My father was not much of a family man. He was always in and out of prison. Growing up in foster care, I missed having a dad to help me learn how to read and write, to play sports and talk to. I wanted him to help me answer questions such as, "Can I make it in life?" and, "What is my purpose?"
I'm not alone in missing a dad. More than half of all black children do not live with their fathers, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And at least one in four Hispanic kids and one in five white kids live without their dads.
This has an effect on individual families and on society in general. Research shows that kids who don't have dads are much more likely to be depressed, fail school, commit crimes, have sex early on and (for girls) get pregnant. Nationally children without fathers are 10 times more likely to be extremely poor than other children.
As a result, a number of programs have been launched nationally and in New York City to try to help men be better fathers. New York City has a Fatherhood Initiative and allocates $3 million in federal Community Service Block Grants to 12 community organizations working with local dads. (For more on city programs to help fathers, see Gotham Gazette.)
One of these groups is STRIVE (Support and Training Results in Valuable Employees). It, in turn, runs a program in East Harlem called POPS (Providing Opportunity for Parental Success) that works mostly with black and Latino fathers 18 to 35 years old. It offers an eight-week workshop that helps fathers reunite and connect with their children, and also provides counseling, mediation with family members and legal help. Once a man participates in POPS, he can come back for help throughout his entire life. "We're like a leech. We latch on and don't let go," said Robert Sanchez, the program manager.
In POPS, dads learn how to hold a newborn and how a baby communicates his needs by crying. POPS shows men how to play with their children, help them with homework, ask about their interests, or discover something new by taking kids on outings. Dads learn child development, how to be patient, and how to solve a child's problems without criticizing a child or making her feel bad.
POPS advises men not to give up on having a good relationship with their children -- even if a dad has been told he can't see his kids or feels the kid does not appreciate him, Sanchez said. If the mother won't let a father see his kids, POPS workers take the dad to family court and help him exercise his legal rights to see his children.
Beyond the legal barriers, many men stay away from their children out of fear, Sanchez said. Having a child is scary. "A lot of guys worry that they don't know how to care for a child and don't want to look stupid."
Some men don't stay because of "baby mama" drama. "Fifty percent of our fathers have a volatile relationship with their child's mother," and almost none are married to them, Sanchez noted. Frustrated with their child's mother, men may stop seeing their kids to avoid fights and conflict, or the mothers may not let them visit.
Other dads disappear because they get caught up in the streets or prison. Black men in particular are at risk for getting locked up. Over our lifetimes, we face a 32 percent chance of spending at least a year in jail, Inside Higher Educationreported. White men face a 6 percent chance.
And lots of fathers have no idea how to be a good parent because they never had one themselves. At least 15 percent of the men who participate in POPS were in foster care when they were boys, Sanchez noted.
Many men believe a father's only role is to provide for their children. Men with jobs are more likely than unemployed fathers to be present in their children's lives. Those without money or jobs may "associate fatherhood as an extension of their pocket, and think 'I'll stay out of the child's life until I have money,'" Sanchez explained. This has a big effect on black families in New York City where, according to a report by the Community Service Society, only 51.9 percent of black men ages 16 to 64 were employed.
But Sanchez emphasizes that even the poorest fathers can support their children in important ways. "One question I ask my fathers is, 'What is one great thing you remember about your dad?'" Their answers, Sanchez said, never have to do with money. "That child is not going to remember the sneakers, but he does remember the time you took him to the park, or to a baseball game, or made him feel good about himself," Sanchez.
Sanchez's own history explains why he is so passionate about fatherhood. At 18, Sanchez fathered a daughter. He was also arrested in an apartment where drugs were found and sent to prison for 15 years. While incarcerated, he wrote to his daughter, had her visit and kept communication open with the girl's mother. When he came out of prison, he gave his daughter a cellphone to stay in touch with him. His feelings were hurt when she did not use it much.
One day Sanchez watched a Spanish film, "Mi Familia," In it, a character returns from prison and tries to force his child into a relationship. The child rejects him. An older, wiser relative tells the man, "You can't come home and demand a relationship."
"That, to me, was a lesson," Sanchez recalls. "Her feelings were legitimate. I had been out of her life for 14 years and had to give her space and room to feel what she's feeling."
Sanchez let his daughter know he would always be there for her, but that she could have some say in how much time they would spend together. Now they see each other about twice a month.
Sanchez believes that, to be a good father, a man needs to understand his own anger, his past, and his parents. To end his own family's pattern of absent fathers, Sanchez did not use drugs or alcohol. He went to college and earned a master's degree, and forgave people who had wronged him.
New York City dads, like Sanchez and the men in the POPS program hope to stay in the lives of their children. They want to break the cycle of missing fathers. When it is my turn, I am going to try to break that cycle as well.
Antwaun Garcia is a writer at Represent, a magazine by and for teenagers in foster care that is published by Youth Communication.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed legislation on Monday that would create a new state agency to investigate and prosecute cases of abuse and neglect of disabled people, strengthening protections for New Yorkers with special needs.
The new agency being proposed was created with the help of advocates and would have an inspector general and special prosecutor. Any potential criminal cases would be referred to local district attorneys, who could then pursue charges.
“This is about safeguarding the civil rights of the more than one million New Yorkers with disabilities and special needs, who for too long have not had the protections and justice they deserve,” the governor said at a news conference in Albany.
Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos described Cuomo's proposal as a "package of thoughtful reforms." Assembly Leader Sheldon Silver congratulated Cuomo on his legislation. “The governor has outlined a plan to inject much-needed accountability into the system for the care of individuals with developmental disabilities and to eliminate abuses," he said.
The lawmakers said they expected Cuomo's legislation creating the new agency, which would be known as the Justice Center for the Protection of People with Special Needs, could be passed by the end of this session. There are 20 session days remaining.
In a series of articles last year, New York Times reported on abuses under the current state system for protecting the developmentally disabled. In one case highlighted in the series, a 13-year-old autistic boywas asphyxiated when he was crushed to death in the back seat of a van by a 200-pound state employee.
The worker was a ninth grade dropout who had been convicted of selling marijuana and hadn’t had a day off in 15 days. The driver of the van, who had been fired from four different organizations that helped the disabled until he was hired by the state, watched as the boy died without saying much, the Times reported.
Cuomo’s plan would centralize background checks for workers and create new laws with clearer definitions of abuse.
As dire as the economic situation is for New Yorkers overall, the challenges confronting those with disabilities in this economic climate loom as truly staggering. Almost one third -- 32 percent -- of all disabled New Yorkers live in poverty.
The median household income for these disabled city residents is $30,555, compared to about $58,072 for the working-age population without disabilities. This income gap of $27,517 is substantially greater than the divide in the United States and somewhat larger than that for New York state as a whole.
No single reason accounts for the difficulties facing disabled New Yorkers. Some of it, of course, arises from the overall high rates of of poverty and homelessness in New York City, a crisis the Bloomberg administration by many accounts has been slow to address.
Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hungerand a frequent administration critic, said the data has finally captured the mayor's attention. However, Berg wrote, his administration still doesn't quite get it.
Human Resources commissioner Robert Doar "continues to make the argument that NYC is doing a fine job fighting poverty because we still have lower overall poverty rates than Detroit of Philadelphia,” Berg complained in an email. "I am surprised he doesn't brag that we are doing better than Burkina Faso and North Korea."
As poverty increases, advocates say people with disabilities face a series of obstacles -- starting with shortcomings in special education and continuing on to problems in health insurance, job placement programs and the very government offices designed to address their needs. Those with disabilities face systemic discrimination and barriers within both the public and private sectors. Together, all of this traps many disabled New Yorkers in a sequence of poverty.
Whatever the reasons for the distress, the numbers portray a serious crisis. Over the summer, the Center for Independence of the Disabled, New York released a report analyzing the state of people with disabilities in New York 20 years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
"We are more likely to be hungry and impoverished than our non-disabled counterparts and rely on food and health safety-net programs for survival," it said. "The problem of disability-based disparities in access and outcomes has consequences for our state and city that have not been fully explored or addressed."
Its findings include:
Educational disparities play a key role in the sequence of poverty. People with disabilities are less likely to graduate high school than other New Yorkers, with only about 30 percent completing high school in four years. "If the education gap is greater, then poverty is greater," Hunter College professor and center board member John O’Neill said, adding if people with disabilities "can acquire better education, prospects for earning over a lifetime are better like [with] everyone else."
Despite many efforts to place students in the least restrictive possible settings, many disabled students remain isolated from other students. Maggie Moroff, coordinator of the ARISE Coalition, which was created to advocate on behalf of children with special needs, and coordinator of special education policy at Advocates for Children said the city Department of Education has made some improvements” in special education. However, Moroff said, the department still needs to integrate more students into the general school population and increase the quality of education offered students in special education.
