Quantcast

Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

Citizens Union

Housing

Children In No-Parent Families


The latest news on American families is that more children are living in no-parent households. These are not the packs of ten-year-olds found on the streets of Rio de Janeiro or Bucharest. Children in no-parent U.S. households are cared for by grandparents, other relatives, unrelated foster parents or in group homes.

According to "Side Effect of Welfare Law: The No-Parent Family?" written by Nina Bernstein for the New York Times of July 29, 2002, researchers are wondering if a recent increase in no-parent families is related to the pressures of welfare reform on low-income parents. The Times article cited a study by the Rand Corporation and the University of California which found that during the 1990s, the share of black urban children living without either parent rose from 7.5 percent to 16.1 percent.

Sending children to live with relatives is not a new phenomenon, and is not confined to any particular social or economic group. Most children raised by their grandparents do not live in central cities, and more of them are white than black. There are many reasons why children live without their parents, including divorce, mental and physical health problems, unemployment, alcoholism, drug use, domestic violence, child abuse, and incarceration.

However, there is some evidence that welfare reform has played a growing role. An evaluation of Iowa's welfare-to-work program found that by 1999, welfare applicants randomly assigned to a new work program two years earlier were more than twice as likely to have a child in foster care as were applicants placed in a program operating under the old rules.

Welfare reform in Wisconsin showed similar results: five percent of parents who no longer received public assistance reported sending their children to live with someone else because they could no longer care for them. Researchers expect that the percentage is actually higher, because the most troubled families were under-represented in the study. Another unexpected outcome was an increase in the number of children on public assistance after Wisconsin finished setting up its new welfare system. Children in no-parent families can receive welfare themselves as child-only cases, regardless of their caregivers' income.

About 30,000 New York City children are in "public foster care," meaning that they have been formally placed in a household of relatives or strangers by child welfare workers. No count is kept of children in "private foster care"-those living with non-parents, usually relatives, without official oversight by the child welfare system-but according to Jerard Wallace of the Grandparent Caregiver Law Center, only one in eleven children living with relatives is in the public foster care system.

For caregivers, which of the two systems they are in can mean the difference between financial ruin and the ability to maintain a household in relative comfort. Public foster care entitles each child in a household to the same basic grant. Children with special needs receive larger grants. Children in private foster care are eligible for "child-only" welfare benefits instead. These are smaller payments that make no allowance for children with special needs, and rise only slightly with each additional child in the household. In either system, most children are eligible for Medicaid, and those in low-income households can receive food stamps.

However children in private foster care are much less likely to know about or receive public benefits. Wallace believes that the child welfare system fails to fully inform relative caregivers about available benefits, in part because of a philosophy he summarizes as, "Family should take care of family without us having to give them money."

As a result, many relatives care for children at great cost to themselves. Wallace has captured the effects of this burden in a videotape of nine grandparents speaking about their lives as relative caregivers.

"You cannot watch this tape and not cry," he says. For private foster care, Wallace notes, public assistance "is the de facto support system, and if we are interested in saving children, we have to make this system work."

The Census Bureau estimates that of the 80,000 New York City grandparents raising their grandchildren in 2000, more than one in four lived in poverty, and the majority had no high school diploma. Nearly two-thirds had been responsible for their grandchildren for at least three years.

These conditions in themselves put children at risk. Children in no-parent households with income lower than the poverty level, and headed by an adult who did not graduate from high school, are three times as likely as children in general to be unemployed high school dropouts by age 17. If they are girls, they are five times as likely as girls in general to be raising a child of their own by age 17.

Private foster care also puts children at a disadvantage because of their caregiver's lack of legal status. Without formal custody or guardianship, schools and hospitals can refuse to allow non-parent relatives to make arrangements for children to receive services. Eligibility workers for government benefits programs may not realize that kinship caregivers are entitled to benefits. However, many caregivers are reluctant to take formal steps to gain custody or become guardians, because it may disrupt their families further and delay the children's reunification with their parents.

There are some bright spots in the growing recognition of the needs of relative caregivers. New York State plans to stop cutting child-only welfare payments in half for households where the caregiver is receiving the Earned Income Tax Credit, a benefit available only to low-income families.

In New York City, relative caregivers can turn to the Department for the Aging's Grandparent Resource Center, which offers support groups, information forums, a hotline for referrals to appropriate services, a resource library, and a directory of resources. Center Director Rolanda Pyle also conducts conferences, collects children's toys for the holidays, and has a small emergency cash fund for grandparents in crisis situations.

Pyle helped draft a state bill-which was not enacted-that would have given relative caregivers legal rights regarding children, such as the authority to enroll a child in school, write notes to excuse absence from school, and consent to medical treatment. Similar laws exist in California, Delaware, Florida, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania.

The New York Times followed up its July 29th article with one on August 14, 2002, entitled "Child-Only Cases Take Up a Bigger Share of Welfare." This time, Bernstein noted that child-only cases now make up over one-third of all family assistance cases, inspiring some critics of welfare policy to accuse caregivers of collecting the $352 monthly payments in order to avoid having to work.

The new focus on child-only welfare cases has the potential to bring the needs of caregivers who are relatives into the debate on reauthorizing the federal public assistance laws, and into the training programs of New York City's front line public assistance and child welfare workers. Children living apart from their parents already face major challenges. It might be a wise investment in our future to identify and support children in no-parent families.

Help and information for grandparents raising grandchildren, and other caregivers

  • The Grandparent Resource Center of the New York City Department for the Aging. Rolanda Pyle, Director. Services include an information hotline, mayoral conferences, technical assistance, and a support group facilitators network. Telephone (212) 442-1094.
  • The Grandparent Caregiver Law Center of the Brookdale Center on Aging, Hunter College. Jerard Wallace, JD, Director. Telephone (646) 366-1015 or (518) 434-4571, or visit the website.

  • AARP Grandparent Information Center, in Washington, DC 20049. Telephone (202) 434-2296 (English) or (202) 434-2281 (Spanish). Visit the website of AARP.
  • Grandparents and Other Relatives Raising Children, a project of Generations United. Ana Beltran, Project Director. Telephone(202) 662-4283 or visit Generations United's website.

  • National Resource Center for Respite and Crisis Care Services.

 

Linda Ostreicher, a former budget analyst for the New York City Council, is a freelance writer and consultant to nonprofits. She is currently on the staff of Bronx Independent Living Services.

Welfare Reform, Round Two


By the fall of 2002, Congress will decide how hard the lives of the poorest Americans will be for the next few years. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 is about to expire, putting all the questions about welfare reform back on the table in a changed political climate.

In 1996, the nation's economy was booming, unemployment was closing in on a 30-year low, Washington was intent on conquering the federal deficit, and the president was a Democrat who had already vetoed two welfare reform bills. Today the economy is struggling out of a slump, the unemployment rate started to go up in April 2001, and the deficit is about to reappear. This time, no one cares if we run a deficit, as long as we do so in order to fight terrorism.

Five years of experience with welfare reform have generated results ambiguous enough to support arguments on both sides of the issue. Supporters of the reforms point to the decrease in the poverty rate that paralleled the drop in the welfare rolls as proof that welfare benefits discouraged recipients from working their way up financially. Opponents say that poverty was reduced by the overall rise in prosperity, which has now ended.

New York City has also changed since 1996. Our poverty rate has dropped slightly, welfare rolls were reduced by about 60 percent, we lost 139,000 jobs between December 2000 and April 2002, and we now have a mayor who does not call welfare a "sick culture of dependency." The new commissioner of the Human Resources Administration pledges to provide more job training and support services, including child care and transportation, and the Department of Employment is spending the city's allotment for job training, which the previous administration failed to use.

However, the number of people on public assistance in New York City continues to fall by an average of about one percent a month. Mayor Michael Bloomberg's contingency plan for the coming year's budget eliminates money earmarked to expand the supply of subsidized child care slots, which are too few for the low-income mothers already at work. The administration refused to apply for a waiver that would have allowed unemployed adults without children to receive food stamps for longer than three months.

The debate about welfare reform reauthorization is most heated around a small set of questions with large implications for public assistance recipients:

  • What counts as work? Everyone agrees that paid or unpaid employment is work, as are on-the-job training, and community service. The disagreement concerns whether work requirements can also be met by looking for work, going to vocational school, or learning job skills.
  • How much of a work week has to be "primary" work? Now only 20 hours have to be the kind of work universally acknowledged as work, and the rest of the week can be any training or education related to employment. There is pressure to raise the primary requirement to 24 hours.
  • How many hours a week do you have to work to be considered employed? Thirty hours is the number for most welfare recipients now. Conservatives want to raise it to forty, even for parents of children under six, for whom the requirement is twenty hours at present.
  • What kind of learning should you do to prepare for work, and for how long? Now you can go to vocational school for a year and count it as primary work. Proposals about this vary widely, from reducing the year to four months during any two-year period, to increasing the year to two years, to broadening the type of schooling to include basic literacy classes, English as a Second Language, and/or college.
  • How long should it take to recover from substance abuse? Several proposals want to allow three or six months of treatment before clients have to start working.
  • How long should you be excused from work requirements in order to rebuild your life after surviving domestic violence? This is considered a "barrier removal" activity, because it prepares you to hold a job. Other barriers that might need to be removed are mental health problems and substance abuse. Advocates for the poor propose counting "barrier removal" as work for as long as it takes, rather than for a defined period of time.
  • What are you supposed to do with your children when you are at work? This is not explicitly discussed, but it underlies the haggling over whether child care funding should be raised only enough to keep up with inflation, or enough to cover care for all the children already on waiting lists, or enough to prevent new waiting lists from forming if more parents have to work more hours.
  • How many of the people getting welfare benefits should be able to find and keep jobs? Now the minimum is 50 percent; some want to raise it to 70 percent. There is also negotiating room over whether that fraction comes out of the large pool of everyone who gets a welfare check, or the smaller pool of people who are capable of work on any given day. As of March 3, 2002. over a third of the people receiving public assistance in New York City were classified as "unengageable," due to such reasons as being under 16 or over 60 years of age, having AIDS/HIV infection, caring for a newborn baby, or being temporarily incapacitated by a health problem.

 

The first move on welfare reform reauthorization came in February 2002, when President Bush laid out his vision of an improved system. Bush urged Congress to raise the percentage of recipients who must work from 50 percent to 70 percent, and extend their work week from 30 to 40 hours. On May 16, 2002, the House of Representatives passed a bill including those proposals, among other provisions that are more likely to discourage or disqualify people from receiving benefits than to prepare them for successful careers.

