Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics


Social Services

Advocates Contest AIDS Caseworker Cuts

Photo (cc) 2010 William Alatriste

Robert Doar, commissioner of the city Human Resources Administration, testifies Tuesday on proposed cuts in programs for people with HIV/AIDS.

Valida Henry sat over a bowl of plain pasta in the cafeteria of Bailey-Holt House, a supportive AIDS housing residence she has called home for the past four years.

Henry, who contracted HIV 10 years ago, has lived longer than she ever anticipated -- in part thanks to services from both the city and the 44-unit facility long settled on Christopher Street.

"A lot of these places were set up for us to come and die," said Henry, who is 62 and legally blind. "The people with HIV and AIDS are living longer than they anticipated, and now they have to rethink the medical [care] and rethink the budget. And rather than rethink it, they want to cut it."

Henry is referring to the Bloomberg administration's executive budget proposal, which includes a $75 million cut to the city's Human Resources Administration, the agency which oversees social services for those living with HIV and AIDS. That cut will sever 248 caseworkers from the HIV/AIDS Services Administration to save the city about $4.2 million in fiscal year 2011 and $8.5 million the year after.

The city argues the reduction of caseworkers will not only save money, but also reduce service redundancies. Meanwhile advocates and those living with HIV and AIDS contend it will not only drive up caseloads, but also violate city law.

"Who is going to represent [us], if we only have one to 100," Henry asked, looking toward two fellow Bailey-Holt House residents beside her. "How will we be taken care of?"

An Illegal Move?

To cut back on costs, the city has proposed to include contracted caseworkers from outside groups, such as Bailey-Holt House, in calculating its client to caseworker ratio. City law requires one caseworker for every 34 cases for individuals and one caseworker for every 25 families. According to one HRA official, the administration has 850 caseworkers serving about 31,000 clients -- or one for every 36 clients and above the legal threshold.

The administration would not disclose how many caseworkers it contracted with in community based organizations and nonprofit groups. It did say both the city's caseworkers and its contractors do the same job and eliminating some of those positions would save taxpayers cash.

"We have reached a point in this difficult economy in which it is no longer tenable to have two case managers assigned to one case when both their salaries are paid for in whole or in part with scarce public resources," said Human Resources Commissioner Robert Doar yesterday at City Hall. "We are acknowledging the important role played by the long-standing contracted supportive housing programs and including their case management staff in the HASA staff ratios."

The administration will also hire 18 liaisons and two supervisors to work with caseworkers in contracted social service organizations to help streamline the process.

From the get go, advocates have argued contracted caseworkers and city caseworkers do not do the same job and should not be counted toward the ratio requirement. Advocates say the city's caseworkers focus on fundamentals, such as making sure those living with HIV and AIDS get housing and welfare. At a contracted social service agency, like Bailey-Holt House, staff focuses on mental health and social support.

"They might as well count farmers in Poland," said Armen Merijan, a senior staff attorney at Housing Works, another social service organization that deals with the HIV and AIDS population. "It's so preposterous that it's insulting to anyone's intelligence. The law says it has to be staff at the agency."

When Gotham Gazette asked Human Resources Administration staff for a response to Merijan's claim, they did not return phone calls or emails.

For now, some council members appear to be siding with advocates.

"You're going to tell me that every one of the HASA case managers is equipped with psycho-social case management and [can] deal with health issues and able to manage clients?" asked Councilmember Domenic Recchia, the chair of the council's Finance Committee, at a hearing at City Hall Tuesday.

"Without question," responded one administration official.

"So, you're going to tell me all these years you wasted taxpayers' money by contracting case managers?" Recchia boomed, his voice reverberating throughout the packed council chamber.

Administration officials said "robust case management" was needed at the beginning. Now, the commissioner countered, the administration has to "properly scale" its workforce.

Caseloads Up, Services Down

Regardless of the cut's legality, those caring for or living with HIV and AIDS fear they reduction in caseworkers will have other consequences.

Raul Plasencia, the director of supportive housing services of Bailey House, predicted an increase in homelessness if the caseworker cuts go through. Clients at Bailey-Holt House all have HIV or AIDS and have been homeless, incarcerated or suffer from drug addiction. If it takes longer to get them into supportive housing should caseloads increase, they will have nowhere to turn to but the streets.