"Teachers were trained to meet all needs but [the] academic [ones]," Advocates for Children executive director Kim Sweet elaborated. "Many special education teachers lack training in academic content, such as history or math, particularly at the high school level.”
More than one third of city special education students attend separate classes, a higher percentage than in Chicago or Los Angeles, WNYC reported recently.
Two reports issued by Arise, Out of School and Unprepared and Educate! Include! Respect! shed further light on the struggles of special ed enrollees, particularly minority children. For example, ARISE found, over 90 percent of students graduating with Individual Education Plan or IEP, diplomas -- available only to special education students -- in 2007 were black or Latino, although black and Latino students made up only 70 percent of all students in the class of 2007.
An IEP diploma has less academic value than New York's other diplomas -- it is not accepted by colleges or the military -- so many students find they also need to get a GED, available to people who did not graduate, as well. Moroff said families often don’t know this is the case. "By the time family knows, [the child] is too many credits behind” his peers to catch up, she said.
A spokeswoman for the education department's special ed office adamantly disagreed, saying parents are informed about the diploma early on. She also noted that the state, not the city, establishes standards for issuing diplomas.
The graduation numbers are even worse when one only looks at students in self-contained special education classes, as opposed to those who attend regular classes but receive some special services. Educate! reports, "Graduation rates for students in self-contained, special education classes have declined to less than 5 percent, and dropout rates for these students remain more than two and a half times higher than students in other special education settings." These autonomous classes, the report notes, contain a disproportionate number of black and Latino males.
Finally, advocates point to discipline and punishment -- including suspension -- of special education students. Figures recently released by the city's Department of Education found that 30 percent of all suspensions went to special education students, who account for about 17 percent of the total student population.
Moroff said school officials need to consider whether what they see as misbehavior may have been caused by a student's disability. Once suspended, she added, "The child, often incorrectly, is sent down a path toward an almost certain failureâ€¦ They lose time and [often] drop out."
Workforce development and other employment programs do little to rectify the shortcomings of the schools system, advocates for the disabled say. "Most workforce programs funnel people with disabilities toward low-wage employment -- not careers. This keeps people with disabilities in low-wage jobs that generally have no ladder up," Susan Dooha, executive director of the Center for the Independence of the Disabled, wrote in an email.
The one-stop work centers designed to help New Yorkers find employment vary considerably in how effective they are for the disabled, according to O'Neill. Some, he said, are inaccessible to those with physical disabilities. More importantly, though, the centers receive payment on a per-client basis, creating a disincentive for center staff to help people, including the disabled, who may require more help to find appropriate work.
In New York City, the Workforce1 career centers are technically administered through the Department of Small Business Services and <http://home2.nyc.gov/html/sbs/html/about/eo_wia.shtml A spokesperson for the mayor’s office, though, redirected the focus to a separate program run by the city’s Human Resources Administration, WeCare, which seems to prioritize getting its clients off public assistance.
WeCARE -- Wellness, Comprehensive Assessment, Rehabilitation and Employment -- was created "to give clients with disabilities the supports and services they need to have an equal opportunity to transition from welfare to their highest level of self-sufficiency by providing customized services that identify and address individual service needs," Samantha Levine, the spokesperson, said in an email.
The Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities is supposed to serve as a liaison between city government, relevant organizations and the disabled community. It offers listings of a range of services provided by public and non-profits, ranging from education, coordinating activities and events, to agency programs designed to assist people with disabilities.
Despite repeated requests, the mayor's office did not authorize Matthew Sapolin, the commissioner of the disabilities office, to be interviewed for this article.
Government agencies, such as the Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities, have a key part to play in improving the overall lot of the disabled, advocates believe. "Public agencies are in leadership roles and ensuring that their agencies contract with disability-owned businesses can improve employment outcomes for people with disabilities," Dooha wrote.
Unfortunately, she continued, "Since the recession we have seen people" who are in the city's work program for people with disabilities "threatened with layoffs in higher numbers, losing any gains that they had made."
Furthermore, she wrote, “There is very little disability literacy in public agencies -- most have little contact with people with disabilities and give little value given to our expertise."
The reliance of people with disabilities on public agencies extends to their medical coverage. New York state's 2007 Chartbook on Disability described the disabled as more likely than other New Yorkers to be underinsured. As a result, "People with disabilities are more likely than those without disabilities to have deferred medically necessary care on the basis of cost â€¦ and have chronic health conditions," the analysis stated.
Dooha explained there's a lack of coordination and cohesion in medical care for the disabled. "The system is piecemeal," she said with some people not getting coverage they are entitled to.
"People who are employed whose income goes up are told they are no longer eligible for Medicaid, even when they are still low-income," Heidi Siegfried, health policy director for the Center for the Independence of the Disabled, emailed. However the state does indeed provide a program that allows them to keep Medicaid coverage even though they may have earned income. "For low-income workers this can mean that they can keep their jobs and maintain their health," Siegfried said.
City and state workers, who are supposed to be trained about these issues, often provide false or misleading information to clients, or simply do not know what programs are available, Dooha said. The fact that some disabled people are overwhelmed by bureaucracy only complicates the problem.
Given the many factors contributing to the high poverty and unemployment rates among the disabled, Disability Matters offers an array of recommendations to improve the situation. The following is just a sampling. For example in education, the report calls for:
In employment, the group calls for:
To reduce the number of disabled people living in poverty, the report would increase the benefit rate for the federal Supplemental Security Income program and change the criteria for establishing eligibility. Disability Matters also would like to see the city government provide funding for community outreach and assistance with applications and appeals to help eligible low-income people receive whatever benefits to which they are entitled.
Beyond these and many more specifics Dooha said, “We have proved we are knowledgeable experts [about] our own experiencesâ€¦ we are agents of change, not victims. If you want a victim, go to the New York Times neediest cases.”
When Chimore Mack Glover recently turned 21, she aged out of the New York City foster child program and so needed a place to live.
"I usually plan things ahead of time, and my first step was to get a job and find a place to live," she recalled recently. She tried to stay with family members, but one turned her down, Her grandmother was sick and so could not help. "It was also very scary because I didn't know if my foster care agency was going to help me or not," said Glover.
Despite all that, Glover now says she is doing well -- living on her own and working part time. She dreams of being a journalist some day, saying, "My grandmother always told me to chase my dreams. I love to write. It’s an outlet. If I am going through something, I will just write it down. Then I’m relieved and I’m not stressed. "
While things may have worked out well for Glover, every year hundreds of young adults must adapt to life after foster care-- and a number do not succeed. For many the transition presents a huge challenge, and though programs exist to help, they cannot aid all the young people who need it.
There are currently 16,000 children in the foster care system throughout New York City. Of them, about 1,100 leave the system each year, according to In Transition: A Better Future for Youth Leaving Foster Care, a report published in the New School’s Child Welfare Watch.
The majority attempt the transition to independent living on their own. Most lack any type of a strong support network. Not surprisingly, for these young adults, the transition to the "real world" abounds with financial, physical and emotional hardship.
Child Welfare Watch and an internal city review have found that about 15 percent of young adults who age out of foster care end up in the homeless shelter system within two years of their initial discharge.
"In extraordinary numbers, children who age out of the foster care system end up homeless, incarcerated or both in a brief time period," said Topher Nichols, the communications manager at Children’s Village, a New York-based organization devoted to professional and educational development for troubled youth. "When we really look hard at our own experiences as young adults, how many times we called home because we were a little short on rent or because we made a silly mistake and needed support, we have to recognize that most of us don't become successful on our own. We have a network of people who support us and take care of us. This is a critical piece missing from the lives of most youth aging out of the city."
The one-time foster children also do not have the same opportunities as many young adults, especially when it comes to education, employment and housing, which are all connected, said Kim VanBurch, coordinator of youth development at the Vincent J. Fontana Center for Child Protection. "If they don't have an education, then they can't find employment, and if they can't find employment then they won't be able to secure housing," VanBurch said.
The foster care agencies -- private organizations under contract with the city to place children in appropriate homes and monitor their care -- are supposed to prepare the children under their auspices for life after foster care, said Elysia Murphy, the deputy communications director at the city's Administration for Children's Services.
"Prior to leaving care, foster care caseworkers work with adolescents to develop plans in preparation for their discharge from foster care. Agencies are expected to set developmentally appropriate expectations that encourage youth to achieve their highest potential in their careers, educational and personal lives and to enable youth to plan responsibly for their own needs," Murphy said.
Advocates, though, say many agencies don't start this preparation until a few months before the youth is slated to leave the foster care program. This leave the young adults, some of whom suffer from mental illness and emotional instability, with few resources to turn to when trying to find a place to live and a source of income.