Also in mid-May, the Bloomberg administration sent Congress a 30-page wish list of what the city hopes to see in the next phase of welfare reform. In line with his attention to the Board of Education, Bloomberg calls for a new purpose to be added to the four already on record for Temporary Aid to Needy Families: "Prevent future dependence on government benefits and promote self-sufficiency by providing education and training to children, youth, and adults, in order to develop and enhance job skills."

More concrete city proposals include increased funding for child care to meet the full need for it, increased funding for public assistance to keep up with inflation, and restoring eligibility for federal benefits to all legal immigrants. Advocates for welfare recipients will welcome the city's recommendations to keep the percentage of recipients who must work at 50 percentage, and stopping the clock on the five-year lifetime limit for federal benefits during periods when the recipient is working full-time. Many recipients earn so little that they still qualify for cash assistance; others are using their five years while they receive only smaller benefits meant to encourage work, such as subway fare or child care assistance.

There are multiple bills in the Senate already, where the Democratic majority is expected to pass a less stringent measure than the Republican-controlled House. One bill is being called "tripartisan," because its sponsors include Republican, Democratic, and Independent Senators. This version would keep the work week at 30 hours, allow education and training to count as work for two years, and raise the required work participation rate to 70 percent.

Hillary Clinton has co-sponsored a bill considered more conservative, introduced by Senators Evan Bayh and Thomas Carper. It would increase the work week from 30 to 40 hours for most parents (although single parents with children under the age of six would still only have to work 20 hours), and add $8 billion for child care over the next five years. A detailed comparison of the current law, the House bill that passed, three Senate bills, and two other proposals has been prepared by the Center for Law and Social Policy and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

The Washington debate seems far removed from reality in New York City, where the Jobs section of the Sunday New York Times is so thin, you can hardly find it. The number of jobs in the city increased slightly in April, by 7,300, but so many more people were looking for work that the unemployment rate also rose, from 7.6 percent to 7.7 percent. According to Stephen Bell of the Urban Institute, who reviewed nine studies of welfare caseloads, historically, the number of welfare cases has fallen five percent for every one percent drop in the unemployment rate. It seems reasonable to expect a similar rise in caseload when unemployment goes up.

So far, we haven't seen that in New York. However, welfare benefits do not begin until unemployment benefits run out. Those who lost jobs in September 2001 can receive unemployment checks until July 2002. They will face increased competition for the small supply of job openings if the reauthorized version of welfare reform requires more public assistance recipients to work.

Some opponents of welfare reform are starting to talk about unemployment insurance reform. Unfortunately, our unemployment insurance system is geared toward full-time factory workers needing a few months of checks to tide them over during temporary layoffs. It is not geared to part-time workers. But welfare recipients often find themselves in part-time jobs when they first start working, and go for weeks or months between jobs until they find one that lasts. Now that public assistance as we knew it has ended, it may be time to acknowledge that unemployment as we knew it ended years ago.

Linda Ostreicher, a former budget analyst for the New York City Council, is a freelance writer and consultant to nonprofits. She is currently on the staff of Bronx Independent Living Services.

Child Welfare and Domestic Violence


A federal judge recently delivered what was called a "scathing opinion" of the Administration for Children's Services' treatment of battered mothers and their children. Judge Jack Weinstein has given New York City until June 22 to comply with an injunction designed to prevent the removal of children from the care of a battered mother who does not abuse them. The agency has appealed the judge's decision in the class-action lawsuit, which is known as "Nicholson vs. Scoppetta"

Over the past decade, advocates for both children and battered women have realized there needs to be a working relationship between the systems of child welfare and domestic violence (which almost always means violence against adult women) if they want to protect their clients effectively. However, there long has been a disconnect between services for children and those for adults.

The two systems -- for child welfare, and for domestic violence -- developed separately. Child welfare agencies provide such services as family counseling and foster care placement. They can trace their history back over a century, to the furor that arose around a New York City child beaten by her caretakers. The child welfare system emphasizes investigation, and it values preserving or reuniting families. Children are the clients, and caseworkers are given the authority to make decisions about families against the will of adult members. Parents are in a subordinate role in the child welfare system, and can be forced to undergo therapy or comply with other orders if they want to keep or get back their children.

The domestic violence system, in sharp contrast, grew out of the women's movement in the 1970's and 1980's. One of its fundamental principles is that women surviving partner abuse must be treated with respect and empowered to make their own decisions. Confidentiality is a life-or-death concern, so the need for information is always weighed against the risk of it falling into the wrong hands. Services to survivors must always be voluntary, and any decision to forego services must be respected.

AREAS OF AGREEMENT:

The two systems agree that families in which a child is being abused are often ones in which a woman is also being abused; estimates range from 30 percent to 70 percent. They also agree that both mothers and children should be asked whether they are abused at many points in their passage through the health and social service systems. They both acknowledge that a good safety plan for a non-abusing mother will usually protect her children. Finally, the systems agree that there are not enough services and shelters for the battered women and their children that are known about already, let alone the increasing numbers that will be revealed by expanded screening. The domestic violence policy currently posted on the website of the Administration for Children's Services, includes universal screening of families for domestic violence, safety planning for adult survivors, and acknowledgement that "non-abusive parents must not be held responsible for the violence committed by others." The current consensus is that in theory, an abusing partner should be taken out of the home, and the rest of the family should stay there in safety.

FAILING TO WORK TOGETHER

In practice, this can be difficult to arrange. Unless the abuser is in prison, he will often seek out his partner and continue or escalate his violence; if she stays in their home he can easily find her. While Family Court judges have the authority to bring an accused batterer to trial in three days, the judicial process is more likely to stretch the trial out over weeks or months. Judges are reluctant to prosecute misdemeanor cases, which are more common among domestic violence crimes than felonies. Family Court trials require a level of documentation lower than that needed for a criminal case, but more than many women can present, particularly when they cannot afford a lawyer or wait for free legal services to become available.

According to Carolyn Kubitschek, attorney for the plaintiffs in the Nicholson case, there are many cases in which a batterer is clearly not a threat to the child's safety. "Most batterers are very much in control," she says. "For example, they never hit their bosses." She has clients fighting to get back children who were removed by a city caseworker when there were no visible safety concerns. "One of them removed a kid even though the batterer was arrested, tried, sentenced and in prison for a three-year term. And because he's an immigrant, he'll be deported when he gets out." To Kubitschek, the risk of this batterer escaping from prison falls far short of justifying a child's prolonged separation from a mother.

Advocates for domestic violence survivors have worked hard to make it known that past wife-beating is a major risk factor for future child-beating, and that the sight of a mother being abused can cause emotional harm to her children. Child welfare caseworkers tend to conclude from this that any home where a woman is being abused is dangerous for children, so the survivor must leave her abuser to keep herself and her children safe.

However, removing children from their mother's care is no guarantee of their safety. Foster parents can abuse children or each other, and being parted from their parents is itself traumatic to some children. Kinship care could be a solution, except that it is hard to find appropriate relatives to care for the children of a battered parent. Domestic violence advocates oppose placing them with an abusive father's family, who may reveal the mother's whereabouts to the father, and let him spend time with the children against a decision of Family Court. Yet survivors of abuse often have no relatives to turn to: their abusers tend to isolate them from family, friends, and service providers to increase their control and avoid being criticized or reported.

Women sometimes choose to stay with abusive partners because they have no safe place to go, or they won't be able to support themselves, or they lack a sense of hope and confidence that they can succeed on their own. These fears can be well-founded, as is the most powerful incentive to stay with the abuser, the fear that he will track his partner down and "punish" her or her children for leaving. According to the New York State Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence, two out of three women killed by their partners have left or are in the process of leaving them.

INCHING TOWARD CHANGE:

In 1998, the Columbia University School of Social Work trained 400 municipal caseworkers and supervisors in how to empathize more with survivors of domestic violence, and how to uncover and deal with their abuse. An evaluation by trainers showed that, as a group, the participants gained empathy with survivors, but became less likely to take any of the possible action covered in the training.

Alisa del Tufo, of the Urban Justice Center , is a fifteen-year veteran of the struggle to integrate child welfare and domestic violence services. She has worked with the Administration for Children's Services on training projects, and now provides training services to a group of 60 private child welfare agencies. "ACS is doing a lot actually," she says. "They're doing things now that have been talked about for a decade." As an example, she cites the agency's plan to place domestic violence specialists in each of the agency's field offices. When this was tried in a single office, caseworkers were grateful to have an experienced advisor on hand; workers from other locations called to consult with the domestic violence specialist.

Del Tufo describes the three-day domestic violence training program inaugurated at the agency in March as being "more sophisticated and detailed" than the one-day program that concluded training for new recruits in recent years. "But the system only changes if training goes on over a long period of time, and is followed up with support and accountability." Instead, caseworkers are afraid to try new tactics with room for large errors. "It's a pretty punitive place to work," says del Tufo of the agency.

Municipal child welfare workers continue to err on the side of what they regard as the child's safety. "At 5:30 on a Friday afternoon they'll say, 'Mrs. Jones, unless you go into a domestic violence shelter immediately we're going to take your kids away.' Meanwhile for every space in a domestic violence shelter, there are fifty women trying to get in." Del Tufo concedes that there are times when children need to be removed temporarily, but notes that children remain in foster care "for months and years" after their mother has arranged for their safety with her.

The Weinstein opinion cites a case beginning in August 2000, three years after the city retrained nearly half of its caseworkers and supervisors, in which an abused mother's children were removed because they were living in "overcrowded" conditions at her grandmother's home. They were returned only when the mother agreed to take them to a homeless shelter. The children spent ten weeks going from foster homes to the city's Emergency Assistance Unit and to a temporary shelter.

In mandated reports submitted by the Administration for Children's Services to counsel in the Nicholson case, the agency declared that it is changing its policy statement. Carolyn Kubitschek says, "We don't know what their new policy is, because they won't tell us." The agency continues to prosecute battered mothers in Family Court rather than arrange for the safety of both mother and child.

According to the national Bureau of Justice Statistics, violent crimes against women by intimate partners decreased by 20 percent between 1993 and 1998. That news is welcome, but it could be even better. The child welfare system has the power to give battered women a valuable defense: the right to seek help without risking the loss of their children.