Above Plasencia's office, Henry was attempting to enjoy her lunch -- one of three meals Bailey-Holt House gives her gratis every day. Instead of focusing on her pasta, she was focused on the city budget.

"You've cut the pools, the parks, HIV, AIDS," said Henry. "Just have to go along humbly with what they say. ... If they can do that now, what else can the government do?"

Moments later, a caseworker from the Human Resources Administration walked through the door of Bailey-Holt House. She was there to see her client.

Elder Abuse Programs Must Be Saved

elder abuse

Nancy Smith, a 68-year-old Manhattan resident, was being abused emotionally and financially by her 23-year-old grandson, who she had raised.

In his teens, Andrew began drinking and using drugs, and stopped attending school. He would threaten his grandmother, saying, "I will break your heart open," and "I will destroy this house." He would vandalize her belongings and demand money to stop.

Jewish Association for Services for the Aged, received an order of protection. The Jewish Association for Services for the Aging also got her locks changed and secured a court order to have her grandson removed from the home. Staff helped Smith get involved in a support group. Today, she says she is at peace in her home and feels freer and safer than she has in years.

Nancy Smith is not alone.

According to the Jewish Association for Services for the Aged, its 715 elder abuse clients are just the tip of the iceberg. There are currently nine elder abuse programs in New York City that help approximately 1,200 persons each year. Initially funded under the Department for the Aging, these programs have been put on the chopping block for the last two budget cycles.


But in January and July of last year, the City Council restored $849,000 for all of the elder abuse programs in New York City. (The Jewish Association for Services for the Aged gets over $400,000 of that for its elder abuse programs serving Queens, Brooklyn and Manhattan.)

In his most recent budget proposal released in January, Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed eliminating these programs entirely. The Council of Senior Centers and Services, which is leading the campaign against the cuts, and the Jewish Association for Services for the Aged are committed to not letting that happen.

A Portrait of Abuse

According to the National Center on Elder Abuse, between 1 million and 2 million Americans 65 or older have been mistreated. Only one in 14 cases of elder abuse in domestic settings is reported, and only one in 25 cases of financial exploitation is reported. Elder abuse victims tend to be female, socially isolated, dependent on a caregiver, physically frail, and experiencing other family stressors. The abuser is most frequently a family member, perhaps a spouse or an adult child. He or she also may be a neighbor, friend or paid caregiver. Abusers tend to be unemployed, suffering from mental illness and/or chemical addiction, middle aged, dependent on the older adult, socially isolated and experiencing their own financial and/or legal problems.

The current economic climate will cause deep and painful funding cuts to key publicly funded services across the board. However, in contrast to other New York City programs, elder abuse programs are slated for elimination -- not just a budget cut. Eliminating even the existing bare bones level of funding for these programs will have a catastrophic impact on elder abuse victims. No other programs assist New York City's older adults with this specific targeted service and with the necessary professional expertise they need.

Elder abuse, if not addressed, may threaten the victim's life. It can induce poverty and so deprive them of needed care. This can lead to an even greater strain on public resources whether the victim remains in the community or is institutionalized.

Eliminating elder abuse services will place a greater burden on other public services, such as the police, hospitals and senior social services. Although adult protective services are available, not all elder abuse clients meet the eligibility criteria -- which include mental and/or physical disability. In fact, perhaps only 20 percent of the our current elder abuse services caseload would be eligible for these services.

Elder abuse programs work, providing vital safety measures, legal representation, support services and community wide education. Providing services for the most vulnerable population and keeping older adults safe from abuse is imperative from a human rights and a moral perspective.

In 2006, the New York City Elder Abuse Network was established. The 50-member coalition creates links and addresses service gaps among police, prosecutors, providers of direct elder abuse services, providers of supportive services and government agencies, medical providers, advocates and academic institutions. If the elder abuse funds are eliminated, this network will be difficult -- if not impossible -- to maintain.

What will happen to the 80 percent who are not eligible? Who will they turn to? Where will they get help? Will they call the police? As the majority of elder abuse is perpetrated by family members, many older adults do not want to involve the criminal justice system. If there are no elder abuse programs, where would the police refer them?