"In the vast majority of cases meaningful transition planning by the agencies responsible for a young person in foster care ... occurs, if at all, in a last minute scramble in the months before the adolescent is to leave foster care," said Glenn Metsch-Ampel, the deputy-executive director of Lawyers for Children. "More often than not, without the intervention of their advocates and the court, these young people are faced with the prospect of leaving foster care without truly stable housing, employment or a connection to a caring adult in their community."
To add to the difficulty, the Administration for Children's Services has suffered budget cuts over the past few years that affect its ability to handle issues confronting the city's low-income youth.
"ACS has just had budget cut after budget cut, and its internal operation services have really fallen apart. Without there being strong support inside the agency, it just means those services become vulnerable and haphazard. That means that foster care agencies do not deliver services with the same consistency," said Abigail Kramer, the associate editor of Child Welfare Watch. According to research published in Child Welfare Watch, the number of families participating in preventive service programs, which help children in foster care and neglectful or abusive homes, has dropped by 30 percent decline since 2009.
Murphy, though, denied budget cuts have had an effect on transition programs. "Despite the difficult decisions made in the past two years to reduce agency spending in response to the financial climate, the agency has been able to sustain funding to support services for youth in foster care as they make the transition into adulthood," Murphy said.
Both New York City social workers and government officials have recognized that many young adults aging out of foster care are not adequately prepared to enter into independent living without any familial or professional support network.
In 2005, the city and the state created the New York/New York III program. According to Child Welfare Watch, it provides funding for about 400 young adults who have aged out of foster care. Many of the supportive housing programs receive New York/New York III funding and thus, are able to support their residents. However, there is still a huge population of young adults leaving foster care who are left with very few options.
In the past decade, government officials, philanthropists and non-profits have created transitional housing programs. These support programs not only house young adults who have aged out of the system (at 21 in New York though they can leave at 18), but also provide them with the life skills training, academic and professional advice, and counseling to help them achieve stability in their own lives.
In the past 10 years, eight non-profits have cooperated with city agencies to establish various supportive housing programs scattered throughout the five boroughs. Most of them receive funding from a combination of private donations, and city and state programs, such as the New York State Supportive Housing Program and the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
Sharp cutbacks to Section 8 housing vouchers and the elimination of the Advantage program, which provided rent subsides for homeless families, has severely limited the housing options for these young adults and homeless people alike. These cuts make transitional housing programs an even more important safety net for young adults coming out of foster care.
In 2001, Schafer Hall became one of the first supportive housing programs established in New York City. Located in East Harlem, Schafer Hall is one of the many housing developments run by the Lantern Group, a non-profit committed to the construction and development of permanent, special needs housing.
Schafer Hall was created to help young adults acquire the independent living skills necessary to achieve a stable lifestyle. Each resident lives in one of 25 studio apartments where he or she learns how to prepare meals, maintain a clean living space, do laundry and budget their money along with other basic skills. The residents also meet regularly with on-site caseworkers and tutors who help them make decisions about their education -- obtaining a GED or working toward an associate's and bachelor's degree -- and employment.
"Our young adults are incredible bright, strong, and resilient individuals," said Jessica Katz, the executive director of the Lantern Group. "They just need to learn the necessary life skills."
The young adults living at Schafer Hall must have some source of income and use 30 percent of it to pay their monthly rent. This teaches them how to balance a budget and set aside a portion of their monthly income for their housing needs.
Many of the other supportive housing programs in the city-such as Chelsea Foyer and the Lee also charge their clients rent and encourage the residents to seek stable employment, as opposed to welfare, as their primary source of income.
The young people, many whom leave foster care without a college degree or even a high school diploma, have limited job prospects, particularly in this economy. Despite that, Schafer Hall currently has an 85 percent employment rate amongst its residents.
For many individuals living there, Schafer Hall offers an escape from the tumult of their foster homes.
"I enjoy my home being a stress-free environment now. I'm not really territorial, but I know in my head that this is my house and no one is stressing me out. I don't have to worry about that living here, and that is good enough for me," said Anthony Boyd, a 22-year-old resident, who attends Queensboro Community College and works at , a human services organization.
Joseph Branca, also 22, has been in foster care for 13 years. He now lives at Schafer Hall, works as a shift manager at Duane Reade and attends Medgar Evans College in Brooklyn. "I want to give back to the community," he said. "Since I grew up in foster care, I feel like I can."
William Henry expends a lot of energy to try to stretch his $50 in food stamps for an entire month. "It takes discipline to make sure that the money lasts when I go to the supermarket. I have to take my calculator," he said.
But despite his best efforts, Henry does not always succeed. "Most months there are four weeks, and once in a while it's five," he said. "Sometimes in the fifth week the money runs out, and that's when I go to a pantry."
The West Side Campaign Against Hunger operates one such pantry. It gives emergency food aid to people who need to supplement their monthly food stamp benefits. Located in the basement of the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew, the pantry serves a variety of customers. Many of them wait patiently in lines that snake around the basement and out the door. When called on, the clients select fresh and canned food from shelves in a back room.
The West Side Campaign Against Hunger is one of many private organizations that play a pivotal role in feeding New York City's hungry. With many people who need aid not receiving food stamps -- and with the benefits too small to cover the expenses of many of those who do -- private, nonprofit organizations provide an increasing amount of food assistance in New York City. A number of organizations say they simply cannot handle the task -- and should not have to.
"Ending hunger is a huge priority, and charity cannot and should not shoulder the bulk of this burden," Joel Berg, the executive director of the New York Coalition Against Hunger wrote in the coalition's annual hunger survey.
Some 2.3 million New Yorkers â€“ or 12.4 percent of all state residents -- faced food insecurity in 2007 to 2009, a sharp increase from the 9.4 percent in the three previous years, according to Hunger Action Network of New York State. In February the number of state residents receiving food stamps hit a record 3 million, a 65 percent increase over five years, the Daily News reported.
In the city, about 1.8 million residents get food stamps. The programs purchased more than $3.2 billion worth of food in the city in 2010, according to the Coalition Against Hunger.
While participation in the food stamp program -- officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program -- has been increasing, U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics from 2008 found that only 53 percent of all New Yorkers eligible for food stamps in 2008 actually got them. This â€“ and the shortfall in benefits -- compels some 2.3 million state residents to seek emergency food aid every year.
In its 2010 Hunger Survey, the Coalition Against Hunger reported that demand at the city's more than 1,100 food pantries and soup kitchens in New York City increased 6.8 percent from 2009 to 2010, in addition to the 20.8 percent increase from 2008 to 2009. The fasting growing need for services came from families with children.
The need for private assistance has been growing since the Reagan administration, according to a study by Beth Osborne Daponte of Yale University and Shannon Bade, a senior organizer at the Organization of the North East in Chicago. It dropped tens of thousands of Americans from the food stamp program, a federal program administered by states and cities. Then the Clinton-era changes in the welfare system under the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, tightened eligibility requirements and decreased the monthly benefits. Closer to home, in 1997, New York City began requiring anyone applying for food stamps be fingerprinted in order to prevent fraud.
All this forces some needy people them to turn to private groups. The increasing reliance on the non-profit organizations concerns many who run them.
"The myth we're up against is civil society and nonprofits around the city can take over the burden from the public sector whose job it is," said Michael Paone, the community organizer for the Coalition Against Hunger. He added that while private agencies have great intentions, they "lack agility" to deal with the city's hunger problem.
"This is the wrong prescription for the problem," said Paone. “It's a much larger and deeper issue than just creating more food programs. Creating jobs and taking people out of poverty is the real solution."
The maximum food stamp benefit for a family of four in fiscal year 2010 was $668 a month, with the average recipient now getting $133.80 â€“ or about $4.46 a day. To receive benefits, a family's income must be no higher than 130 percent of federal poverty guidelines, or roughly $2,389 a month for a family of four in most of the country.
A number of restrictions exist on what recipient can use their food stamps for -- although the federal government recently rejected a bid by the Bloomberg administration to ban their use for the purchase of sugary soft drinks. The benefit cannot be used for food bought in restaurants, alcohol, non-food items, including soap, or food purchased hot.
In late 2010, City Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez ate for five days on the average food stamp benefit â€“ about $4 a day. "I usually was out of money by lunchtime, my ability to concentrate suffered, and by Friday, I had no other choice but to go to a food pantry for extra food," he later wrote.
At times during the week he cooked rice and other dried goods to stave off hunger but he was unable to afford "vegetables, fruits, dairy and protein." He added, "I do not need to repeat what we already know â€“ that it is impossible to still eat a healthy balanced diet off $4.33 per day."
For many New Yorkers, though, that $4.33 would help â€“ yet they either have not applied for or have not received food stamps. A number of things might account for this, Sandra Jean-Louis, the director of the Access to Health and Food Benefits program at Public Health Solutions told City Council in 2010.