A federal judge recently delivered what was called a "scathing opinion" of the Administration for Children's Services' treatment of battered mothers and their children. Judge Jack Weinstein has given New York City until June 22 to comply with an injunction designed to prevent the removal of children from the care of a battered mother who does not abuse them. The agency has appealed the judge's decision in the class-action lawsuit, which is known as "Nicholson vs. Scoppetta"

Over the past decade, advocates for both children and battered women have realized there needs to be a working relationship between the systems of child welfare and domestic violence (which almost always means violence against adult women) if they want to protect their clients effectively. However, there long has been a disconnect between services for children and those for adults.

The two systems -- for child welfare, and for domestic violence -- developed separately. Child welfare agencies provide such services as family counseling and foster care placement. They can trace their history back over a century, to the furor that arose around a New York City child beaten by her caretakers. The child welfare system emphasizes investigation, and it values preserving or reuniting families. Children are the clients, and caseworkers are given the authority to make decisions about families against the will of adult members. Parents are in a subordinate role in the child welfare system, and can be forced to undergo therapy or comply with other orders if they want to keep or get back their children.

The domestic violence system, in sharp contrast, grew out of the women's movement in the 1970's and 1980's. One of its fundamental principles is that women surviving partner abuse must be treated with respect and empowered to make their own decisions. Confidentiality is a life-or-death concern, so the need for information is always weighed against the risk of it falling into the wrong hands. Services to survivors must always be voluntary, and any decision to forego services must be respected.

AREAS OF AGREEMENT:

The two systems agree that families in which a child is being abused are often ones in which a woman is also being abused; estimates range from 30 percent to 70 percent. They also agree that both mothers and children should be asked whether they are abused at many points in their passage through the health and social service systems. They both acknowledge that a good safety plan for a non-abusing mother will usually protect her children. Finally, the systems agree that there are not enough services and shelters for the battered women and their children that are known about already, let alone the increasing numbers that will be revealed by expanded screening. The domestic violence policy currently posted on the website of the Administration for Children's Services, includes universal screening of families for domestic violence, safety planning for adult survivors, and acknowledgement that "non-abusive parents must not be held responsible for the violence committed by others." The current consensus is that in theory, an abusing partner should be taken out of the home, and the rest of the family should stay there in safety.

FAILING TO WORK TOGETHER

In practice, this can be difficult to arrange. Unless the abuser is in prison, he will often seek out his partner and continue or escalate his violence; if she stays in their home he can easily find her. While Family Court judges have the authority to bring an accused batterer to trial in three days, the judicial process is more likely to stretch the trial out over weeks or months. Judges are reluctant to prosecute misdemeanor cases, which are more common among domestic violence crimes than felonies. Family Court trials require a level of documentation lower than that needed for a criminal case, but more than many women can present, particularly when they cannot afford a lawyer or wait for free legal services to become available.

According to Carolyn Kubitschek, attorney for the plaintiffs in the Nicholson case, there are many cases in which a batterer is clearly not a threat to the child's safety. "Most batterers are very much in control," she says. "For example, they never hit their bosses." She has clients fighting to get back children who were removed by a city caseworker when there were no visible safety concerns. "One of them removed a kid even though the batterer was arrested, tried, sentenced and in prison for a three-year term. And because he's an immigrant, he'll be deported when he gets out." To Kubitschek, the risk of this batterer escaping from prison falls far short of justifying a child's prolonged separation from a mother.

Advocates for domestic violence survivors have worked hard to make it known that past wife-beating is a major risk factor for future child-beating, and that the sight of a mother being abused can cause emotional harm to her children. Child welfare caseworkers tend to conclude from this that any home where a woman is being abused is dangerous for children, so the survivor must leave her abuser to keep herself and her children safe.

However, removing children from their mother's care is no guarantee of their safety. Foster parents can abuse children or each other, and being parted from their parents is itself traumatic to some children. Kinship care could be a solution, except that it is hard to find appropriate relatives to care for the children of a battered parent. Domestic violence advocates oppose placing them with an abusive father's family, who may reveal the mother's whereabouts to the father, and let him spend time with the children against a decision of Family Court. Yet survivors of abuse often have no relatives to turn to: their abusers tend to isolate them from family, friends, and service providers to increase their control and avoid being criticized or reported.

Women sometimes choose to stay with abusive partners because they have no safe place to go, or they won't be able to support themselves, or they lack a sense of hope and confidence that they can succeed on their own. These fears can be well-founded, as is the most powerful incentive to stay with the abuser, the fear that he will track his partner down and "punish" her or her children for leaving. According to the New York State Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence, two out of three women killed by their partners have left or are in the process of leaving them.

INCHING TOWARD CHANGE:

In 1998, the Columbia University School of Social Work trained 400 municipal caseworkers and supervisors in how to empathize more with survivors of domestic violence, and how to uncover and deal with their abuse. An evaluation by trainers showed that, as a group, the participants gained empathy with survivors, but became less likely to take any of the possible action covered in the training.

Alisa del Tufo, of the Urban Justice Center , is a fifteen-year veteran of the struggle to integrate child welfare and domestic violence services. She has worked with the Administration for Children's Services on training projects, and now provides training services to a group of 60 private child welfare agencies. "ACS is doing a lot actually," she says. "They're doing things now that have been talked about for a decade." As an example, she cites the agency's plan to place domestic violence specialists in each of the agency's field offices. When this was tried in a single office, caseworkers were grateful to have an experienced advisor on hand; workers from other locations called to consult with the domestic violence specialist.

Del Tufo describes the three-day domestic violence training program inaugurated at the agency in March as being "more sophisticated and detailed" than the one-day program that concluded training for new recruits in recent years. "But the system only changes if training goes on over a long period of time, and is followed up with support and accountability." Instead, caseworkers are afraid to try new tactics with room for large errors. "It's a pretty punitive place to work," says del Tufo of the agency.

Municipal child welfare workers continue to err on the side of what they regard as the child's safety. "At 5:30 on a Friday afternoon they'll say, 'Mrs. Jones, unless you go into a domestic violence shelter immediately we're going to take your kids away.' Meanwhile for every space in a domestic violence shelter, there are fifty women trying to get in." Del Tufo concedes that there are times when children need to be removed temporarily, but notes that children remain in foster care "for months and years" after their mother has arranged for their safety with her.

The Weinstein opinion cites a case beginning in August 2000, three years after the city retrained nearly half of its caseworkers and supervisors, in which an abused mother's children were removed because they were living in "overcrowded" conditions at her grandmother's home. They were returned only when the mother agreed to take them to a homeless shelter. The children spent ten weeks going from foster homes to the city's Emergency Assistance Unit and to a temporary shelter.

In mandated reports submitted by the Administration for Children's Services to counsel in the Nicholson case, the agency declared that it is changing its policy statement. Carolyn Kubitschek says, "We don't know what their new policy is, because they won't tell us." The agency continues to prosecute battered mothers in Family Court rather than arrange for the safety of both mother and child.

According to the national Bureau of Justice Statistics, violent crimes against women by intimate partners decreased by 20 percent between 1993 and 1998. That news is welcome, but it could be even better. The child welfare system has the power to give battered women a valuable defense: the right to seek help without risking the loss of their children.

Linda Ostreicher, a former budget analyst for the New York City Council, is a freelance writer and consultant to nonprofits. She is currently on the staff of Bronx Independent Living Services.

Job Training


Back in 1998, when Congress passed the Workforce Investment Act, it looked like the one good thing that everybody could agree came out of the much-criticized movement called welfare reform. A large chunk of public money saved by cutting the welfare rolls, the law said, would have to be reinvested into helping welfare recipients get paying jobs.

Each local government had to recruit a Workforce Investment Board, with a majority of its members from the local business community, to provide expert advice on the qualifications that employers currently look for in new hires. The board was supposed to come up with a plan, develop a written agreement with the government welfare agency, and run the program.

New York City's Human Resources Administration apparently had some problems with this scenario, because the city was one of the last places in the nation to form a Workforce Investment Board, and the board has been allowed little input in the city's job training programs.

The city's top welfare official, Jason Turner, did not believe in job training. His statement, "It's work that sets you free," notorious for inadvertently echoing a Nazi slogan, reflected the conviction that a low-paying job today is better for a welfare recipient than a better job postponed for a period of training. Turner used his control of workforce development funds to delay and avoid providing services to people on welfare.

The city is left with $67 million from past years' unspent federal funding that, if not used by June 30, may be diverted to more ambitious employment programs elsewhere in the state. "It's ludicrous, when we have budget deficits and people are out of work, to lose any money because we didn't spend it," said David Fischer of the Center for an Urban Future. (See his article, "The $67 Million Question")

One place where the funds were needed was in setting up "One-Stop Centers," where job hunters--welfare recipients or not--can receive a full range of services under one roof, from government and nonprofit agencies. While Los Angeles has 18 one-stop centers, New York currently has just one. Until the city opens the six additional centers that were announced in November, all job hunters in the city must travel to Jamaica, Queens to get one-stop employment services.

For the Human Resources Administration, employment services under the Workforce Investment Act have been relatively simple to administer. They picked 14 major contractors, agreed to pay them massive amounts of money, and let the contractors deal with the dozens of community-based organizations delivering most of the specialized services.

If you're a welfare recipient, things are more complicated. You're already working three days a week to "earn" your benefits. For several weeks, during the other two days, you must go to a Skills Assessment and Placement program for an evaluation. If you look instantly employable, you will be given the use of newspapers, a computer and a phone, in order to find yourself a job.

If you don't succeed, you will be sent to an Employment Services and Placement program, which will probably have to evaluate you again because they won't get your paperwork from the assessment program. You'll be helped to write a resume, and taught how to dress and behave on a job interview. If this gets you hired for a minimum-wage job, the program will advise you on child care subsidies and providers, and how to keep Medicaid and food stamps for a period after you start to work.

If you have any major barriers to employment--you can't read, or you suffer from clinical depression--you'll be referred to a subcontractor of your Employment Services and Placement provider. This will be a smaller community-based organization, which would probably like to give you real job training, but would go out of business if it did. After another interview, you'll receive "intensive" services: more lessons in how to dress and behave at job interviews, create a resume, and complete a job application. You may get substance abuse treatment, mental health care, or case management services, as well.

The federal Workforce Investment Act provides for a third level of services: the genuine "training" component of the act, which can support education in such forms as literacy classes, English classes, vocational school, apprenticeship, on-the-job training, and community college.

However, the payment structure for welfare-to-work employment service providers, especially subcontractors, is not designed to reward providers who place clients in better jobs. The hardest clients to place are sent to subcontractors who are offered inadequate incentives for keeping clients in jobs.