In New York City, the over 65 population is projected to increase by 45 percent by 2030 -- more than three times the increase of younger New Yorkers. Elder abuse will grow, especially in bad fiscal times when people are out of work and financially stressed. These programs conduct extensive outreach. Since the onset of the economic crisis, there has been an increase of almost 30 percent in the number of incoming elder abuse cases.

Will New York City let thousands of elder abuse victims down? There is no excuse to cut elder abuse programs -- ever.

Bobbie Sackman is director of public policy for the Council of Senior Centers and Services. Mara Schecter is Queens district director and director of Elder Abuse Programs for the Jewish Association for Services for the Aged.

Day Care Dumped

day care, strong place day care
Photo (cc) 2010 Courtney Gross

More than 40 parents crowded the back room of Strong Place Day Care Center in Brooklyn. Their anger -- and fears -- were in stark contrast to the room's cheerful pink walls. Their calls of worry almost drowned out the laughter coming from a classroom down the hall.

"What are we going to do?" asked one parent from the back.

For now, staff members of Strong Place, where more than 50 kids attend city-subsidized day care from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. year round, don't have answers.

"I will fight for you with my last breath," said Strong Place Day Care Director Lorraine Pennisi, who has run the center for two decades. "The mayor thinks, 'Day Care… Babysitting,'" Pennisi said, throwing her hands in the air.

"It's important for you to say there is no place like Strong Place," she added.

Strong Place, which is located across the street from the New York City Housing Authority's Gowanus Houses, is one of 16 day care centers overseen by the Administration for Children's Services that could close in July. More than 770 children and their families and 300 workers would be affected.

The closings are just a small part of the Bloomberg administration's plan to fill an approximately $4.9 billion budget hole. As part of the Administration for Children's Services attempt to pare down, it plans to close day care centers with disproportionally high rents compared to other facilities citywide. The administration, said city officials, also considered whether there were other day care alternatives nearby when deciding what centers to close.

As a result, many of the centers slated to close are in gentrified areas, like Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens or DUMBO, and 11 of them are in Brooklyn. Of those, four are within two miles of Strong Place.

But parents and kids at Strong Place -- like the many others who attend these day care centers -- don't want an alternative center. They want Strong Place to stay open.

Schools Out

In Strong Place on Thursday, dozens of parents navigated between cubbies and artwork strung from the ceiling.

Several 3-year-olds sitting in miniature chairs tossed Legos back and forth along the miniature tables. Meanwhile, parents, who pay tuition on a sliding scale, lamented the potential closure, wondering what they would do next should Strong Place actually shut in July.

"It's very upsetting," said Sara Allen, whose daughter, Ruth, has attended Strong Place since early 2008. "I don't think it's fair for people that don't have much of an alternative. It's hard as it is," Allen added.

Strong Place is more than day care, said parents. It's the start to their children's education.

"They are like family," said Anna Marie Vitale, whose two children, Anthony and Gianna Aleo, attend Strong Place. As for the closing, "It's not going to happen," she added defiantly. "It can't happen. It's kids."

The city directly negotiates leases with landlords for 115 centers. Strong Place is one of them. In total, the Administration for Children's Services oversees 339 day care centers, the vast majority of which are contracted out to local nonprofits.

Administration officials say the leases at the centers slated for closure are too much to cover in this recession. By closing the 15 sites, according to budget documents, the city would save $9 million in the next fiscal year and $16.3 million every year thereafter.

In addition, the administration argues these children have other options.

"The 772 children enrolled in those 15 centers will be able to find seats in other quality neighborhood programs," Commissioner John B. Mattingly said in a prepared statement. "Our only other option was to cut slots and take away child care services for hundreds of children, which we wanted to avoid. The closures of these 15 centers will achieve significant costs savings with no loss of service for any child currently being served.”

According to the administration, the average occupancy cost, which includes rent, real estate taxes and utilities, at these 15 sites is $396,952. The average cost of centers citywide is $177,184. The administration also notes the cost per child at the facilities slated for closure is as high as $11,000, while the average for city leased centers is $5,000.

Funding for day care from the state and federal governments has not kept up with market rates, according to the Administration for Children's Services. Child care costs have increased 36 percent between 2000 and 2008, while the state and federal share of city costs has decreased from nearly 67 percent in 2004 to 54.6 percent in 2009.

But these arguments haven’t convinced anyone at Strong Place.