"Many are not aware of the requirements. For others, English is a second language and they require help completing the application form. More are too ashamed to accept government assistance. Others may fear that accepting food stamps will lead to their deportation," she said. Jean-Louis also noted that "procedural barriers," such as not being able to find the food stamp office, difficulties with the application or being asked unnecessary questions during the food stamp interview, also keep some New Yorkers from receiving benefits.
The Bloomberg administration has said it has tried to reach out to possible recipients and make it easier for then to get food stamps. During a City Council hearing on hunger, Human Resources Commissioner Robert Doar testified that his agency has developed partnerships with community-based organizations that take applications for food stamps and then submit them to Human Resources Administration electronically. The agency's outreach staff also visits community-based organizations to conduct interviews and help submit applications for food assistance.
Doar has noted that changes to the recertification process make it far more convenient. Recipients used to have to have their eligibility for food stamps checked and renewed every six month. Now that has been extended to once a year. In addition, the recertification interviews now can be conducted over the phone rather than in person. And to make fresh fruits and vegetables more available to recipients, city greenmarkets started accepting Electronic Benefit Transfers at farmer's markets.
All of this may have contributed to the rise in food stamp use. The number of people getting food stamps in both the state and city increased by between 12 to 13 percent between 2009 and 2010 and "almost 65 percent" since 2006, Elizabeth Berlin of the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance told City Council last year.
Doar said that he was "stunned" to hear participation rates rose by 60 by 70 percent. "That would be amazing. I hope it happened," he said.
Advocates attribute the increase in the number of people receiving benefits more to rising need than to a better effort by the government. "SNAP is a countercyclical program. During recessions it's there to respond to need and enroll as many people as needed," said Hannah Lupien, a food policy strategist at West Side Coalition Against Hunger.
She and other advocates say the government has to do more to ensure all who are eligible for SNAP receive aid, and they charge that some city rules drive away participants. For example, New York City requires applicants seeking food stamp benefits to undergo a fingerprint imaging process, even as the state has discontinued this policy. Joel Berg has cited studies finding one in 23 people did not apply for food stamps because of the finger-imaging policy but that the fingerprints detected only 31 cases of fraud in 2006 â€“ or one for every 35,000 people.
In a testimony before City Council, Doar defended this policy saying it was designed to prevent recipients from receiving duplicate benefits.
Lupien finds that hard to believe. "When is the only other time you get fingerprinted?" she asked. "When you’re arrested! It's a loud and clear message that applicants are not to be trusted because they're poor or because they're asking for help."
"Why should we have to take fingerprints? We didn't commit a crime. I don't think it should be a policy that people must be fingerprinted in order to eat. If people don't want to do it they will starve," said Gloria B., a member of the Coalition Against Hunger's Food Action Board who asked that her last name not be used. "It's not a crime to ask for food. It's not a crime to lose a job."
Not everyone objects to the finger imaging. Lotrina Kinsey, a customer at the West Side Coalition Against Hunger's pantry said that fingerprint imaging was "normal." The long waits, finger imaging policy and application process were “to be expected. It is an all day process and very time consuming," she said.
Whatever the reasons, many people in these difficult times turn to private groups to get help to feed themselves and their families. This has put a strain on those organizations.
Of all the agencies in the city, 51.4 percent were unable to meet demand in 2010, a smaller percentage than the previous year. Despite the decrease, 42 percent said a lack of resources forced them to turn away hungry people, cut portions or reduce hours, according to the Hunger Survey Report. When that happens, Paone said, "Often times agencies will indeed give referrals to other agencies. â€¦ It's not uncommon for folks to patronize multiple agencies -- and when food is scarce, they have to 'shop around' even more."
At the West Side campaign's food pantry, Zoila Estrella, a volunteer, customer and food stamp recipient, said that her benefit usually lasts most of the month largely because she only has to support herself. "Food stamp benefits need to be increased for those who need and use it," she said through a translator, "especially for bigger families, families with children and the working poor."
"So many people are going through a hard time, and it's not easy when you have bills to pay. I know the government is trying to do a lot but it's still not enough," said Gloria B. "Even soup kitchens are getting low and children are crying. â€¦ America has a lot of money, people shouldn't be that hungry."
A seven-year-old girl jumps up and down and waves her hands high in the air from side to side. Her flowery blue dress sways rhythmically with her jovial leaps into the air.
Through a wide bright smile she loudly belts out, "Bye, Daddy," across a hall the length of a football field and into another room where her father stands. Gerald Harrison, a 46-year-old man incarcerated at Ossining "Sing Sing" Correctional Facility, smiles, waves and shouts "I love you" to his daughter.
They repeat this energetic exchange as many times as they can before guards escort Harrison's family out of the area.
The little girl was celebrating her father's graduation from the Parenting Course and Healthy Marriage Seminar run by the Osborne Association at Sing Sing. The initiatives are designed to help incarcerated men learn how to be better parents and spouses while in prison and to prepare for family life once they are released.
"Re-entry programs now deal with jobs, homes and drug addiction," Harrison said. "But up until the Osborne entry into the whole process, no one ever ventured to really understand the importance of a strong family unit.">
Many people are blind to the immense economic, psychological, educational and social burdens that incarceration imposes on children, families and entire communities, said Tanya Krupat, program director for the Osborne Association's Children of Incarcerated Parents Initiative.
Changing that, she said, will require "sensitivity training — really appealing to people's hearts, but it's also reframing. Under the heading of criminal, or offender, or inmate and convict, they're real people, with kids and with families, with stories, with lives."
The words "strong unit" don't pop into most people's heads when they think about a family splintered by incarceration. The Osborne Association, though, believes that providing individuals, families and communities with access to education and support services will substantially reduce the negative effects of incarceration.
In addition to helping the child while the parent is incarcerated, such services can provide benefits after. Research indicates that prisoners who maintain ties with their families are less likely to return to prison and they have lower rates of drug use than those without such connections.
A look at the numbers makes the need for such support immediately apparent. An estimated 105,000 minor children in New York City have at least one parent who is incarcerated. In addition, thousands of single mothers, single fathers, grandparents, foster parents, extended-family members and family friends are left to care for those children â€“ and are also deeply affected by the incarceration.
For over 40 years New York City and the rest of America has waged its so-called war on drugs and crime, causing the American prison population to soar by 700 percent from 1970 to 2005. The brunt of this "mass incarceration" has fallen on members of inner-city communities — particularly African-American and Hispanic men â€“ as evinced by the fact that 1 in every 15 black males and 1 in every 36 Hispanic males over the age of 18 are incarcerated, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
"Mass incarceration is an accurate description of how the criminal justice system is experienced in many particularly urban communities of color where a very high percentage of particularly African-American men have had contact with the criminal justice system often for things that in other communities would not result in an arrest or incarceration," said Ann Jacobs, director of the Prisoner Reentry Institute at John Jay College.
Mass incarceration has played a huge role in the economic, social and psychological destabilization of many urban youngsters, families and communities of color. Unfortunately, no one began to substantially address the dramatic impact that mass incarceration has had on this segment of our population until 10 or 15 years ago — after decades of damage had already been done, Jacobs said.
In a social lounge, with yellow painted walls, a few couches, computers, a television and a big blue banner that reads "success is getting up just one more time than you fall down," a group of teens and young adults discuss growing up with incarcerated parents — memories that aren't as cozy as the snug yellow room.
The young people all are a part of, or were a part of, the Osborne Association's Children of Incarcerated Parents program. They made their way to Osborne's Brooklyn office to talk about how the incarceration of their parents affected them growing up.
"We're all looking for the bounce back," said Joshua Griffin, 19-year-old son of a formerly incarcerated mother. "We had nothing to do with this. We had nothing to do with our parents being incarcerated."
The response that a child has to the incarceration of a parent varies and depends on a number of different circumstances, according to a May 2011 report released by the Osborne Association. These can include the age and developmental level of the child, how much the incarcerated parent was involved in the kid's life, and the stability of the child's home. Whether the child must go into foster care also plays a major role. In most cases, not only does the child have to contend with the loss of a parent, but he or she also must grapple with shame and stigma attached to incarceration.
"At first I didn't understand it because I was like three, four, five. But then as I got to school and I started noticing other students had mothers. â€¦ So it upset me, like, 'why is she never here, where is she? Why can't she come?" said Daphney Cagle, 20-year-old daughter of mother who has been in and out of prison for most of her life."And, as I got older I understood, and it just made more angry and made me feel more alienated from other people."
Some children externalize the negative emotions associated with the incarceration, acting out and exhibiting poor behavior. This affects their ability to learn in school and places extra stress on their caregiver.
"I was just fighting a lot cursing, hitting teachers, students. When I was in kindergarten, that was my first time getting suspended," said Talesha Duncan, 18-year-old daughter of a long-time incarcerated father. "I think it was kind of hard 'cause if my dad was there, I probably would have never did that stuff. It's like my mom saying one thing and it's like, yeah whatever, and my pops say it, it's like â€I get it.' I wouldn't say I'm scared of him but it's more strong."
