NYC Issues 2001: Children
By Peggy Farber
Policies for children claim a substantial portion of
New York's municipal resources, yet many pass into established
practice with minimal public debate. During the Giuliani
administration, radical shifts in children's programs
took place out of the public's view. One popular after-school
program grew by thirteen thousand percent, one highly
regarded juvenile probation program was extinguished.
The budget of the Administration for Children's Services
Indeed, the Administration for Children's Services, the
city's agency for handling cases of child abuse and neglect,
has the fifth largest budget, more than the Health and
Hospitals Corporation, the Department of Sanitation and
the Department of Transportation combined -- $2.4 billion
of the $39.5 billion city
budget. Only the Board of Education, the Department
of Social Services, and the Police Department get more
money. And of course, the Board of Education has something
to do with children too.
Among the many decisions the new mayor will have to make
about Mayor Giuliani's children's programs are whether
to keep Nicholas Scoppetta on as head of the Administration
for Children's Services, whether to reverse an unannounced
alteration of the city's day care, whether to continue
the mayor's energetic push to enroll all eligible uninsured
children in public medical plans, and whether to save
health clinics, many of which were temporarily rescued
from closing in May.
Measured by many indicators, the condition of children
in New York City has improved over the eight years that
Rudolph Giuliani has been mayor. The percent of children
living in poverty has dropped from 44 percent to 34 percent.
Fewer children are being born to teenaged mothers, and
a smaller portion of mothers are giving birth without
ever having had prenatal care. The foster care population
has shrunk from a high of 45,000 at the start of the Giuliani
term to 31,000 in March
this year, and the number of new admissions is steadily
declining (after a burst of admissions in the agency's
first few years).
WILL SCOPPETTA STAY ON?
Nicholas Scoppetta has made no secret of his desire to
continue as commissioner of the Administration for Children's
Services. "I haven't made any other plans," he said recently.
However, Scoppetta's willingness to continue under a new
mayor depends on having the kind of access to the mayor
he has now, he said. As head of a major agency, Scoppetta
has Giuliani's direct support, participating in the mayor's
daily 8:00 a.m. meeting where there is an opportunity
to talk to and lobby the mayor that Scoppetta deems invaluable.
At the moment, the Administration for Children's Services
exists as an independent agency at the pleasure of the
mayor. A bill to make it permanently independent of the
Human Resources Agency is stalled in the City Council.
Scoppetta has made passage of the bill a top
priority and a lot may be at stake in its passage.
Scoppetta has brought about reforms of the child welfare
system few would have thought possible at the start of
his term. These include a major upgrade in caseworker
training, a realignment of services along neighborhood
lines, an assertion of authority over contract agencies
- but the reforms may not be firmly rooted enough to withstand
In addition, despite improvements at the top of the system,
appalling practices continue at many contract agencies.
For example, according to a new state audit of the city
system, in 71 percent of cases where the goal for a foster
child is reunification with his or her parents, caseworkers
fail to arrange even two one-hour visits a month between
children and parents, as state law requires. This failure
rate is up from 57 percent in 1997. If Scoppetta is not
at the head of the agency during the next mayoralty, whoever
takes over will have to be capable of carrying his reforms
out to frontline practitioners if the system overhaul
is to last.
City Council members, including speaker Peter F. Vallone,
a mayoral candidate, resist making the Administration
for Children's Services a permanent charter agency because
they think some of the programs currently assigned to
that agency might be better off back at the Human Resources
Administration. They point to the city's child care system,
a $600 million line in the Administration for Children's
STEALTH DAY CARE
One of the most serious hazards threatening the stability
of low-income families in New York is a severe
shortage of affordable child care, a crisis that is
continually deepening as thousands of New York City parents
lose welfare benefits. The Giuliani administration has
quietly effected a major change in the city's day care
policy, and the next mayor will have to decide what to
do about it.
New York City has an extensive, largely unheralded, network
of public day care centers for low-income families, administered
now by the Administration for Children's Services. The
centers, the creation of the John V. Lindsay administration,
provide care for roughly twenty-five thousand pre-kindergarten
children. The Administration for Children's Services also
manages a comprehensive network of licensed family-based
centers for low-income children. These are run by individuals
in their homes under the supervision of the city and non-profit
agencies. Both networks are absolutely full, with waiting
lists of 38,000 children.