New York City's employment services contracts are based on results, not on efforts made to achieve results. Such "performance-based" agreements are meant to improve contract management, but fail when they define success using the wrong measurement. In the case of employment services, the goal of self-sufficiency isn't reached the day that a former welfare recipient starts work at a paying job. Jobs must be permanent, pay a living wage, and provide health insurance and other essential benefits, to keep workers from needing to go back on the welfare rolls. Jobs like this usually require some training and academic skills. Indeed, much research that has been done into the most effective welfare-to-work strategies, such as that conducted over the past several decades by the Manpower Research and Demonstration Corporation, found that the best results come from mandatory employment programs that offer education and skills training in their mix of activities and services.

How the city's system performed even in good times was not encouraging. As of March 2001, only one in four clients had found a job. Now the local economy is going downhill, possibly longer and harder than the rest of the country. During 2001, the city lost 132,400 jobs, according to the New York State Department of Labor. The City Comptroller, William Thompson, reported that in the last quarter of 2001, the U.S. economy stopped shrinking and grew slightly, while the city's economy continued to shrink.

The first people to be laid off are usually those last hired, which would include recent placements by the city's employment services system. The number of people on welfare used to rise and fall pretty much in line with the local unemployment rate, until last July. According to the city's monthly bulletin "HRA Facts," between July 2001 and January 2002, the unemployment rate rose from 5.3 percent to 7.1 percent, while over 23,000 people left the welfare rolls.

Luckily, the city is stepping up its rate of spending workforce development funds. According to the executive director of the Workforce Investment Board, Dorothy Lehman, "The new administration is totally committed" to carrying out the mandate of the Workforce Investment Act. This summer the act comes back to Congress for reauthorization; some welfare advocates fear that New York City's past failure to support employment services will give the law's opponents ammunition against its renewal.

The Bloomberg administration is also now revising the city's five-year Workforce Investment Act plan. The public will have a chance to comment.

Read also:

 

Back in 1998, when Congress passed the Workforce Investment Act, it looked like the one good thing that everybody could agree came out of the much-criticized movement called welfare reform. A large chunk of public money saved by cutting the welfare rolls, the law said, would have to be reinvested into helping welfare recipients get paying jobs.

Each local government had to recruit a Workforce Investment Board, with a majority of its members from the local business community, to provide expert advice on the qualifications that employers currently look for in new hires. The board was supposed to come up with a plan, develop a written agreement with the government welfare agency, and run the program.

New York City's Human Resources Administration apparently had some problems with this scenario, because the city was one of the last places in the nation to form a Workforce Investment Board, and the board has been allowed little input in the city's job training programs.

The city's top welfare official, Jason Turner, did not believe in job training. His statement, "It's work that sets you free," notorious for inadvertently echoing a Nazi slogan, reflected the conviction that a low-paying job today is better for a welfare recipient than a better job postponed for a period of training. Turner used his control of workforce development funds to delay and avoid providing services to people on welfare.

The city is left with $67 million from past years' unspent federal funding that, if not used by June 30, may be diverted to more ambitious employment programs elsewhere in the state. "It's ludicrous, when we have budget deficits and people are out of work, to lose any money because we didn't spend it," said David Fischer of the Center for an Urban Future. (See his article, "The $67 Million Question")

One place where the funds were needed was in setting up "One-Stop Centers," where job hunters--welfare recipients or not--can receive a full range of services under one roof, from government and nonprofit agencies. While Los Angeles has 18 one-stop centers, New York currently has just one. Until the city opens the six additional centers that were announced in November, all job hunters in the city must travel to Jamaica, Queens to get one-stop employment services.

For the Human Resources Administration, employment services under the Workforce Investment Act have been relatively simple to administer. They picked 14 major contractors, agreed to pay them massive amounts of money, and let the contractors deal with the dozens of community-based organizations delivering most of the specialized services.

If you're a welfare recipient, things are more complicated. You're already working three days a week to "earn" your benefits. For several weeks, during the other two days, you must go to a Skills Assessment and Placement program for an evaluation. If you look instantly employable, you will be given the use of newspapers, a computer and a phone, in order to find yourself a job.

If you don't succeed, you will be sent to an Employment Services and Placement program, which will probably have to evaluate you again because they won't get your paperwork from the assessment program. You'll be helped to write a resume, and taught how to dress and behave on a job interview. If this gets you hired for a minimum-wage job, the program will advise you on child care subsidies and providers, and how to keep Medicaid and food stamps for a period after you start to work.

If you have any major barriers to employment--you can't read, or you suffer from clinical depression--you'll be referred to a subcontractor of your Employment Services and Placement provider. This will be a smaller community-based organization, which would probably like to give you real job training, but would go out of business if it did. After another interview, you'll receive "intensive" services: more lessons in how to dress and behave at job interviews, create a resume, and complete a job application. You may get substance abuse treatment, mental health care, or case management services, as well.

The federal Workforce Investment Act provides for a third level of services: the genuine "training" component of the act, which can support education in such forms as literacy classes, English classes, vocational school, apprenticeship, on-the-job training, and community college.

However, the payment structure for welfare-to-work employment service providers, especially subcontractors, is not designed to reward providers who place clients in better jobs. The hardest clients to place are sent to subcontractors who are offered inadequate incentives for keeping clients in jobs.

New York City's employment services contracts are based on results, not on efforts made to achieve results. Such "performance-based" agreements are meant to improve contract management, but fail when they define success using the wrong measurement. In the case of employment services, the goal of self-sufficiency isn't reached the day that a former welfare recipient starts work at a paying job. Jobs must be permanent, pay a living wage, and provide health insurance and other essential benefits, to keep workers from needing to go back on the welfare rolls. Jobs like this usually require some training and academic skills. Indeed, much research that has been done into the most effective welfare-to-work strategies, such as that conducted over the past several decades by the Manpower Research and Demonstration Corporation, found that the best results come from mandatory employment programs that offer education and skills training in their mix of activities and services.

How the city's system performed even in good times was not encouraging. As of March 2001, only one in four clients had found a job. Now the local economy is going downhill, possibly longer and harder than the rest of the country. During 2001, the city lost 132,400 jobs, according to the New York State Department of Labor. The City Comptroller, William Thompson, reported that in the last quarter of 2001, the U.S. economy stopped shrinking and grew slightly, while the city's economy continued to shrink.

The first people to be laid off are usually those last hired, which would include recent placements by the city's employment services system. The number of people on welfare used to rise and fall pretty much in line with the local unemployment rate, until last July. According to the city's monthly bulletin "HRA Facts," between July 2001 and January 2002, the unemployment rate rose from 5.3 percent to 7.1 percent, while over 23,000 people left the welfare rolls.

Luckily, the city is stepping up its rate of spending workforce development funds. According to the executive director of the Workforce Investment Board, Dorothy Lehman, "The new administration is totally committed" to carrying out the mandate of the Workforce Investment Act. This summer the act comes back to Congress for reauthorization; some welfare advocates fear that New York City's past failure to support employment services will give the law's opponents ammunition against its renewal.

The Bloomberg administration is also now revising the city's five-year Workforce Investment Act plan. The public will have a chance to comment.

Read also:

 

Linda Ostreicher, a former budget analyst for the New York City Council, is a freelance writer and consultant to nonprofits. She is currently on the staff of Bronx Independent Living Services.

When The Neighborhood Doesn't Want It


Although there are relatively few backyards in New York City, residents defend their territory as fiercely as any other Americans against unwanted new facilities. This syndrome is frequently called "Not In My Back Yard," and it has helped to shape the face of social service delivery in ways that project opponents could not anticipate.

What might the map of social service facilities in the city look like if neighborhood reactions were not a factor?

MORE SERVICES FOR UNWELCOME CLIENTS

The most obvious change would be a lot more housing and services aimed at clients who are not generally welcomed by their neighbors: the homeless, drug addicts, people with developmental disabilities, people with AIDS/HIV, ex-prisoners, mentally ill people, foster children, people on welfare.the list embodies some of the most pervasive urban fears. Much fear is based on inaccurate assumptions: that developmental disabilities are the same as mental illness, and that the mentally ill are more violent than the rest of us; that foster children are also juvenile delinquents; that all homeless people are visibly different from people with homes; and that drug users and alcoholics are a threat even when they are on the wagon.

An agency trying to open a group home or treatment program for people bearing one of these labels must tactfully court the chosen community and prepare for long delays in obtaining a site. Money for programs can dry up during these delays, and staff time is diverted to meetings, hearings, and the putting-out of public relations fires. According to Brad Lander, Executive Director of the Fifth Avenue Committee in Brooklyn, "Siting is as much a constraint as the cost of land." Despite the organization's long history of creating successful low-income housing in the neighborhood, nearby residents object to its plan for a transitional residence for parolees. Much effort went into "outreach, door-knocking, and community meetings" to win the local Community Board's approval for the project.

Staten Island's homeless population relies heavily on Project Hospitality, which provides food, shelter and supportive services. Its Executive Director, Reverend Terry Troia, concedes that over the years there have been "a lot of opportunities we've had to let go by," because it takes so long to get sites approved. She recalls a day care center for children of homeless and other low-income families as a project that was blocked for lack of a site.

It's hard enough to find a place to locate a new facility even when funds to pay for it are available. However, unwanted clients are often unsympathetic figures for advocates to champion to government decision-makers. No matter how much it would help the rest of us, making life easier for drug addicts and ex-convicts is not a priority for many voters. Local politicians rarely move against the wishes of their most vocal constituents, so unwanted social services have little leverage with elected officials in the competition for member item funds, or even for representation in the overall budget process of their legitimate needs.

MORE FACILITIES WOULD BE THE RIGHT SIZE

Small group homes and other sites would provide as much of the supply as was necessary to have the best possible system. Centralized settings with high capacity would not offer the advantage of decreasing the number of siting battles, but would be chosen only when centralization was needed.

Small group homes, and individual apartments in regular buildings, are among the most promising solutions to a variety of needs. They allow clients to live among diverse neighbors and eliminate the institutional feel of larger homes. For foster children, they more closely resemble a family; for adults with developmental disabilities or mental illness, they allow more independence. Unfortunately, like services for homeless people, the supply of group homes is nowhere near the demand for them.