Children need outside support to help them properly deal with the trauma of a parent's incarceration. Despite that, they often reject advice and inquiries from outsiders because they have had negative experiences when opening up to others.
"I felt like I don't want the extra attention. I didn't want to go to my friends and my peers, guidance counselors or anyone talking about it," said an Osborne program participant who requested anonymity. "I don't need the whole world to just be in my business, giving me extra attention that I do not want at all."
Osborne advocates training for teachers, guidance counselors and psychologists to help them properly handle and assist students with incarcerated parents.
"I think many say they don't want support but they do need support; many young people have not had a positive experience with a helping professional. First people need to be trained and more sensitive and understanding," Krupat said.
The organization also is pushing for increased community outreach to educate people on the realities of incarceration and reduce the stigma associated with it.
Cagle says that she's been trying to shake the stigma of her mother's incarceration for years. Often, community and family members can make it difficult for kids to escape the shadow of their parent's incarceration.
"Toward junior high school and high school it was a lot of pressure because everybody be like, 'Oh, don't mess up like your mother; don't be like your mother, you got to do good.' It was too much pressure on me," Cagle said. "Instead of people supporting me and telling me 'figure out what you want to do and make sure that you're the best at whatever you want to do,' everybody's always just like don't mess up."
"Some of the young people and the kids do struggle with what their destiny is. And then, with so many people assuming the apples don't fall far from the tree â€¦ they don't see bright futures for themselves," Krupat said. "Then things happen in their lives that affirm that for them, even if it's unintentional like a teacher accusing them when something's missing from the classroom or misunderstanding their anger that they can't be with their parent. And, then they may get sent to special-ed. Their possibilities get limited more and more."
This not only leads individuals having lower personal expectations. It also affects the expectations of entire communities.
"For me it wasn't such a big difference because I grew up in Bed-Stuy/Crown Heights. All my friends, most of them their father was locked up. So, we were the cool kids kind of," said Duncan, who will be headed to college in the Fall. "I wasn't embarrassed by it at all for some reason. I'm not saying it's normal, but for where I live at it's kind of a common thing."
Despite the hardships that the young men and women of Osborne have faced, many still hope for a productive present and a brighter tomorrow.
"Always believe in yourself and have faith â€cause God, he helps. You just got to follow and trust him," said Rachel Rios, a 19-year-old daughter of a formerly incarcerated mother and father. "And it comes, you don't got to ask for nothing. It just comes to you when it's supposed to come to you, when you really need it."
Many outsiders and even caregivers believe that a child may be better off not having any contact with their incarcerated parent. However, studies have shown that children are emotionally healthier when they can have positive and frequent contact with their incarcerated parent.
Lawrence Bartley, 38-year-old who has been incarcerated for 21 years, believes a child should, if at all possible, have both parents in his or her life. "They need the balance," he said, "Without that, a child is one-sided. I know a lot of men that are incarcerated today because their fathers weren't in their life. That maybe isn't the primary reason they're in here but it's certainly a factor."
Many people fear that children should not visit their parents in prison, perhaps fearing the children will experience even more emotional distress when they have separate from their parent at the end of the visit. But, if the parent and child have consistent contact and positive exchanges, the child will become more comfortable with the reality of the situation, according to the Osborne report.
"When I was a kid I use to love going to see my father, and I would be excited. But the hardest part would have to be me leaving. I hated when I had to leave there was a certain point in time when I didn't want to go see him," said April Triana, 16-year-old daughter of a long-time incarcerated father and recently incarcerated mother. "But then, he started calling me more often, like every three days a week. And, he said I want to see you. 'Like OK'' I want to go see him. Then I started back again, me going to see him."
Beyond the psychological issues, incarceration places an economic burden on families. The mother is usually left to bear the responsibility of supporting the family when the father is in prison. Even if that father lived apart from his children prior to going to prison chances are that he contributed to the family's economic well-being in some way, according to the Osborne report.
That changes when the sentence begins. If a father had been paying child support, for example, he likely will be unable to continue to make that contribution while he is in prison. Depending on the degree of that contribution, his imprisonment could leave the mother with a significant financial burden.
The situation differs dramatically if the mother goes to jail."When a mother is incarcerated, it is much less likely that the father will assume care. It is more likely that grandparents, especially grandmothers, will," according to the report. Grandparents, though, are not always in the ideal physical or economical condition to meet all of their grandchildren's needs.
The economic effects can linger long after the parent leaves prison. A 2010 Pew Center study found that serving time in prison reduced a man's earnings by 40 percent a year. The report said, "the typical former inmate will have earned $179,000 less than if he had never been incarcerated."
"Even when paroled inmates are able to find jobs," the New York Times has reported, "they earn only half as much as people of the same social and economic background who have not been incarcerated."
Other family members sometimes take in the children of incarcerated parents. Research has shown that it's usually healthier for a child to remain with a family member or close family friend rather than to go into the foster care system. That, though, can create a financial problem. Relatives and friends do not get the economic support from the city that foster care parents receive
The Osborne Association advocates more federal, state and city level government economic and legal support to caregivers outside of the foster care system. In addition, if the programs Osborne now offers were to be provided to more children with incarcerated parents, state and local agencies would have to assume some of the responsibility, perhaps contracting with community-based providers to provide services.
In times when governments are cutting budgets, money to accomplish this could be hard to come by.
Even during sound economic times, New York has had difficulty fitting such services into its budget.
"We're lucky in New York to have corrections officials who believe in the possibility of people changing and who are committed to rehabilitation, but the budgets don't put very much money into that and it's only gotten worse in the last three or four years," Jacobs said.
New York's significant reforms to drug sentencing laws — most notably the 2009 reform of the harsh Rockefeller Drugs Laws — have led to steady declines in prison populations. These declines have led to the need for the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervisions to reduce its budget through the closure of several under-utilized state prisons.
The notion of fewer prisoners and less prisons sounds ideal. However, the scheduled closure of the Arthur Kill Correctional facility in Staten Island, one of very few prisons near New York City, will make it more difficult for financially strapped families from the city to visit their loved ones.
Furthermore, Jacobs is concerned about what the state will do with the money it saves from prisoner reduction and prison closure. "New York has had a significant reduction in its prison population but I have not seen the reinvestment of any of those monies into community based supports," she said.
Despite the problems incarceration creates, it does not have to signal the demise of a family.
"We still have an opportunity to be somewhat of a parent to that child. I don't think that should ever be taken away," said Eric Benson, 39 year-old inmate who has served 19 years in prison and runs Osborne's family visiting center at "Sing Sing".
Benson went to prison when his son was just four months old. He relied on the skills that he learned from Osborne's parenting course coupled with his own personal determination to try and establish a relationship with his son.
"Although, I was in here and I was diligently trying to establish a relationship with him, my past haunted me," Benson said. "His mother, from me doing a lot of wrong in her life, she wouldn't allow me and my son to have a relationship. After 14 years she finally accepted that I should be in his life."
There are some people out there who think that a prisoner could never be a fit parent — that incarcerated individuals will never change. But experts think that is changing — and Harrison, the father in "Sing Sing," thinks so too.
"That stereotype of the criminal becoming a worse criminal or more criminal-minded is starting to be broken now because people are beginning to see that the decisions we make are what make our families stronger or weaker," said. "That stereotype of the prison being the breeding ground for worse criminals is being challenged."
The definition of what children and families affected by incarceration can be is being challenged at this time as well. It's certainly not the ideal circumstances to raise a family under, but it can still work.
"A father in prison is better than no father at all," wrote Omar Williams, currently incarcerated in "Sing Sing" and a graduate of Osborne's parenting course. "It is better for a child to be loved, though distance separates the father and the child, than to believe that he or she is not loved at all."
Desiree Sadler, a beautician, planned to send her twin boys to Leggett Memorial Day Care Center in September. But then she received a letter saying she will lose that option. She has been writing to the Administration for Children's Services ever since.
"I’m praying that they'll be able to remain in that school under the new vouchers they're offering parents," Sandler said.
Charlene Haynesworth and Marie Dorismond both teach at Leggett and have their own children in city day care. They also have received letters saying their day care subsidy will end at the conclusion of the school year.
"I don't know where I'm going to put him in September, and if I’ll have a job," Haynesworth said. "If you really care don't touch our babies."
These are uncertain time for many parents of young children in New York. Although the city has restored some of the cuts originally proposed in childcare, the mayor's executive budget still calls for reductions. In addition, the city is planning alterations to the system that raise other questions among parents and childcare workers.
"It really is a time of change, and I'm not sure it's positive,” said acting director of early childhood services at Leggett, Ledia Rivera. "It's going to be a taxing time for parents."
Under the latest plan, about 90 children at the Leggett center, which is run by Union Settlement Association, stand to lose daycare services as a result of proposed cuts to the Administration for Children's Services.