Walking past kids' paintings -- which included interpretations of Jackson Pollock's abstract style and renditions of Vincent Van Gogh's "Starry Night" -- Pennisi said every day care is different. But the curriculum here at Strong Place goes far beyond that of other day care centers, Pennisi said.

"I want to create thinkers," said Pennisi. "I want to create people that have a heart."

Other Options

Some of the city's unions, including District Council 1707, who represents day care workers, and the Council of Supervisors and Administrators, as well as a number of the city politicians are taking up Strong Place's cause.

In an ornate second floor room in Brooklyn Borough Hall on Friday, State Sen. Velmanette Montgomery joined them.

"We cannot let our families go," said Montgomery. "We have abandoned our children."

Many of these officials claim the administration's logic for choosing these centers is flawed. They contend total enrollment is not at 772, but more than 1,000, according to unions. They also say some of these centers recently renovated. Closing their doors is a lost investment, the council says.

Meanwhile other officials said the proposal contradicted the Bloomberg administration's economic development strategy.

"How do they expect a parent to work if they don't have a safe environment for their children?" asked Councilmember Sara Gonzalez, who attended the meeting Friday.

Officials have floated several proposals to avert the day care cuts, including negotiating with landlords to lower rents. Or if that doesn't work, the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators suggests allowing day care centers to pay for half of the lease, while the city picks up the rest. Councilmember Letitia James said federal funding could also help keep the centers open.

The administration said it was talking to landlords in hopes of negotiating a decrease.

Strong Place too was coming up with contingency plans, though they weren't ready to discuss them. Staff and board members there don't think they will have to.

They aren't going anywhere.

"In my gut, I'm going to give it 100 percent," said Pennisi last week while on the center's roof, which boasts a play area and jungle gym for the kids. "I am not accustomed to failing."

To Reunite Families, Agencies Try a Holistic Approach

With a pert smile, S. kept a tight watch over her baby boy's crib in her modest, brightly painted Bronx apartment. It was a mundane scene, but in light of what she had gone through a few months earlier, S., who asked to remain anonymous, kept her joy closely guarded.

Last year, S. saw her baby taken from her after a heated argument with her son's father ended with police intervening and taking her into detention. Soon, S. recalled in an interview, she found herself isolated at the precinct, while child welfare authorities placed the baby in the father's care. S. couldn't make sense of the decision: The Administration of Children's Services had not only overlooked the father's criminal record, she said, but also ignored an offer from S's mother to take temporary custody.

This is the third and final article in a series on the connections between the criminal justice and child welfare systems in New York City. Previously:

Going to Jail, Losing a Child -- When a mother goes to prison, she may have to give up her child as well as her freedom, and many families investigated for mistreating a child have had a member in prison. The two major institutions involved with protecting children interact in many families.

The Long Road Out of Foster Care -- Mothers who go to jail risk losing their children to the foster care system. Even if the families finally reunite, it can take years to repair the breach.

One Fanily's Story (video): Brenda Gittens talks about her journey through addiction and the child welfare system at a support group for mothers whose children have been removed. Her son Jacob's story was profiled in “The Long Road Out of Foster Care.” Jacob produced this video as part of an ongoing project of documenting his family's history. You can view it here.

In criminal court, S.'s case was quickly dismissed and the judge released her from detention. But it took weeks for her to wade through the family court process and scrutiny from children's services. Her contact with her baby was limited to supervised visitations; she even had to nurse her baby under the watch of an agency worker, S. recalled. "I was being looked at ... as a monstrous individual," she said.

Still, in a system where children may languish for months or years in foster care, S.'s separation from her son ended relatively quickly. Her rare example speaks to new strategies in the social service community to help distressed families cope.

In contrast to S.'s story, many troubled families get caught up in government systems. As parents and children try to deal with an array of interrelated problems -- such as mental illness, drugs, family violence, poverty and racial discrimination -- they get stuck in the bureaucracies that are supposed to hel them. But some advocates now recognize this web of crises and are trying new ways to enable families to untangle it.

The Whole Picture

S. got her son back, thanks to the Bronx Defenders, a public defender office that helps low-income families navigate the legal , welfare, housing and immigration systems. A lawyer, social worker and parent advocate teamed up to help S. deal with family court and criminal court simultaneously. This enabled her to arrange a visitation schedule and and support services, and regain custody soon after.

