Individual Education Plan or IEP, diplomas -- available only to special education students -- in 2007 were black or Latino, although black and Latino students made up only 70 percent of all students in the class of 2007.

An IEP diploma has less academic value than New York's other diplomas -- it is not accepted by colleges or the military -- so many students find they also need to get a GED, available to people who did not graduate, as well. Moroff said families often don’t know this is the case. "By the time family knows, [the child] is too many credits behind” his peers to catch up, she said.

A spokeswoman for the education department's special ed office adamantly disagreed, saying parents are informed about the diploma early on. She also noted that the state, not the city, establishes standards for issuing diplomas.

The graduation numbers are even worse when one only looks at students in self-contained special education classes, as opposed to those who attend regular classes but receive some special services. Educate! reports, "Graduation rates for students in self-contained, special education classes have declined to less than 5 percent, and dropout rates for these students remain more than two and a half times higher than students in other special education settings." These autonomous classes, the report notes, contain a disproportionate number of black and Latino males.

Finally, advocates point to discipline and punishment -- including suspension -- of special education students. Figures recently released by the city's Department of Education found that 30 percent of all suspensions went to special education students, who account for about 17 percent of the total student population.

Moroff said school officials need to consider whether what they see as misbehavior may have been caused by a student's disability. Once suspended, she added, "The child, often incorrectly, is sent down a path toward an almost certain failure… They lose time and [often] drop out."

On the Job

Workforce development and other employment programs do little to rectify the shortcomings of the schools system, advocates for the disabled say. "Most workforce programs funnel people with disabilities toward low-wage employment -- not careers. This keeps people with disabilities in low-wage jobs that generally have no ladder up," Susan Dooha, executive director of the Center for the Independence of the Disabled, wrote in an email.

The one-stop work centers designed to help New Yorkers find employment vary considerably in how effective they are for the disabled, according to O'Neill. Some, he said, are inaccessible to those with physical disabilities. More importantly, though, the centers receive payment on a per-client basis, creating a disincentive for center staff to help people, including the disabled, who may require more help to find appropriate work.

In New York City, the Workforce1 career centers are technically administered through the Department of Small Business Services and <http://home2.nyc.gov/html/sbs/html/about/eo_wia.shtml A spokesperson for the mayor’s office, though, redirected the focus to a separate program run by the city’s Human Resources Administration, WeCare, which seems to prioritize getting its clients off public assistance.

WeCARE -- Wellness, Comprehensive Assessment, Rehabilitation and Employment -- was created "to give clients with disabilities the supports and services they need to have an equal opportunity to transition from welfare to their highest level of self-sufficiency by providing customized services that identify and address individual service needs," Samantha Levine, the spokesperson, said in an email.

The Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities is supposed to serve as a liaison between city government, relevant organizations and the disabled community. It offers listings of a range of services provided by public and non-profits, ranging from education, coordinating activities and events, to agency programs designed to assist people with disabilities.

Despite repeated requests, the mayor's office did not authorize Matthew Sapolin, the commissioner of the disabilities office, to be interviewed for this article.

The Public Role

Government agencies, such as the Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities, have a key part to play in improving the overall lot of the disabled, advocates believe. "Public agencies are in leadership roles and ensuring that their agencies contract with disability-owned businesses can improve employment outcomes for people with disabilities," Dooha wrote.

Unfortunately, she continued, "Since the recession we have seen people" who are in the city's work program for people with disabilities "threatened with layoffs in higher numbers, losing any gains that they had made."

Furthermore, she wrote, “There is very little disability literacy in public agencies -- most have little contact with people with disabilities and give little value given to our expertise."

The reliance of people with disabilities on public agencies extends to their medical coverage. New York state's 2007 Chartbook on Disability described the disabled as more likely than other New Yorkers to be underinsured. As a result, "People with disabilities are more likely than those without disabilities to have deferred medically necessary care on the basis of cost … and have chronic health conditions," the analysis stated.

Dooha explained there's a lack of coordination and cohesion in medical care for the disabled. "The system is piecemeal," she said with some people not getting coverage they are entitled to.

"People who are employed whose income goes up are told they are no longer eligible for Medicaid, even when they are still low-income," Heidi Siegfried, health policy director for the Center for the Independence of the Disabled, emailed. However the state does indeed provide a program that allows them to keep Medicaid coverage even though they may have earned income. "For low-income workers this can mean that they can keep their jobs and maintain their health," Siegfried said.

City and state workers, who are supposed to be trained about these issues, often provide false or misleading information to clients, or simply do not know what programs are available, Dooha said. The fact that some disabled people are overwhelmed by bureaucracy only complicates the problem.

Looking for Solutions

Given the many factors contributing to the high poverty and unemployment rates among the disabled, Disability Matters offers an array of recommendations to improve the situation. The following is just a sampling. For example in education, the report calls for:

  • Providing students with services in the least restrictive possible settings and giving special education students access to the school community and all its activities;
  • Reversing exclusionary policies contributing to discipline and suspension that lead to poor educational outcomes and high drop-out rates;
  • Ensuring the Individualized Education Plans that all special ed students have are complete and reflect the needs, strengths and preferences of the specific child;
  • Taking steps that all diplomas granted have meaning in the post-high school world of work.

In employment, the group calls for:

  • Changing the funding for workforce programs to remove disincentives to serving people with disabilities;
  • Making sure all workforce development entities have a disability-literate workforce that uses strategies to build on the strengths of people with disabilities.

To reduce the number of disabled people living in poverty, the report would increase the benefit rate for the federal Supplemental Security Income program and change the criteria for establishing eligibility. Disability Matters also would like to see the city government provide funding for community outreach and assistance with applications and appeals to help eligible low-income people receive whatever benefits to which they are entitled.

Beyond these and many more specifics Dooha said, “We have proved we are knowledgeable experts [about] our own experiences… we are agents of change, not victims. If you want a victim, go to the New York Times neediest cases.”

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