In February, Mayor Michael Bloomberg had proposed doing away with almost 16,000 childcare slots in the city. But in May, when he announced his executive budget, Bloomberg restored $40 million out of the $91 million cut to Administration for Children's Services and expanded the Out-of-School Time program run by the Department of Youth and Community Development. Under the plan, Children's Services would keep 4,400 of the seats originally slated for elimination. Another 10,500 would go under the Out-of--School Time Program, meaning about 1,000 slots would be eliminated.
Jennifer Rojas, deputy executive director for the Children Defense Fund of New York, described the restorations as a "show game." "There will be a much smaller system on both the childcare side and the OST side. Despite what the mayor is saying, the childcare system has not yet been saved," she said.
Some City Council members agree. When Bloomberg announced the change, Councilmember David Greenfield of Brooklyn called it "three-card monte."
"They leak a story about how they've restored money but they've done anything but restore child care. It's fundamentally dishonest," he told the Times.
Some officials also wonder whether the city is being open about the extent of the cuts. "Troubling questions remain about the nature of these budget restorations," Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer said in a statement. "How does the city plan to fully fund a $91 million program using $40 million?
"He's saying that he is restoring, but he doesn't say where," said Rivera. "There's no way you can do with $40 million what you can do with $91 million. The amount of cuts the city is proposing is astronomical."
According to Rojas, there will be about fewer 7,000 pre-kindergarten slots next year. In addition, she says, 119 classrooms and eight childcare centers have not been funded for the next fiscal year. Overall, by some counts, the city has cut some 14,000 child care slots in the last four years and currently provides childcare subsidies for about 48,000 children. Meanwhile, Out-of-School Times faces a $23.4 million cut to its budget.
The city has repeatedly said the state and federal government have forced it to make the cuts.
"For years the city has filled in for the shortfalls in our childcare system caused by increased costs while the funding available has not kept pace," said Elysia Murphy, deputy communications director for Children's Services. "Unfortunately, the federal and state governments have not lived up to their share of the growing costs for these critical services, and the city has no choice but to take actions now to address a significant budget deficit."
Rojas of the Children's Defense Fund of New York disputed the city's blame on the federal government. "The bottom line is that the mayor is the one cutting the service," she said. "We really think our children service deserves better. There are different ways for the city to balance the budget without making children pay. It's really sad that we're going to balance the budget on the backs of low-income families."
The effect of these cuts could be dire, those opposing them say.
A study by the Committee for Hispanic Families and Children found that 90 of the Latino families availing themselves of the day care had annual incomes of less that $29,140. Without a subsidy day care would cost them about $1,669 a month -- more than $20,000 a year.
Another study -- this one by Center for Children's Initiatives -- found that when families eligible for a childcare subsidy were unable to get one, "parents were forced to cut back on their hours, turn down promotions, training opportunities or even quit work altogether. "
The cuts will have a ripple effect, State Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal said in a press release. "Not only will cutting these programs rob children living in low- and middle-income homes of early childhood services ... but thousands of home care providers will be put out of business," she said.
In addition to the slots being eliminated, some parents and daycare workers worry about other changes in the program, notably the 10,500 kids who will move from Administration for Children's Services care to programs run by Out-of-School Time.
Dorismond and Haynesworth both think that Out-of-School Time, which has provided after-school and vacation care and activities for children in grades kindergarten though 12, cannot provide adequate care for preschoolers. They say that a child who is 4 years old may not be developmentally ready to be in a school setting.
"They didn't sit down and think this cut clearly," said Haynesworth. The children affected, she continued, are "too young, childcare is the way. We should not push them out as if they're five."
In addition, Out-of-School Time workers are paid on a per-diem basis -- rather than receiving a salary -- and are not unionized.
Despite the differences between the two types of care, Norah Yahya the communications and government relations associate for Union Neighborhood House, believes the Out-of-School Time programs could work. "I think it'll help the kid who's losing care at ACS since they'll still have an option," Yahya said. "It's not the same option, but it's still quality care."
Children's Services has already sent letters to affected parents advising them of their subsidy termination and telling them alternatives available to them.
Further complicating the picture for many parents, the Bloomberg administration also is in the process of overhauling the childcare system to be launched next month. The new initiative, Early Learn NYC, will combine and maximize several funding streams the city gets for childcare and Head Start, and put new, more stringent requirements on childcare providers who wish to bid for childcare contracts.
"Through Early Learn NYC we are investing in a state-of-the-art early care and education system that draws from the most successful qualities in our programs of today so that we can provide every child with the best start possible," said Murphy. "We are moving forward in our vision to integrate services and provide consistent quality throughout the city, and in doing so, we are maximizing our resources."
The new requirements include a minimum eight hours of day care and instruction, an improved teacher-to-child ratio and developmental screening for those enrolled. The new plan will expand childcare in the city to either 11-month or year-round care depending on the program.
The plan allows private childcare providers to bid on the same contracts that were once reserved for community-based providers, and requires them to pay a portion of operating costs.
Rojas find the inclusion of for-profit providers troubling. "It's been the nonprofit community providers that really built the infrastructure of services in these neighborhoods," she said. "What we need to focus on is preserving the capacity of the system. We need to make sure those services remain available for families."
Rivera said some community-based centers may not be able to pay 6.7 percent of their operating expenses. She also questioned if private providers can make money in some neighborhoods, such as Harlem.
"The population is not there yet, to sustain a private market," she. said Putting out a request for proposals and including for-profits, she said is "really going to lessen the capacity of community based providers to survive.”
Some, including City Councilmember Letitia James and daycare workers union DC 1707, see the plan as a kind of union busting, since the private provides might not be unionized.
The changes come against the backdrop of Bloomberg's promises to increase childcare slots. During his 2005 reelection bid, Bloomberg released his Action for Early Learning program that included simplifying enrollment into early childcare services and increasing childcare slots. The number though has fallen to 102,000, the lowest level since 2003.
Childcare activists and politicians are continuing to advocate for the full $95 million to be restored. Andrea Anthony, executive director of the Day Care City Council of New York, said she realized the city faced tough choices. "This is not the time to attack our weakest," she said.. "The most vulnerable in our society are our children. They have to be put first."
Many public officials other than the mayor seem to agree. Some 44 members of the City Council signed a letter saying the cuts and the move of so many young children into Out-of-School Time would "break working families, disempower parents and shut low-income children out of quality programs."
The mayor and the council must agree on a budget by July 1.
March may be women’s history month, but 2011 has not shown any signs of being the year of the woman. A variety of bills being introduced in Washington and locally target women's access to health care, will make it harder to escape an abusive partner and may force women to choose between caring for a relative or remaining in the workplace. Cumulatively, the proposed legislation could roll back years of progress and threaten the control that women have gained over their bodies and their lives.
At the federal level, women achieved a significant victory earlier this month when the Senate opposed the House’s attempt to defund Planned Parenthood and Title X family planning programs. Eliminating family planning clinics will not create any new jobs; it will only take vital health services -- like birth control, cancer screening and HIV tests -- away from women and families who need them.
In New York, those developments are being paralleled at the state and city levels. In his effort to eliminate New York State’s $10 billion budget deficit, Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed a variety of spending reductions, including slashing $400 million from human services. Similarly, in his preliminary budget, Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed significant cuts to social services. The combined loss of millions of dollars in city and state funding for human services shifts the burden of our financial problems on to the most vulnerable New Yorkers: the elderly, the poor, children and, perhaps most of all, women, who are our nation’s primary informal caregivers.
The cuts will have an enormous adverse effect on women’s lives and the well-being of their families. Estimates of the percentage of family or informal caregivers who are women range from 59 percent to 75 percent. Any program cut that makes it more difficult to look after a child, a person with a developmental disability, or a senior disproportionately affects women. Women will bear the brunt of the $53 million reduction in state support for residential schools for children with disabilities and the proposed city cut of $92 million, which will result in the loss of 16,624 childcare slots.
Women will suffer most from other proposed cuts, such as $15.7 million from New York City homeless shelters, $24 million from Title XX funding that supports New York City's senior centers, $1.5 million from non-residential domestic violence programs and a $192 million reduction in city, state and federal funding for housing subsidies for homeless adults.
The proposed cuts to family shelters and the Advantage housing subsidy deliver a double whammy to women. Households headed by single mothers make up the majority -- 80.8 percent -- of homeless adults with families in the shelter system. Many of these women are escaping from abusive partners. The cuts to shelters will force many women -- and children -- to remain in harm’s way.
The Advantage housing subsidy program provides one path out of the shelter system and into permanent housing. Currently over 15,000 households receive the subsidy. The elimination to this program costing $192 million means that next year, thousands of woman and children will have to remain in a shelter or return to an abusive situation.