Service providers might use more of these smaller sites if they did not arouse nearly as much controversy as larger ones. A reporter for the Riverdale Press observed bitter opposition, at a Bronx Community Board 11 meeting, to an apartment proposed to house eight developmentally disabled people under 24-hour supervision. The Fifth Avenue Committee's residence for parolees will house only ten people, but Lander recognizes that, "If we had not been able to get Community Board approval, the project would have been dead in the water because the city wouldn't have given us control of the building lot."

SERVICES WOULD BE WHERE CLIENTS NEED THEM TO BE

Service providers could look for the best building for their programs, in the location that was most convenient for their clients. Now they look for buildings where their clients can blend into the flow of other users, like hospitals, or where the surrounding community would prefer nearly any use to an existing misuse.

Liz Abzug, a spokesperson for Housing and Services, Inc., describes that agency's strategy as one of replacing "drug-infested eyesores" with well-run facilities. When Housing and Services, Inc. began managing the Kenmore Hotel on 23rd Street, it had been taken over by the federal government because of drug activities inside it. According to the agency's website, at the height of its criminal career, the Kenmore generated about a thousand calls a year to 911. Now, Abzug estimates that there is only about one such call a month.

However, the supply of boarded-up and decaying city-owned properties may not be inexhaustible. Limiting new facilities to such sites does not necessarily result in ideal locations for service delivery. Social service agencies need many of the same features that urban small business owners look for in a new location: safe streets, good public transportation, and closeness to clients' homes, jobs, or other essential services.

NEIGHBORS WOULD HAVE LESS INFLUENCE ON PROGRAM DESIGN

Neighborhood opposition can sometimes improve services. Communities do not like to see people loitering on the street, unless they are drinking cappuccino. This puts pressure on agencies to provide comfortable waiting rooms for appointments, and day treatment programs for those who might otherwise have nowhere to go. Good security practices at homeless shelters make the residents feel safer, as well as the neighbors. The old Kenmore Hotel was notorious for heavy objects being dumped out of its windows at odd times, so Housing Services, Inc. agreed to put in air conditioners in response to community demands -- a benefit to both passers-by and tenants.

Parolees living in the Fifth Avenue Committee's planned transitional housing may benefit from activities intended to reassure skeptical neighbors, such as supervision by case managers and random drug testing. However, some applicants for admission to the residence will not benefit from having to pass a panel including three neighborhood residents. The entire project could fail after a year, when a Community Advisory Board will have the power to shut it down with a 75 percent majority vote.

One way to provide services without needing to open a contested facility is by operating a mobile program out of a van. This is not the chief reason why mobile programs exist: vans are the best way to reach clients who resist going to shelters, soup kitchens, clinics, and other services. While the community may complain that clients hang around a van site before it comes and after it goes, the fact that a van finds clients at a site usually means they are already in the surrounding area. This makes mobile programs more popular with providers, funders, and neighbors than they might otherwise be.

Another type of facility that is usually welcomed, at least initially, is the drop-in center for homeless or mentally ill people. Years ago, when Times Square was still seedy, homelessness was conspicuous in midtown Manhattan. Drop-in centers were opened to attract homeless people out of Grand Central, Penn Station, and the Port Authority terminal, into havens that were open during the day, when most shelters are closed. The drop-in centers may have contributed too much to the transformation of midtown into a safe, clean tourist attraction: they are losing their appeal to area businesses, who now look on them as the source rather than the solution of the problem of homelessness.

FAIR SHARE CRITERIA WOULD WORK

New York City is something of a celebrity in the world of city planning for its "Fair Share Criteria" and facility siting process. As a result of the 1989 revision of the City Charter, there are rules requiring that new facilities for programs run or paid for by the city (unless they are very small) must go through an evaluation by the sponsoring city agency and the Department of City Planning. The effect that the program will have on the proposed neighborhood must be weighed against the value of the site to the users of the new facility.

This approach won an American Planning Association award in 1992, even though few New York communities are pleased with their resulting share of city services. In practice, the criteria are still somewhat subjective and imprecise. Facts uncovered in the Fair Share impact evaluation do not dictate the final decision on a controversial site.

The design of our social service delivery system reflects neighborhood fears of undesirable outsiders. A dramatic example is recorded in the minutes of a March 28, 2001 meeting of Community Board Six in Brooklyn. The Board's Human Service Committee proposed a resolution calling for the city to have separate, decentralized intake systems for homeless single men and women, located in buildings already being used as shelters and intake centers. The resolution also called for more supportive housing and rental assistance as long-term solutions to homelessness.

The proposal was in the tradition of rational planning: it considered the needs of New York City as a single entity, acknowledged that existing shelter and intake sites encounter less red tape than new ones, and spread the benefits and burdens of services around the city by decentralizing them. The resolution was voted down, "on the possibility that it would leave the Park Slope Women's Armory vulnerable to future conversion as an intake center."

Additional Resources:

 

Linda Ostreicher, a former budget analyst for the New York City Council, is a freelance writer and consultant to nonprofits. She is currently on the staff of Bronx Independent Living Services.

 

The Limits of Time Limits On Welfare


About 30,000 New York City families reached their lifetime limit--five years--for receiving Federal welfare benefits in December. The purpose of such time limits, according to their proponents, is to motivate welfare recipients to find other sources of income before they reach their limit. In New York State, however, this theory does not apply.

The state Constitution requires the government to provide for the "aid, care and support of the needy." This means that when federal welfare benefits run out, the state Safety Net Assistance program kicks in with benefits equal to those under the federal program. Theoretically, the change should be minimal for welfare recipients: they will get the same amount of assistance, in a slightly different form.

So who should care about Federal welfare time limits in New York? In fact, it is the government--both at the state and city levels--which should feel motivated by time limits to reduce the need for public assistance. During the years that people are eligible for Federal welfare benefits, the U.S. government foots half the bill, so the state and city each pay only 25 percent of the cost. Once that eligibility ends, the cost to the state and city doubles as they take on the whole responsibility for Safety Net Assistance benefits.

Officials of both the city and state governments of New York have known for over five years that time limits would cut off federal funds for long-term welfare recipients. If this had motivated them to reduce this population's need for support, they would have made major efforts to reach this "hard-to-help" group with services aimed at their particular needs.

Studies of families receiving long-term public assistance show that they differ from the general population of families on public assistance. According to the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation, heads of these households have more children and less education and work experience than heads of households receiving only short-term benefits. Many long-term recipients have multiple barriers to work, rather than a single clear-cut problem that would qualify them for Social Security disability assistance. They are the people least likely to be helped by welfare reform as New Yorkers have known it since Rudy Giuliani launched his version of it in 1995.

New York City's welfare reform program has focused on two goals. 1. It has prevented people from getting or staying on the welfare rolls by ingenious, often illegitimate, means. 2. It has helped the most skilled, educated, and experienced beneficiaries to get employment of any kind, no matter how dead-end, low-paid and temporary those jobs may be.

In the short term, these tactics have succeeded in cutting the welfare caseload in half over the five year-period starting in October 1996. Their long-term effects may end up costing the city and state more than they have saved.

A number of states had earlier time limits on federal welfare than New York. When we look at families that reached those limits already, we get some idea of what to expect in New York City. The evidence does not suggest that families can pull themselves together and out of poverty just because their welfare checks stop arriving. As of April 2001, nearly one in three adults heading New York City households on welfare was already employed, but earned wages so low that the household still qualified for public assistance.

Six months after time limits ended cash assistance for recipients in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, only 32 percent of them had worked continuously for at least 20 hours a week since their assistance ended. The Center on Urban Poverty and Social Change reports that three out of four of these families had incomes below the poverty line, even when food stamps are included. When the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation followed up on a series of welfare-to-work projects, they found that only eight percent of subjects were continuously employed in the four years after they left welfare.

Federal welfare reform legislation has built-in incentives for states to invest in helping public assistance recipients to become qualified and able to work. Each year since 1996, each state has received the same amount of money that the U.S. government gave it for welfare benefits in 1995, even though the number of people receiving cash benefits is now much lower. The extra money was meant to be used to pay for child care, transportation, Medicaid coverage, education, job training, and other items needed by welfare recipients to find and keep jobs.

New York spent a lot of that money on good programs. However, some funding went through a budget gimmick called "supplantation," in which federal dollars paid for services that the state would have paid for otherwise, freeing up state dollars for general purposes, including a massive round of tax cuts.

The United States General Accounting Office examined spending under welfare reform by ten states, and concluded that eight of them invested more state funds into services for low-income families in the year 2000 than they did in 1995. New York was one of the two exceptions in which state spending declined.

Five years into welfare reform, New York State has accumulated over a billion dollars in unspent federal welfare funds. This surplus would be helpful when welfare rolls begin to increase again in response to economic changes, if it were not likely that Congress will treat the unspent dollars as an excuse to reduce future federal funding for public assistance.

Immediate use could be made of the unspent federal funds to improve and expand services that invest in beneficiaries' future ability to support themselves. These include high-quality child care, and education, job training, and vocational counseling for teenagers and adults. Job creation would also be useful during this time of economic contraction, through wage subsidies or community service programs. Even if the new jobs were not permanent, employees could develop a work history and gain experience, better positioning themselves for jobs that may emerge when the economy recovers.

There is no shortage of successful welfare-to-work strategies for New York to adopt. On paper, many of them already are in place. However, the size and quality of these programs depends on state and city commitment to do more than push people off the welfare rolls without regard to their future well-being.

New York City has a history of illegally discouraging applicants for public assistance. In the months preceding December 2001, recipients about to reach their five-year federal benefit limit were invited by the city to report to welfare offices to discuss "how you plan to manage your household expenses once your limits for Cash Assistance expire." According to a report by the Social Welfare Committee of the Association for the Bar of the City of New York, the notices bearing this invitation did not say that state benefits were available for those whose federal benefits ran out.

Although child care is essential to low-income mothers seeking work, there are still 30,000 children on the waiting list for subsidized child care slots in New York City. Just before leaving office, the city's first term-limited Mayor and City Council eliminated $71 million from the municipal budget, preventing the creation of 10,000 new day care slots.

It is no wonder that advocates for the poor are leery of how smoothly New York will make the transition to Safety Net Assistance. It will be much more difficult for families to navigate their way back into eligibility once the welfare machinery accidentally drops them into hunger and homelessness.

Linda Ostreicher, a former budget analyst for the New York City Council, is a freelance writer and consultant to nonprofits. She is currently on the staff of Bronx Independent Living Services.

THE NEEDIEST. Also: City-Wide Task Force On Housing Court Still Alive


The United States has had a social welfare system for over 70 years, but each Christmas the New York Times continues to print heartbreaking stories intended to inspire contributions to its Neediest Cases Fund.