Kara Finck, managing attorney of the Bronx Defenders Family Defense Practice, said that in many cases, a child will be placed in care upon a parent's arrest, even if the charges are not related to the child's treatment. And even if the charges are later dismissed, their family court case will drag on, since the Administration for Children's Services will pursue its investigation of the parents' conduct independently. As their work continues, the child may remain with a relative or in foster care indefinitely.

If "a technicality in criminal court means you can't see your child for three months, and your child's three months old -- that's twice their life," Finck said.Over a family's lifetime, interwoven social and economic hardships can drive parents and children apart as they deal with police, courts, child protection agencies or some combination. Still, law enforcement and social service agencies may often operate separately without communicating -- despite research showing that in many cases, parents in the child welfare system have had past involvement with the criminal justice system or get arrested after losing their children. The bureaucratic dissonance, advocates say, can traumatize families, and could be avoided if agencies were more sensitive to the various burdens parents must juggle.

To harmonize those systems, groups like the Bronx Defenders have developed a holistic strategy for legal services. Attorneys know the ins and outs of the child welfare, legal and immigration bureaucracies, as well as how those institutions intersect when, say, a parent gets arrested in an immigration raid and her child winds up in foster care.

"The biggest thing that we're seeing within the system is this awakening that these children are present, and they bring with them a kind of extra burden," said Dee Ann Newell, a coordinator of national campaign to establish a Bill of Rights for children of incarcerated parents. "The stigma and the shame and the silence are for me the three S's that these children cope with, in addition to the fact that they have all these preceding risk factors."

A Web of Services

Since parents may see child-protection interventions as intrusive and humiliating, some groups use a "wraparound" approach focused on community bonds and group decision-making. Everyone, from siblings to grandparents to teachers, have a stake in planning a child's custody arrangement, for example, or a parent's drug treatment plan.

Carol Shapiro, a research scholar with Columbia University's < a href=""> Institute for Economic and Social Research and Policy, said that agencies could improve outcomes if they just stopped treating clients as "people that need to be fixed, and instead, building on their assets. ... We respond much better to things we feel good about."

When she led the New York-based nonprofit Family Justice (which has since been incorporated into the Vera Institute of Justice), Shapiro put this concept to the test in San Francisco with Communities of Opportunity. In neighborhoods where poor families frequently encounter law enforcement and child welfare, the program immerses at-risk parents at the center of a network of services including probation authorities, school officials, and health and social service agencies.

Back in Brooklyn, the Women's Prison Association helps formerly incarcerated mothers cope with the challenges of transitioning back into the community. Clients are typically eager to reunite with their children, but must wrestle with unemployment, lack of housing or emotional instability. Federal laws limiting the time a child can stay in foster care further complicate the process of regaining custody.

The association's transitional housing facility, Huntington House, gives homeless, formerly incarcerated women a space to prepare for reunification with children who have been placed in foster care. The program places mothers in apartments shared by other clients, where they receive personalized employment and treatment services. After children return to their custody, mothers move into family-style apartments. Staff continue supporting the entire family until they are ready to move on to independent housing in the community.

"We have a built-in way to avoid the trap of housing being the last barrier to getting your children back," said executive director Georgia Lerner.

The group also works uses an intensive "home-based service model" to help women at risk of losing custody. Case managers visit women at home to give them what they need to keep their households running, whether it's support for staying clean, working with probation authorities, keeping up with court dates or signing up for food stamps.

When working with formerly incarcerated women, Lerner said, part of the job is acknowledging that reunification is not the only possible goal and regaining full custody may be out of reach for some women. The Women's Prison Association may instead help a parent devise an alternative custody setup, such as living with a relative under legal guardianship. The central aim, Lerner said, is to protect the parent's role in determining the healthiest care arrangement for the child, and to empower mothers to "make the best decisions and to be full, informed participants in the decision."

Protecting Family Rights

Many advocacy groups also believe police and other government agencies must change the way they treat parents and the children whose safety they are trying to protect.

The Osborne Association, a New York-based nonprofit that works with families affected by the criminal justice system, has drafted guidelines to help state and local law enforcement deal with children of arrested parents. The clinical language hints at the emotional tension of a police encounter: Officers are advised to "consider arresting, handcuffing and questioning of parents out of the view of their children," and to be conscious that "children may feel safer about the situation when compassion is shown to the arrestee." The San Francisco Children of Incarcerated Parents Partnership, a coalition of community groups, service providers and government representatives,has published a Children of Incarcerated Parents Bill of Rights as a reference for families, service providers and government agencies. The core principles include the right to regular family visits, the right to be "considered in decisions about a parent," and the right to a "lifelong relationship" between parent and child.