If Bloomberg does not reverse his proposal for cutting child care subsidies, many women will be forced to choose between putting their children in a potentially unsafe situation or giving up their jobs. Without a subsidy, many women and families will face tough choices about how to pay for rent, utilities and food.
And it doesn’t stop there; if women are forced to leave their jobs, it will have a serious impact on New York City businesses. Nationally, employers currently lose an estimated $3.3 billion annually to replace women who quit their jobs because of care giving responsibilities and another $270 million due to absenteeism among women caregivers.
It took women nearly a quarter of a century to make the gains they have made in their lives: Marriage is no longer the only viable path to financial freedom, two out of five women work outside the home, and large numbers of women have entered the professions, trades and business of every kind. But if our lawmakers have their way, we are only a few votes away from dismantling many of the policies that have allowed women to achieve -- and maintain -- their independence.
Michael Stoller is executive director of the Human Services Council, a membership organization that advocates for city and state government budget, policy, and legislative reforms. Allison Sesso is deputy executive director.
Jing Luo, 78, has been visiting the BRC Senior Center in Chinatown for 13 years. Originally she went to remain active while she was caring for her ailing husband. Now, despite having arthritis in her feet, she still braves the 30-minute walk from her home -- regardless of the weather.
Luo credits the center with helping improve her quality of life. "After I came here, I felt happier, not as depressed. My nutrition has improved, and I feel happier," she said.
Luo describes the center as "her second home," but soon she and thousands of others may have to find another senior center to go because of the state’s financial problem.
Earlier this month, the city released a list of 105 senior centers across the city, including the BRC Senior Center, it says it will have to close because of cuts in state funding. If implemented, the cuts will affect between 8,000 and 10,000 city residents.
The legislature appears to be trying to keep the centers open. The state Senate and Assembly have agreed to fully restore the so-called "Title XX" state funds the city uses to run the senior centers in their budget bills. They could be voted on as early as this week, according to Bobbie Sackman, director of public policy at the Council of Senior Centers and Services. The money would then be part of the budget negotiations between the legislature and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the New York Statewide Senior Action Council has written. One possible sticking point: The Assembly reportedly calls for financing programs by extending a tax surcharge on the richest New Yorkers -- a tax Cuomo has repeatedly opposed.
The city, elderly New Yorkers and advocates for senior have been pressing for the funding for weeks.
The loss of state funding "would profoundly affect senior centers across New York City," said Christopher Miller, director of public affairs for the Department for the Aging. "We are working hard to have this action reversed, but unless the state dollars are restored, DFTA will be forced to close up to 105 of its 256 senior centers."
Without the Title XX funding, the budget for all centers in a given City Council district would be cut by 30 percent. In deciding which centers to put on the chopping block, Miller said the department looked at each community district with multiple senior centers and has proposed shutting the centers whose closure would have the least impact on seniors. BRC is on that list of centers.
A day before the list of closing senior centers came out, new projections estimated the state would have an additional $155 million to spend in the next fiscal year. Several public officials have urged Cuomo to direct some of that money to the senior centers.
"It's my hope that both the city and the state budget reflects increased revenue projections,” said Councilmember Stephen Levinof Brooklyn, who is among those trying to get a portion of an $155 million to go to senior centers
Councilmember Jessica Lappin, who heads the Council’s Aging Committee agrees.
"That's money that could be used to help make up this difference. All I'm focused on is getting the money restored and not having to close any center anywhere," Lappin said. While her district will only lose one of its three senior centers that one -- the Lenox Hill Senior Center -- is the only senior center in the city that is open seven days a week.
In the long-term, Lappin and advocates say, funds spent on senior centers save the city money.
Ninety percent of those who visit senior centers around the city live below the poverty line, according to Lappin. "There is no question that if people are not able to access services to keep them in their own homes, it will cost the city more," she said.
For the people who use these centers, "it's a matter of life and death," Lappin said. "A society is judged by how we treat our seniors, and these are people who need our help the most."
Sackman, agrees. Cutting the centers, she said, is "not good budget policy." Without the centers, Sackman said, "you have enough people that go into the hospital and use more home aid. Since your priority is saving healthcare and Medicaid dollars, this is a 360-degree wrong direction to go in."
According to Sackman, the average annual senior center budget is $350,000 a year, while it costs an average of $123,000 a year for someone to stay in a nursing home.
"The important thing to realize is that senior centers are not social clubs. They are places that enable people to stay healthy in body and mind in their old age so they can remain independent, so they won't be a burden to others,” said Muzzy Rosenblatt, executive director of the Bowery Residents' Committee, which runs Luo's center.
That center sees over 120 people a day, mostly residents of Chinatown, and offers an array of programs including gardening, nutrition, English instruction and case management assistance. According to Rosenblatt, 95 percent of seniors who attend the Delancey Street BRC center live below poverty line, and a significant amount are on a fixed income.
"There's no cost benefit analysis that makes sense for closing these programs. The impact on their health and wellness will be immediate and the cost will be extraordinary," said Rosenblatt. "It's not just the seniors that are going to be affected by this. There are hundreds of jobs in these centers. When we talk about half of the senior centers closing in the city, that's hundreds that are out of work."
Ray Guo, 68, a retired activity aid who has attended the center for four years, worries about the employees. "Everyone is very sad, the workers help us a lot. If they close the center it will be a catastrophe," he said.
Seniors in other neighborhoods express similar devotion to their centers. At the Stein Senior Center in midtown Manhattan, executive director Jane Barry said "A lot of people consider this a second home. One member calls it the Stein Center for Humanity."
The Stein Center serves lunch for up to 120 people. Barry said some of the residents only eat half of the food at the center and take the rest home with them. The center also offers language and computer classes, and programs for people with early stage Alzheimer's disease.
"I think its a travesty that they're planning to close 100 senior centers during the recession. The people who come here are tax payers who are having their services being taken away," said Toni Matich, a retired HIV/AIDS administrator for the city health who now goes to the Stein Center.
In the past, the city administration has called for cuts to centers and other senior programs, only to see the City Council restore some of those reductions. That, though, may be harder to do this year, with the city facing its own budget deficit as well as sharp cuts in state funding. In Albany Cuomo has vowed to balance the budget without increasing taxes, sparking cuts to a number of popular programs, including education and senior services.
Many clients, though, say they will try to avert the cuts. Agathe Wulkan, a Stein Center attendee and retired administrative secretary, has begun lobbying her elected officials to reconsider the cuts. "I already wrote two letters, and I'm going to make several calls," said Wulkan. "It sounds horrible. I would be devastated if they close the center."
Peter Lambert, 74, isn’t too concerned about himself if the BRC center closes, but says that to some of his fellow seniors it would be "devastating.”" The government, he said, should "stop finding ways to take away care of people who help make this city what it is.”
Ralph Rizzuto, 64, a retired IBM employee rejected the notion that some program must be cut. "All social programs are important -- seniors, education, etc.," he said. "Instead of making all of these cuts, we should be moving money from the rich and taxing them,"
Cutting the centers, Sackman, said, "will say to seniors that you are not worth the investment to stay active in your community."
Luo put it this way as she envisions a life without her senior center, "Our lives will be short. We'll need more doctors, more medication, our health will be worse because we have no place to go."
This article originally implied that, if the state budget cuts are not reversed, the BRC center would lose some of its funding. In fact, according to the Department for the Aging, if the cuts in Title XX funding remain, the BRC center would be closed. The story has been corrected
Administration for Children's Services Commissioner John Mattingly pledges to keep children safe, even after his agency lost approximately $250 million in funding and must deal with a 30 percent increase in allegations of child abuse and neglect.
The City Council fears Mattingly may not be able to keep that promise.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg's latest budget proposal, released in November, plans to cut ACS by another $24.5 million in fiscal year 2011 and $36.9 million in fiscal year 2012, which begins in July. This budget slashing and accompanying staff cuts -- which could hit more than 550 employees -- represent a change in direction for the agency, which saw its budget grow after the 2006 death of 7-year-old Nixzmary Brown.
Council Speaker Christine Quinn has made restoring the ACS funds a top priority.
"We will simply not stand by and allow cuts to go through that could put children's lives at risk," she said.
As recently as July, the council restored funding to stave off layoffs at the agency.
Since 2008, when the agency's overall staff and budget hit a high water mark at 7,081 and $2.85 billion, respectively, the organization has faced steep budgetary slashes. The proposals for this coming fiscal year show nearly 1,000 fewer employees and a $2.6 billion budget. These decreases come in the face of an increase in reported cases of abuse and/or neglect each year -- up nearly 15,000 in fiscal year 2010 from fiscal year 2005 -- and growth in the number of children receiving contracted preventive services -- up roughly 1,000 in the same span. While the amount of children receiving overall care has risen, the number of youth in foster care has dropped every year since 2007.