In 1912, when Times publisher Arthur Ochs established this tradition, there were no food stamps, no social security for the elderly and people with disabilities, no school breakfast or lunch programs, no Medicaid or Medicare, and no Section 8 housing. Federal income taxes would not begin until the next year. New York City had a public-private system of poorhouses, outdoor relief, settlement houses, tuberculosis sanatoria, insane asylums, and orphanages, yet many of the poor lived in conditions so pitiable, Ochs thought they would no longer be tolerated if the Times made them known.

The first Hundred Neediest Cases were peopled by widows, orphans, and sick or disabled fathers. Mothers were often invalids, too delicate or devitalized to hold jobs or do housework. Hunger, cold, and the death of family members were dreaded not only for their direct effects, but because they could bring on tuberculosis.

More than a third of the cases arose from a father's death; today widows and children can receive Social Security survivors' benefits. Another quarter of the cases, in which the father was sick or disabled, might now be prevented by disability payments and better medical care. Public assistance or child support payments could now support the 13 cases where the father was in jail, had deserted, or was not mentioned. The few cases of impoverished old people would be resolved by Social Security. The remaining 17 cases involved children, mostly orphans, who had no adult to care for them. These would now be steered toward the still-controversial child welfare system.

By 1921, the annual collection for the Hundred Neediest Cases had become an institution. The Times pledged to make the nature of poverty "clearly known and to drive it home," because New Yorkers were "cut off by the conditions of life from channels of information as to the conditions of neighbors, channels of information which bring help and sympathy immediately." The Neediest cases were still dominated by sick, absent, and dead fathers. Mothers might work, but they earned too little to live on, or collapsed from overwork. A system had evolved to deal with such families by taking children away from their mothers. The Hundred Neediest Cases Fund provided an alternative: enough money to keep the family together.

The New York Times was careful to distinguish its 1931 collection for the Neediest Cases Fund from the "Emergency Unemployment Relief Fund," explaining that the donations for the Neediest helped "those who cannot be helped by employment because they are too old, too young, or too sick to work." Another difference was that the Emergency Unemployment Relief Fund had collected $18 million, while the Neediest Cases Fund was unsure it would reach its 1930 total of less than $348,000.

Pearl Harbor was bombed on the opening day of the 1941appeal. During the next week, enough money was donated to take care of the Hundred Neediest Cases, so on December 14, a collection was launched for a second 100 cases. The nation had been in the Depression for over a decade; no explanations were needed for fathers being out of work. The Times promised its readers their donations would "mean the turning of the tide toward health and self-reliance."

Some cases were receiving "public aid," but had additional needs, while others were not eligible because a family member worked part-time or at a low salary. There was cash assistance for dependent children, the elderly, the blind, and those needing "home relief." There were WPA jobs that could be held for up to 18 months, after which workers had to go back on public assistance, in a cycle some tried to break through training for higher-paid, permanent jobs.

Medical care now offered answers to many physical and mental problems, if the Neediest Cases Fund could pay for it. Donations began to buy "guidance" and "counseling," as well as rent and food. When a mother was dead, absent, or too weak to take care of her children, a housekeeper might be provided to avoid separating children from their families and homes.

The Hundred Neediest Cases of 1951 and 1961 show the success of the social safety net then in place. Hunger and absence of income were no longer prominent. Stories gave detailed explanations of why their subjects were in need. The new cases required counseling to lead them to solutions that they would otherwise not know about or accept, such as living with a disability, or moving to a nursing home. Parents and children who were "nervous" or "near breakdown" needed care to return to mental health. Delinquency had become an issue, as was living in crime-ridden slums.

By 1971, the "Hundred" part of the fund's name was dropped, and cases no longer were given numbers. Counseling was still the prescription for many, and drug use emerged as a problem.

The landscape of need looked much like today's by 1991, with homelessness, AIDS, and substance abuse becoming familiar elements in cases. The 2001 campaign for the Neediest features lengthy stories about outstanding cases. Aaron Donovan has written these stories for three years, but is "still surprised at the wide range of things that cause people to be needy."

Some cases fall through the cracks between social service programs: he recalls a child living in a homeless shelter who needed cabfare to and from chemotherapy treatments. Other people need emergency support while applications for public benefits are being processed. "Charities have an advantage over government," Donovan says. "They can get money to people right away."

According to David Jones, President and CEO of the Community Service Society, "government has abdicated substantially from case management." Instead of doing social work, employees at the city's public assistance agency are now charged with weeding out clients who fail to comply with convoluted application and recertification procedures.

The Community Service Society still gives cash grants to needy families, as it has done since 1912. However, Jones finds the agency has shifted its focus to a blend of the welfare poor and the working poor, as well as immigrants no longer eligible for Medicaid and public assistance. More time is spent, for example, on helping welfare recipients to regain benefits after inappropriate sanctions.

Aaron Donovan's story of Jasmine Tolentino, published on November 25, 2001, illustrates both the value of existing social programs and their limits. One of her sons has lupus, a chronic illness for which he was recently hospitalized. Tolentino lives with five children and a grandchild in a two-room apartment. Thanks to the social safety net, her son received the medical care he needed, and the family survives on public assistance, food from a local church, and food stamps. Because of the limits of public assistance, they cannot afford to move to a larger apartment, and were sleeping without sheets, blankets or pillows until the Children's Aid Society bought them with money from the Neediest Cases fund.

In "Behind the Hundred Neediest Cases," published in the City Journal in 1997, Heather MacDonald argued that their history illustrates a change in the "elite" view of charity. It was once reserved for the deserving poor; now the recipient's moral character is "all but irrelevant."

However, the same history can be interpreted as the opening chapters of a still-unfinished success story. In this reading, the early years of the Neediest Case Fund showed government the necessity of meeting basic material needs. Then the charity tackled those needs that remained unfilled. As our collective knowledge evolves, private donations support the application of new solutions to both old and new problems. And where bureaucracy fails, there is no substitute for direct compassion.

CITY-WIDE TASK FORCE ON HOUSING COURT SURVIVES BUDGET CUTS

Last month I incorrectly reported (See "A Rocky Season,") that the City-Wide Task Force on Housing Court was planning to lay off its entire staff and close down in December, due to state and city budget reductions. According to Larry Wood, President of the Board of Directors, the 21-year-old coalition is still very much alive. "We are determined to stay together even if we were to lose all our government contracts," he says. State cuts of close to 45 percent of their income forced the task force to lay off eight of 18 staff members, with the remaining employees agreeing to take a pay cut. The agency's information tables at housing courts are open fewer days each week, with only one paid employee instead of two. Volunteers and employees of other housing-related organizations will still help to staff the tables.

The task force's cash flow is threatened by city cutbacks stemming from the World Trade Center disaster. Fortunately, late in November, it received approval for a grant of $100,000 from the Nonprofit Finance Fund, through its Nonprofit Recovery Fund. While this amount does not return the coalition to the level of funding originally expected for the current year, it ensures their ability to provide uninterrupted services at a time when they are seeing escalating demand for housing court assistance.

Linda Ostreicher, a former budget analyst for the New York City Council, is a freelance writer and consultant to nonprofits. She is currently on the staff of Bronx Independent Living Services.

 

Children's Services


The agency whose job it is to keep the city's children safe, the Administration for Children's Services, is now a permanent agency, thanks to a charter proposal that the voters passed in November, after a six-year separation from the Human Resources Administration. But Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta, widely hailed as the mastermind behind the agency's reinvention, is stepping down and his replacement has yet to be announced. At the same time, as if to mock all their best intentions, tragically, at least six children under the age of seven have died recently, allegedly at the hands of their abusive parents.

The list is a heartbreaking reminder of the agency's grave responsibility: Inez Bennett, 7, found dead in her family's Bronx apartment with a smashed jaw and hot water burns, cuts and bruises covering her body; Signifagance Oliver, 4, drowned in the bathtub by her mother in an exorcism ritual; Sylena Herrnkind, 3, beaten to death by her mother in the Staten Island home she shared with four siblings; Sidney Achan, 2, who died from multiple skull fractures and brain injuries; and Kyron Hamilton, 15 months, beaten to death by his mother who said the baby was bothering her while she watched television. A Brooklyn man was charged with second-degree murder in the death of De Andrew Monroe, the 15-month-old son of his girlfriend. According to police, the baby was shaken to death because he would not stop crying.

If the Administration for Children's Services is now officially permanent, that might not mean too much. "I don't see anything magical or dramatic happening," said Gail Nayowith, executive director of the Citizen's Committee for Children, New York's oldest child advocacy organization. "The real struggle will be to hold on to the reforms."

These reforms were born out of the case of six-year-old Elisa Izquierdo, who died in November 1995 after she was held prisoner, beaten, sexually abused and starved by her crack-addicted mother, a woman allegedly so vicious that she used her child as a mop, cleaning the floor with her dark curly hair. The public outcry was so immense that Mayor Rudolph Giuliani immediately dismantled the old Child Welfare Agency, a branch of the Human Resources Administration, and replaced it with the Administration for Children's Services. Former prosecutor Nicholas Scoppetta, who grew up in foster care, was installed as director.

Commissioner Scoppetta, who took office in January 1996, has been the agency's architect and Teflon-coated commander-in-chief. During the mayoral campaign, Michael Bloomberg said he wanted to keep Scoppetta, but the commissioner was firm that he would reject any offers to stay.

"There are two Nick Scoppettas," said Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform in Alexandria, Va. "There is the 1996 to 1998 model, who came in, made all the wrong assumptions, and sent child welfare careening backwards for two years. He drove the numbers of kids taken away from home way up." During the commissioner's first years, that number jumped from 8,000 in 1995 to 12,000 in 1998.

At the same time Scoppetta stepped in, Marcia Robinson Lowry, a leading litigator for children, was preparing a broad class action lawsuit against the city intended to reform the child welfare system, Marisol v. Giuliani. The lawsuit was eventually settled with a special advisory panel who would oversee an overhaul of ACS, with an emphasis on keeping families together. A final report was issued last December where the panel praised the agency for making "remarkable progress."

"Scoppetta's changed to some extent," continued Wexler. "He looked at things a different way from 1999 to date. He was absolutely convinced that we have too many people in foster care. He changed the orientation of the agency to family preservation. The new-model Scoppetta would be a very good commissioner."