A third sector has come out of nowhere and ballooned
into a major New York City child care initiative under
Giuliani: The Human Resources Administration now issues
its own childcare vouchers. These go to parents who must
participate in work-related activities in order to receive
welfare benefits. Because the two programs from the Administration
for Children's Services are full, welfare mothers use
the vouchers to pay relatives, neighbors, and boyfriends
as babysitters. Some 38,000 children are now, suddenly,
in unsupervised care under the aegis of the Human Resources
Child care experts worry that Giuliani's decision to
spend money on unstable babysitting arrangements rather
than established child care programs means the city is
weakening its existing system and consigning thousands
of parents to failure in the job market. "We need at least
90,000 new child care places over the next five years,"
said Philip Coltoff, executive director of the Children's
Aid Society, "and the answer is not more vouchers.
I want to see the slots in fully licensed center-based
programs. If we don't do this it's going to be self-defeating.
A lot of moms who are getting jobs are going to have to
give them up."
One child care program has grown exponentially during
the Giuliani years, the Beacon Schools. These are school-based,
after-school programs, run by community groups throughout
the city, originally funded by a city income tax surcharge
raised at the end of the Dinkins administration for crime-fighting
initiatives. The Beacons are administered by the city's
Youth Services Division, which is an agency the mayor
tried to eliminate early in his tenure. Eventually, Giuliani
folded Youth Services into the Community Development agency.
Funding for the Beacons has grown from $217,000 in 1994
to $29 million in 2000.
At the same time, the mayor has eliminated a nationally-acclaimed
teen probation program called Family Ties, and has made
a yearly ritual of threatening to eliminate the entire
youth services budget, which, in addition to Beacon Schools,
funds a wide range of comprehensive after-school programs,
youth jobs, and community arts programs for kids.
Youth services proponents are praying the new mayor doesn't
replicate Giuliani's strategy for restraining budget growth.
"The most damaging thing about this mayoralty," said Michele
Yanche, staff director of the Neighborhood Family Services
Coalition, "has been the propensity to propose enormous
cuts in the budget which then get restored by the City
Council. The act itself is damaging because every year
all the advocates have to spend tremendous amounts of
valuable time convincing the City Council to keep the
The mayor readily admits to playing this game with advocates.
"Every year you have to be willing, if you are the mayor,
to have a good sense of humor and have The New York Times
and The Post and The Daily News and everybody else write
that you are cutting pacemakers for people and putting
old people in the zoo or something," Giuliani told The
New York Times last January. "In order to make sure the
budget does not grow by 7 percent, 8 percent, 10, 12 percent,
that is what you do."
Some of the new mayor's decisions will involve Giuliani
initiatives that win applause from children's advocates.
The next mayor will have to decide, for example, whether
to continue Giuliani's campaign to find and enroll hundreds
of thousands of children in Medicaid and in Child
Health Plus, the public insurance program for children
whose families earn too much for Medicaid and too little
for private insurance. Last July Mayor Giuliani organized
an executive-level task force to find and register every
eligible uninsured child.
Donna Lawrence, executive director of the Children's
Defense Fund of New York, said the mayor's initiative
comes as a welcome boost. The city conducted a computer
match, for example, of children receiving food stamps
and children enrolled in health insurance and, finding
70,000 uninsured children, then arranged for automatic
enrollment of the children. "This has been a very, very
positive step forward," Lawrence said of the weekly status
meetings the mayor's office holds on children's health
insurance, "and no other mayor has done this. We certainly
hope it will be continued."
The city has not kept up funding for the Health and Hospitals
Corporation, though, and one result has been a threat
to children's medical clinics. The Health and Hospital
Corporation's budget, even without taking inflation into
account, is smaller today at $943 million than it was
in 1994 at $983 million. In May the corporation announced
that it would have to close 27 children's clinics because
of huge deficits. A last minute reprieve came when funds
from the city's school health program were used to plug
the gap, but the relief is only temporary.
One of the biggest issues for the next mayor will be
something no mayor has ever had to face before. On December
31st, 2001, tens of thousands of New Yorkers will reach
lifetime limits on federal welfare benefits. Mayor Giuliani
puts the number of people at 39,000 but the Independent
Budget Office, using state figures, estimates that 100,000
people - 58,000 children - will lose cash benefits overnight.
New York State and the city will jointly offer vouchers,
equivalent to cash payments, to families losing federal
welfare, but so far no one has made plans for transferring
families to the safety net program. The new venture will
require a major investment of city funds and a substantial
new bureaucratic operation. Perhaps the most pressing
question for the mayoral candidates is how the city is
going to avert a catastrophe for children whose parents
no longer have any cash income.