"When a parent is incarcerated, there's sort of an assumption that that that relationship is not as valuable as other parent-child relationships," said partnership coordinator Nell Bernstein. "And of course when a family is involved with child welfare, there's also an assumption of 'this is a bad parent.' Put those two together, and this is a family that is at tremendous risk of dissolution."

The Bill of Rights website features testimony by Ahmad, who was born during his mother's incarceration, adopted as a young child and reunified with his birth family as a teen. The turbulent journey taught him that the child welfare system ignores what matters most.

"All the system saw," he said, "was a drug-addicted mother. 'The baby could do better without her.' They wanted to protect little Ahmad. Why didn't they care about his mother? ... What would have helped me most is compassion for my mom. We have to bring the mom back, so the mom can be a mother to the child."

Michelle Chen is a freelance writer and a native New Yorker. This article is part of a series exploring the connections between the criminal justice and child welfare systems in New York City. The project was supported by a fellowship from the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Bloomberg on Poverty: A War or Small Skirmishes?

Photo (cc) PhillipC
Mayor Bloomberg has widened the criteria to define poverty in New York. Under the new calculations, the number of New Yorkers living in poverty increased from 18.9 to 23 percent over 2006.

Correction: This story, as it originally appeared, reported as fact poverty statistics that Bloomberg administration disputes. The story has been updated to reflect the debate.

U.S. Census data released in September revealed that more than 1.5 million New Yorkers lived in poverty in 2008, before the financial crisis hit its heights. The city reports that meant the number of its residents living below the poverty line had fallen by 168,454 since 2000. Some activists, using a different methodology, see the number of New Yorkers living in poverty as having increased by 126,458 between 2000 and 20008. In either case, that total is expected to rise sharply.

While social services were relatively low on Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s list of priorities during his first term, around the time of his 2005 re-election, he made it a point to reset that agenda. Bloomberg focused on two areas in particular: homelessness and an attempt to eradicate -- or at least reduce -- poverty in New York, a city that traditionally has offered a reasonably generous safety net in the face of emergency crisis.

A New Measure

Perhaps the most universally acclaimed element of Bloomberg’s effort has been the attention he has brought to the issue of poverty and his push to redefine who actually lives in poverty. The Center for Economic Opportunity, a special commission Bloomberg created with the singular purpose of fighting poverty, determined that the high cost of food and housing in the expensive city that is New York should be considered in calculating the threshold for being considered poor here. Using that new measure, the percent of New Yorkers living in poverty was recalculated and increased from 18.9 to 23 percent over 2006.

"Mayor Bloomberg proposed a more realistic measure of poverty that took some account of higher living costs in New York City. ... Bloomberg was right: The official poverty line in the United States is unreal. It does not take account of the actual costs of basic subsistence," wrote CUNY Graduate Professor Frances Fox Piven in an email. However, she added, "If we thought a new measure would mean more generous policies, we were wrong." Piven is an expert on social movements and welfare policy.

The mayor received so much recognition and acclaim for his efforts that at least 10 other U.S. cities are attempting to replicate his actions. The center also is working with the Obama administration to create a Federal Urban Innovation Fund, an "evidence-based" anti-poverty program modeled after the center itself.

40 Steps

In 2006, Bloomberg announced joint private/public funding of a $150 million annual commitment to combat poverty.

The initiative featured about 40 different pilot programs. "Anything you do to make a difference is an important lesson," said Deputy Mayor Linda Gibbs, who lauded the mayor’s "willingness and bravery" to take on such a complex issue.

The specific projects include "conditional cash payments” called Opportunity NYC, which are contingent upon family members' actions. Other programs would provide a childcare tax credit -- which Gibbs described as "more budget secure" than city-funded childcare slots -- and job training. Together the efforts offer a "chance to re-examine [existing programs]. We know not all will be winners -- it's trial and error, but it also lays the groundwork," Gibbs said.