Scoppetta has been responsible for cutting the foster-care population to 29,800 from 43,000 in 1997. For the first time ever, the city is now providing more families with preventive services -- more than 30,000 -- than there are children placed in foster care. Other successes include raised caseworker training and salaries, and a record 21,000 adoptions in six years, a six percent increase over the previous six-year period.

The difficulty is in picking the right person to follow Scoppetta. Although no names have been released, child advocates believe that the nomination will come from inside the agency. Nevertheless, many believe important lessons can be learned from outside the five boroughs. The Alabama system of care is considered to be the single most successful child welfare reform in the country. The reforms are also the result of a lawsuit where the state was required to rebuild its entire system from the bottom up. Their foster care population is now down by 33 percent.

Then there is the turnaround in Pennsylvania. In the mid-1990s, foster care placements were soaring in Pittsburgh and surrounding Allegheny County. Leadership changed and by more than doubling the budget for preventive services and embracing innovations like adding housing counselors to child welfare offices, the foster care population has been cut by 20 percent. And since January, 1997, there has been only one child abuse fatality in any family previously known to the agency.

Even with the shocking November deaths of Sylena Herrnkind and Signifagance Oliver, the number of child abuse fatalities in New York City remains fairly stable at 23 to 30 per year. Last year there were 22 deaths of children whose parents had been investigated by ACS, in 1999 it was 23, and in 1998 it was 36. These numbers coincide with national figures, where there are about 2 deaths per 100,000 children. David Tobis, executive director of the Child Welfare Fund, a watchdog and advocacy organization, doesn't see the spate of recent deaths in the news as unusual. "I don't see these deaths as reflecting the system as deteriorating. These deaths are a constant," he said.

"While we can learn from child deaths, they're essentially a weak indicator of how well the system is functioning," said John Mattingly of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the private foundation that lead the Marisol v. Giuliani panel. "Deaths are public failures, but there are silent failures as well. A child who comes into the system who could have been kept at home with the right preventive services is a failure. There are thousands of those situations that are far better indicators of failure."

The Casey panel, along with a host of child advocates, say much more remains to be done before the Administration for Children Service's reforms are more broadly felt by the children and families who deal with the system every day. The panel has particularly noted that more needs to be done for the contract agencies, who handle 85 percent of the system's children. There has been speculation that Sylena Herrnkind's death may have been averted had the workers for the agency who placed the 3-year-old in a foster home, the Seaman's Society for Children and Families in Staten Island, had better training and closer contact with the ACS.

"The agency's success was that it improved the bureaucracy," said Tobis. "They improved training to staff, reduced staff turnover and, to their credit, there is now an accountability system. They have not done comparable work within the private agencies. The salaries, prestige and training is still too low." The Coalition for Child Protection Reform's Wexler also noted that the financial incentives for foster care providers needs review. "What they need to do is get away from the per-diem reimbursement. You're going to get what you pay for. If you change the financial incentive, the reward would be for returning children to birth parents or adoption."

Andrew White, director of the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School, has penned an advisory paper addressed to the new mayor and city council . "Everyone in the child welfare field knows that some parents abandon or severely maltreat their children," said White. "Most parents...do not fit this description, however, and are struggling with issues related to poverty, substance abuse, spousal abuse or illness." He advocated a broad expansion of neighborhood-based preventive services that would "help families steer clear of the kind of severe crises that can endanger their children." Unfortunately, he continued, "the nature of ACS policies are such that in most cases, families must be in the thick of a crisis before they obtain any assistance."

 

A Rocky Season


When Michael Bloomberg takes office in January, he will be mayor of more than the city's sagging economy and the aftermath of the attack on the World Trade Center. He will also be taking the reins of a government that relies on private, nonprofit agencies for the day-to-day care of human beings that the rest of us take for granted. Watching over children while parents work, feeding the elderly at senior centers, clothing and sheltering the homeless. Even when there is no special emergency, much of the city is held together by a brittle web of government contracts and underpaid social workers.

That web has been strained by a double blow from the state budget and the falling towers. First, lawmakers in Albany delayed this year's budget from April until August, when they passed a "bare bones" budget -- lower than last year's and minus funding for crucial needs. In mid-September, they followed up with a supplemental budget restoring less than half the funds that human service agencies counted on to keep their operations going.

Since September 11, ripples of destruction have spread far beyond Ground Zero. Soup kitchens found themselves feeding families of unemployed downtown restaurant workers, and community service centers wrestled with the crippled computer system of the welfare bureaucracy. While millions of dollars flow into charities serving World Trade Center survivors, agencies that serve people with needs unrelated to that disaster face the threat of reduced donations from sympathetic individuals and foundations, and the certainty of cuts from the city's shrunken coffers.

How do small human service agencies cope with large financial uncertainties? In normal times, the City of New York takes an average of 4 months to start payments, from the day a contract is signed with a nonprofit provider. Most providers start work long before they receive payments, borrowing money to stay afloat. However, lenders usually want to see a signed contract as collateral, and contracts are hard to finalize these days, when the city has announced 15 percent budget cuts, and state legislators have not yet decided how to spend "member item" money, seven months into the state's fiscal year.

Instead of the $500 million individual state lawmakers controlled last year, this year they will have only $200 million to distribute. Small programs can be entirely dependent on these unstable funds. "Two hundred million dollars sounds like a lot of money, and make no mistake, we're happy for it," said Megan McLaughlin, executive director of the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies (see "Down and Out"). "But it's basically 211 elected officials battling over what amounts to less than $1 million each."

CHILDREN HIT HARD

Children are particularly hard hit this year. A new five-year limit on welfare benefits, combined with the weak job market, will force more parents into jobs that pay too little to cover unsubsidized day care slots. Advocates recommended an increase of $210 million in state spending for day care this year, to fund slots for 42,000 more children; only $32 million was approved.

State law says that by 2002, there should be enough room in free pre-kindergarten programs for every four-year-old to attend. However, the new state budget provides less than half of the $500 million needed. The state Senate Majority Leader, Republican Joseph Bruno, named the pre-K program as an example of the kind of spending New York cannot afford after September 11.

"We were asked to take in more children, but we just don't have the space," says Bernadette Wallace of Boys and Girls Harbor, which received no increase in funding this year for its three pre-K programs. "If there was to be additional money, we would probably open a new site."

RAINY TODAY

About $3 billion in state funds are being held in reserve "for a rainy day", much of it from savings due to welfare reform. To Michael Kink of Housing Works, the rainy day is today. "It would be wise to spend some of the surplus money on lifeboats," he says, "but Governor Pataki seems more interested in putting aside reserves for his election-year budget."

In addition to reduced state funding, many groups were directly affected by the events of September 11. Offices of some agencies were damaged: many had to delay or relocate services. Housing Works estimates that the disaster and its fallout have cost the agency over $300,000, including the cancellation of its 10th anniversary gala fundraiser.

The Haitian Women's Program hasn't been paid by the state for the last six months. "My accountant told me I couldn't go past October 31," says Gabrielle Kersaint. "We had no money." So the Brooklyn agency started laying people off, including a bilingual family specialist who provided permanency planning services to immigrants with AIDS. Now these parents will no longer have her help in figuring out how to provide for their children when they become too sick to do so themselves.

Legal Services of New York City is facing the possible loss of up to $3 million, nearly ten percent of their total budget. According to Communications Director Edwina Frances Martin, this jeopardizes their domestic violence program, whose lawyers represent survivors in court, in child custody cases, and in securing the benefits needed to become independent of abusive partners. Another program at risk helps welfare recipients to stay in school when their education is threatened by the demands of the city's Work Experience Program.

Brooklyn Legal Services laid off half of their lawyers in early November, and the Citywide Task Force on Housing is planning to close down in December, laying off their entire staff. Lawyers at the Task Force and Legal Services protect tenants from homelessness by fighting illegal evictions.

ELDERLY TOO

Worthwhile new programs may not be funded for a second year. The Park Slope Geriatric Day Center's program for Spanish-speaking elders depends on state funding that is still in question. "The state is finally recognizing a need and then -- boom," says Marianne Nicolosi of Park Slope Geriatric. The program's loss would deprive clients with Alzheimer's disease and severe physical conditions of the chance to take part in individual and group activities that give them physical, mental and social rewards.

The city was about to hire social workers to provide mental health services at senior centers, reaching elderly clients who would otherwise be reluctant to admit a need for it. "We fought for that money for four years," says Bobbi Sackman of the Council of Senior Centers, noting that as a new program, this item is particularly vulnerable to the planned city budget cuts.

AFTER 9/11

The World Trade Center tragedy intensified the need for many agencies' services, while placing new barriers in their path. "We're feeling the crunch of more people needing food," says Rita Marie Trucois, director of social services at Riverside Church, which has extended its food pantry's hours in response to a 30 percent increase in families seeking help. Citymeals-on-Wheels is finding it harder to deliver meals to homebound older people in downtown Manhattan. "Our mission remains the same," notes its director of program services, Andrea Kopel, even though it now costs more to deliver the same level of service.

"In light of the September 11 attack, we have become more lenient," reports Shawniqua Ottley of the Fund for the City of New York, a major source of the bridge loans that sustain struggling nonprofits. "A lot of agencies are on the brink." Applicants for the Fund's loans are experiencing unusually long delays in processing contracts, particularly with city agencies displaced by the World Trade Center disaster.

Instead of requiring that an agency have a signed contract in hand, the Fund is now granting loans as long as it can verify that a contract is on the way to being signed. Borrowers are being given six months to pay back loans, twice as long as usual. Applications for loans have increased from about three a week to fifteen or twenty, according to Ottley. The Fund has had to draw on the Ford Foundation and the September 11 funds for an emergency injection of cash to meet increased demand.

Patrick Markee of the Coalition for the Homeless expects a time lag before we see the full impact of the sagging economy and the attacks on the World Trade Center. "The bigger question is, what's going to happen in the future with the city and state budgets?" Both the governor and the new mayor are facing large budget gaps in the next few years. Neither leader seems eager to raise taxes, even though higher unemployment will swell the need for social services. The Fall of 2001 may prove to be a dress rehearsal for uncertainty on a whole new scale.

Linda Ostreicher, a former budget analyst for the New York City Council, is a freelance writer and consultant to nonprofits. She is currently on the staff of Bronx Independent Living Services.

 

Administration for Children's Services


It is amazing what a city agency can do when given direct access to the mayor, $600 million in additional funding, and a new start free of former ties. Tragically, it took the beating death of six-year old Elisa Izquierdo in 1995 to bring about this attentiveness, but with these resources Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta has been able to turn around the city's child welfare agency, renamed the Administration for Children's Services (ACS) when he took the helm and separated from the Human Resources Administration.