"I think [ACS has] done a lot of work to improve their ability to do quality investigations and keep the children safe," said Stephanie Gendell, associate executive director of policy and public affairs for the Citizens' Committee for Children of New York, a child advocacy group. "The question is more about whether or not the cuts are going too deep and whether they hinder their ability to do the plans that they have."
ACS plans to meet the most recent budget cuts by raising revenue, saving money and restructuring its services. While council members have expressed concern over some of these strategies, it is the reorganization of the supervision structure and elimination of support staff that has attracted the most attention, with some council members arguing that these moves put ACS in danger of sliding back to 2006.
Under the current set up, ACS managers each oversee three units with two unit supervisors -- a level one and a level two -- and five caseworkers who handle eight to 10 cases each. After the cuts, every manager would oversee four units, and the level-one supervisors in the units would be eliminated.
This, Mattingly told the council, would keep the current caseload of eight to 10 cases per worker and would not touch front-line staff.
"We have found that efficiencies can be made among support staff that will help us to avoid impacting staff working directly with children and families," Mattingly said at the hearing, discussing the staff cuts, which in total will eliminate 118 administrative and support staff.
Council members expressed skepticism.
"They're saying that [caseworkers] aren't going to be cut, but their support staff is going to get cut," said Councilmember Lewis Fidler, referring to the layoffs of administrative and clerical staffers. "That means they're going to have to do the support work themselves and that means that even if you're not increasing their caseload, you're going to be increasing their work load to the point that eventually someone is going to slip through the cracks and there's going to be another Nixzmary Brown."
In 2006, ACS came under public scrutiny when details emerged regarding the murder of Nixzmary Brown by her stepfather. Despite reports of consistent abuse throughout her childhood and two formal complaints registered with ACS, the city never took action to remove Nixzmary from her home.
The death and ensuing trials, which put both Brown's stepfather and mother behind bars for manslaughter, were widely reported in the media. The girl's death sparked the approval of Nixzmary's Law, which enables authorities to charge a parent under suspicion of murdering his or her child with first-degree murder. It also led to changes within ACS. The agency hired more caseworkers, reduced caseloads, and increased supervision and training.
"ACS has made a lot of positive changes in terms of the training for their staff and the managers for their staff," Gendell said, echoing the sentiments of other experts.
Mattingly has denied that the current budget cuts would erase those gains. At the City Council hearing, he reported that the current per worker caseload stood between eight and 10, well below the goal of 12, and promised it would remain at that level.
Mattingly also pointed to "enhanced accountability in our child protective offices, increased supervision and support for staff in these offices," as positive changes since 2006.
ACS maintains the cuts will not affect that. "The structural changes put in place in 2006 have not been changed, including worker access to the 50 to 60 retired detectives hired as investigative consultants," Elysia Murphy, deputy communications director, wrote in an email.
But some argue that ACS is allowing workloads to increase while training, support and supervision decreases. Some council members and advocates question why the city targets ACS for cuts that are larger than other "first-responder" services, such as the police and fire departments. The Citizens Committee for Children maintains that ACS is the city's "first responder" for New York City's children.
"As an agency, they have been very reactive to public embarrassments and tragedies," Fidler said. "Then when memory fades and the [budget cuts] come, they try to make their target by retreating from some of the progress they've made. That's very unfortunate."
ACS is facing more proposed layoffs from January to March than any city department save cultural affairs. Seventy of those jobs are unionized.
Both the union representing workers at the agency, Social Service Employees Union Local 371, and the City Council have been pointed in their criticism of those cuts. The union charges ACS with favoring the elimination of front-line unionized employees instead of reducing its contracts with private service providers. City Council members take ACS to task for not seeking alternate means to save money, such as renegotiating contracts with those providers.
"Since 2007, every time the administration has asked the commissioner to make cuts, ACS goes directly to their front-line workers," said Faye Moore, the president of SSEU Local 371. "Other agencies have managed to make these cuts and meet the mayor's targets without laying off unionized staff. ACS has a different view of the world, and they find it more prudent for their vision to lay off workers than to do anything else."
Thirty-seven of the positions on the chopping block -- unionized child welfare specialists -- were funded for 12 months last spring by the City Council.
"How are you cutting positions of people that we are putting the money up for?" asked City Council Finance Committee Chairman Domenic Recchia at this month's budget hearing. Mattingly responded that the 37 workers were not front-line workers in child protective services.
"I don't see why you can't train these already hired individuals so they could be moved up to protective services and there would not be anyone laid off," Recchia responded.
With an ACS hiring freeze in effect, though, six trainers -- unionized as well -- will also be eliminated. Moore emphasized that this staff would be needed to provide necessary ongoing training even if there are fewer new employees.
Moore also claims the per worker caseload is greater than the number ACS claims because caseworkers also have responsibilities with the Family Services Unit, which monitors a family's progress. A caseworker may have an additional five families in a Family Services Unit, Moore said.
In her email, the ACS spokesperson Murphy said the agency closely monitors workloads, including work for the Family Services Unit, and "is committed to ensuring that workloads for all child protective staff remain sufficiently low to ensure the safety of children."
ACS has said it must make the staff cuts because revenue increases and cost savings already put in place "were not enough to meet our budget targets for the November plan."
Fidler, for one, thinks other options exist. He believes a renegotiation of ACS's contracts with landlords at its daycare facilities could cover much of the budget cut. According to Fidler, ACS has rebuffed this idea by arguing that it would involve an inordinate amount of legal work. ACS did not offer any comment on the proposal.
Then there are all of its private contracts. Mattingly has publicly stated that he believes private nonprofits are better suited to provide certain child-care functions than a government agency. Moore sharply disagrees.
"There are certain things that the private sector cannot deliver," she said, adding that she has not seen evidence to support Mattingly's claim. On the other hand, she said, public employees "can access another agency to help a family."
Fidler thinks rather than cutting back on contracts, ACS would like to have more of them. "I don't think they want to be in this business," Fidler said. "I think frankly the political wheel of the [City] Council is the only thing that has stopped then from making progress in that regard."
In its emailed response, ACS said it has always contracted with non-profit agencies and that "there has been no change in that regard." Such efforts, it said, are designed not to save money but improve services. "We have eliminated unnecessary delays in decision making by delegating the day-to-day responsibilities to services providers working directly with children and families," Murphy wrote.
Soon ACS will meet with the union to discuss the layoffs and structure change, although no definite plans have been set. Meanwhile, the City Council will dig for any way to shift money around as it did in June, when the Council spared 82 of 109 anticipated layoffs for ACS.
"My colleagues and [Quinn] have always been very strong on this issue," Fidler said. "I think that if we get a pound of flesh out of this [budget] negotiation, I'm reasonably confident that at least a couple ounces of it will be going toward these ACS cuts."
Making the process more difficult, however, is the inability of the City Council to add money to the budget. This, along with the city's fiscal straits, will make the reductions difficult to fight.
"We proposed over $100 million in alternative budget cuts that would affect the lives of New Yorkers certainly not as drastically as the ACS cuts do," Fidler said. Quinn set the official amount at $130 million in alternative cuts. "[We hope] we can convince Mike Bloomberg that these priorities need to be straightened out."
About 300 times a year in the five boroughs, a senior with Alzheimer's Disease goes missing, says Jed Levine, executive vice president of the Alzheimer's Association in New York City.
Yesterday, the City Council tried to make it easier to find them.
The council unanimously approved (Intro 270-A) legislation to establish a citywide alert system for those seniors with Alzheimer's or other dementia-related diseases who leave a caregiver and then can't find their way home. Modeled after the city's Amber Alert, the "Silver Alert," according to Council Speaker Christine Quinn, will require the city relay identifying information to the media, social service providers, hospitals and other organizations after it receives a report of a missing person.
Information could be spread via email, telephone, text, television or radio.
"We want to put 16 million eyes and ears to work," said Councilmember Jessica Lappin, the bill's primary sponsor.
There are 250,000 New Yorkers diagnosed with Alzheimer's, according to the City Council. Research shows, Quinn said, that 60 percent of all Alzheimer's patients wander off alone at some point. If they are missing more than 24 hours, she added, more than half will emerge seriously injured or dead.
The council did not designate an agency to administer the new program, and left it up to the Bloomberg administration to decide.
Following up on Quinn's state of the city address this year, the council approved a bill to require the city's Law Department review every rule proposed by a department or agency to determine whether it treats small businesses unfairly.
Currently, all departments or agencies have to do to create a new rule is put it through a public review process, including publishing it in the City Record.
The legislation (Intro 91-A), which was approved unanimously, comes out of a regulatory review panel established by the mayor and the council to study city rules that might hurt small businesses.
"From now on, government will have to take extra steps to make sure rules are not too burdensome or too costly for small business," said Quinn.
The legislation will require the department or agency proposing the rule to do outreach to the affected industry. The Mayor's Office of Operations will also have to make sure the city's proposed rules are written in plain language and aren't redundant with other city policy.