Scoppetta raised salaries, increased staff training and education requirements, reduced caseloads, and appeased litigants that wanted the federal government to take over the agency. He agreed to have the agency monitored for two years from within by a panel of child welfare experts led by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Last year, in a report issued at the end of that surveillance, the agency won high praise at the "remarkable progress" it has made.

In early September, Scoppetta ordered the closing of one of the city's own foster care offices in Harlem because it placed rock bottom on an evaluation of 46 agencies that provide group homes for adolescents and children. Three private agencies that scored just above the Manhattan city-run office were put on probation and will be required to submit improvement plans.

Critics say Scoppetta did not act soon enough, that staff in the Harlem office had been complaining for years that caseloads were too high and supervision was not adequate. But according Jennifer Falk, spokesperson for ACS, "This summer was the first time we had the ability to do a comprehensive study. Prior to that, the information was just anecdotal."

Some fear that closing the office -- one of only four run by the city -- might lead to a dependence on private agencies for direct service foster care. This concern stems from the fact that the city entered into the foster care business in 1959 when hundreds of minority infants were being rejected by the religious agencies that controlled the foster care beds.

Scoppetta has acknowledged the need to keep the city in the business of direct foster care but with the requirement of quality and accountability.

Most observers credit Scoppetta with great strides. There are 30,000 children in foster care in New York City today, mostly adolescents, but that is down from 43,000 when Scoppetta took the job. The average caseworker's load has been reduced from 27 to 12, and over 1500 new ACS caseworkers have been employed with higher educational requirements.

In early September, however, the commissioner announced that he will not continue on in his post under the new mayor. Instead he plans to take to the road, speaking and writing about his experiences, in order to help other communities across the country whose child welfare systems are not as far along.

But is the city itself far enough along?

"You have to give the commissioner credit," said Gladys Carrion, executive director of Inwood House, one of the contract agencies for foster care that works with ACS. "He is the first one to admit that there's a lot of work undone. He's devised the structure and support, like a grid, but it is in the very beginning stages. The transformation of the agency has not yet taken place.

"How families interact with ACS hasn't changed," said Carrion. "There have been cultural changes at the top, but it still hasn't trickled down. How we view biological parents, and the changing role of foster parents to become mentors to biological parents, this is still at the beginning stages."

Carrion is optimistic that ACS can keep on track without Scoppetta and continue to better serve families and children. Her own wish list would include replicating what Scoppetta was able to bestow on city staff -- increased salaries, benefits and training -- for the contract agencies as well. "We have a serious problem with retention of staff," Carrion acknowledged.

Unfortunately, increased funding for child welfare is not a decision the commissioner himself makes. It comes from the state, with matching funds from the federal government. Scoppetta has consistently lobbied the state to provide more funding, according to the ACS press office.

Mayoral candidate Mark Green came out with a report from the Office of the Public Advocate that focused on shortcomings that still exist in the foster care system including:

  • Abuse: one in forty children throughout the city is reportedly abused, and the number jumps to one in twenty for children in foster care
  • Neglect: children in foster care often fail to receive basic medical care
  • Failing with adolescents: a study of ten foster care agencies in 2000 found that 17 percent of the adolescents in those agencies were discharged to a homeless shelter
  • Retention of staff: there is a 40 percent yearly turnover ratio among caseworkers.

Scoppetta and Mayor Giuliani addressed some of these issues in their next phase of reform for ACS, entitled A Renewed Plan of Action. The plan promised development and expansion of neighborhood-based services, strengthening the availability, affordability and quality of child-care services, improving the achievement of permanency (with family, with placements, or with adoption) for children, as well as continued efforts in services for child protection, medical care, and adolescents.

Scoppetta wishes his successor (yet to be announced) the support of the new mayor, and he acknowledged that predecessors have often been scapegoated at the first crisis (the average tenure for his post was one-and-a-half years) and not given the time or resources he has been given to bring about change.

Unfortunately, the new commissioner will not have the same funds to work with. Since the World Trade Center disaster, all city agencies have been asked by Mayor Giuliani to submit a plan to cut their budgets. ACS is presently working on that plan.

In addition, besides a mayoral shift, a new commissioner, and less funding, ACS may lose its autonomy unless voters in November support an amendment to the New York City charter that would permanently make the Administration for Children's Services a city agency.

Like many downtown social service agencies, ACS administrative staff, Youth Development staff, and Teen Congregate Care staff were displaced as a result of the terrorist attacks on September 11th. Provisions planned for possible mishaps at the millennium proved to be useful during this time, including a toll-free phone number and the immediate loading of web pages alerting staff and families about temporary relocation sites and services. Staff were able to return to their offices by September 25th. Counseling sessions have also been made available for ACS staff, contract agency staff, and the families and children they serve.

 

Hanging Out


It is 4:30 p.m. on a Tuesday in the Bronx, in a precinct known for the second-highest rate of juvenile arrests in the city, the 44th. Inside a storefront on 174th Street, local teenagers gather. Sawdust and lumber litter the floor; strains of Bob Marley play in the background, punctuated by laughter and occasional chatter. Two boys use a carpenter's plane to shape a piece of mahogany. "It's the stem," one of them explains, using the nautical term as if he had been born on the sea. The storefront is a boat building workshop, and these teens are building a wooden boat.

Rocking the Boat is one of many teen after-school programs offered by New Settlement Apartments in the Mount Eden area of the southwest Bronx. New Settlement's teen programs range from community service to sports to homework help, and serve some 360 local teenagers, many of whom live in the New Settlement housing project. Though teen after-school programs vary widely both at New Settlement and throughout the city, all programs meet one critical need: they provide teenagers with supervised activities during the hours after school.

TEEN TIME, TEEN TROUBLE

According to various studies, juveniles are most likely to be both the victims and the perpetrators of crime in the four hours after the end of the school day. The Federal Bureau of Investigation notes a tripling in juvenile crime between 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. "Most kids have parents who are working and out of the home between 3 and 6," said Samantha Vincent, director of an after-school program administered by the Educational Alliance in Manhattan. "What are their options? To go home to an empty house, or to go hang out on a street corner."

Unsupervised time after school puts children at great risk of being involved not just in crime, but also substance abuse and teen pregnancy, according to studies by the National Center for Juvenile Justice; the risk is greatest during the teenage years.

"The majority of kids in this neighborhood don't have that rich menu of things to do after school that kids in affluent suburban communities have," says Jack Doyle, director of New Settlement Apartments, a middle-income development that houses 900 families, 300 of whom are formerly homeless.

Despite the need for teen after-school programs, there are many fewer programs for teens than for younger children, according to Jason Schwartzman of the Partnership for After-School Education, who surveyed some 1,073 youth programs in the city, and found that only 35 percent provide activities for teenagers.

"Programs for teens are considered more difficult and more expensive," said Vincent. "The potential risks are higher. High school kids can do drugs, have sex, and be violent."

One of the greater challenges facing providers of teen after-school programs is keeping them interested. "The older the kid, the more difficult it is," Schwartzman said. "Teenagers have independence, and if they're bored they can leave if they want to."

"You must provide something pretty exciting to get kids off the streets," said Vincent.

BUILDING BOATS

Rocking the Boat, one of the more unusual after-school programs available to New York City teens, seems to have no trouble keeping kids interested. "I wanted to develop something kids and parents couldn't say no to," said Adam Green, the program's director.

Each semester, Green recruits 16 teenagers to construct a 14- or 17-foot Whitehall, a traditional Hudson River rowboat. The project takes an entire semester of after-school work, during which students learn and practice basic carpentry skills as well as some applied mathematics, science and history. Green's crew will finish their current boat in June, and plan to launch it from Hunts Point and row down the Bronx River.

Begun in 1998, Rocking the Boat has grown popular - this semester, 23 signed up, although Green can only take 16. Students grow to feel invested in the project as they see the boat begin to take shape, and gain an unusual sense of accomplishment.

Meliza Pena, 16, a student at William Howard Taft high school, is building her second boat this semester. "When I first saw it, I wondered, how are we going to build a boat in the Bronx when there's no water?" Now, she is sold. "If I can accomplish something I never thought I could do, I can accomplish anything!"

BUILDING KIDS

Rocking the Boat provides more for teens than just a reason to stay off the streets. "The purpose of Rocking the Boat is not to build boats," Green said, "it's to build kids."

Some teens are most excited about the hands-on skills they are learning. "It's not really the boats that interest me, it's the building," explained Elliyaas Carter, 15, who hopes to someday repair airplanes. "It's the practical skills," said Ronnie Perez, 14. "We've also built things like tables for the workshop. It's so easy!"

Other teenagers value the less tangible skills they have gained. "I've learned a lot about leadership," said Meliza Pena, who has learned how to speak in public by representing the program at various events and festivals, and who gained work experience as a boat-building apprenctice. Students are given much of the responsibility for organizing the boat shop and the construction process and other activities.

Successful after-school programs for teens are not just about keeping kids out of trouble, but about respecting and valuing them, according to Megan Nolan, a social worker at New Settlement. "A successful program has the view that teens are a resource in the community rather than a problem to solve."

"If students are made to feel like their work or their participation is integral to the success of the overall program," Vincent said, "they'll want to come."

TEEN TIME

It is 7:45 p.m. on a Tuesday in the Bronx. A parent chats with Green, while a group of staff and students lingers in the office. They seem reluctant to leave. Edmanuel Roman, 15, looks at some photos taken throughout the afternoon. He likes what he sees. "It really looks like I'm doing something, like we're all working together."

 



Print Friendly and PDF

Editor's Choice


Gotham Gazette: Fixing City's 'Non-Functioning' Board of Elections Relies on State Fixing City's 'Non-Functioning' Board of Elections Relies on State Gotham Gazette: De Blasio Continues Deliberative Approach to Appointments De Blasio Continues Deliberative Approach to Appointments Gotham Gazette: Despite Expectations, Design-Build for New York City Not Approved in Albany Despite Expectations, Design-Build for New York City Not Approved in Albany Gotham Gazette: De Blasio and The Complications of Vetting Campaign Donors De Blasio and The Complications of Vetting Campaign Donors


Comments
Comment(s)

The comments section is provided as a free service to our readers. Gotham Gazette's editors reserve the right to delete any comments. Some reasons why comments might get deleted: inappropriate or offensive content, off-topic remarks or spam.