Brooklyn’s Bill de Blasio, chair of the City Council's General Welfare Committee and Democratic nominee for public advocate, observed that while the "motivation was good, [the city] didn't create meaningful" change.

Gibbs strongly disagreed, pointing out city agencies are now working in tandem and every initiative is being tracked and evaluated closely.

For example, more New Yorkers now are eligible for -- and receive -- food stamps thanks to improvements in technology and office design, the Human Resources Administration reports. The office hours have been expanded and the application time has been reduced. People who receive federal Supplement Security Income now are automatically enrolled for food stamps. Applications, re-certifications and necessary documents can be submitted online or over the telephone in some cases.

A Broader Approach?

In general, de Blasio said, he "never felt social services was one of the chief concerns" of the mayor and so Bloomberg never got as personally involved in poverty-related issues as in some other areas.

For example, de Blasio said, the mayor could have done something "tangible" to help the city's poor and working poor, by blocking the rent increases imposed by the Rent Guidelines Board, the body that decides rents for the city’s million stabilized apartments. He did not do that and in fact, has appointed the members who have raised those rents.

Andrew Brent, a spokesperson for the mayor’s office said in an email, "There is no question that any increase in rents is particularly difficult for people to handle right now. At the same time," he continued, "the costs to maintain and heat buildings have risen" and the board has "to find the right balance.”

Brent added, “We're focused on building the 165,000 affordable housing units that comprise the New Housing Marketplace Plan. …The units built through the plan are made permanently affordable.”

Joel Berg, executive director of the NYC Coalition Against Hunger also criticized the initiative for its limited scope. "Only 3 percent of poor New Yorkers have been helped by the anti-poverty effort, and New York still leads the nation in income inequality," he said. The number aided by the mayor's effort is equal to about 42,000 people, according to Berg.

From July 2008 to July 2009, Berg said, 5,000 fewer people received public assistance while 276,000 more got food stamps. "The same offices that give food stamps turn people away from" welfare, he said. "This situations has "disproportionately affected minorites and defies logic. It just doesn't make sense."

"When it comes to poverty, when a mayor essentially says that we are only going to have small pilot projects that help less than [3 percent] of the target population, and, by the way, the overall poverty rate -- as well as the rate of homelessness and the rate of hunger -- will all be higher than when I started" and is then "hailed as an courageous innovator for even touching the problem, I don’t think such grandiose credit is deserved,” Berg said in 2008 testimony before the City Council.

Seeking a Big Impact from Small Programs

Gibbs' office said Berg's 3 percent figure does not reflect the actual reach the Center for Economic Opportunity has had since it launched in 2006. More than 100,000 individuals participated in one of the center's initiatives in both fiscal years 2008 and 2009, according to the city. Some programs affect a larger number of people, Gibbs said, such as the new Office of Financial Empowerment, which educates poor people about "asset development [and saving] strategies."

A number of the initiatives already have proved successful, according to Gibbs. She cited the City University Accelerated Study in Associate Programs, which Gibbs said "structured more success in community college degree programs. ... We projected 50 percent [of participating students receiving degrees in less than three years] in three years, and 75 percent in four, and have already achieved 31 percent in two." That’s compared with 8 percent to 11 percent in a non-participating comparison group.

Then there’s the Teen Action plan, Gibbs noted, which funds a program for over 3,100 young people promoting "positive life skills, responsible citizenship ... with the goal of preventing teen pregnancy and school suspension." Only in New York, would people claim that helping 3,000 kids is insufficient, Gibbs observed.

All Work?

The single biggest problem with the administration, said Berg, is its belief that a job -- any job -- is the answer, no matter what. "Bloomberg has been so-so on affordable housing but miserable on wages," he said. For Berg, this "work first" philosophy has discounted the severity of poverty and hunger in New York City.

Lower-skilled, lower-paid workers are simply following the career "trajectory of every worker," Gibbs explained. To think they can "jump over others is unrealistic."

Responded Berg, “They are not on a career ladder that will eventually lead to living wage jobs. If folks were truly on career ladders upward, of course they’d have to pay their original dues, like my grandparents did after coming to America. ... The reality that the [administration] never wants to admit is that lower income workers are on a treadmill that’s going backward. ... That is why the working poor are the fastest growing poverty population in NYC."

This is underscored by misleading information the city has disseminated about welfare-to-work recipients, Berg said.

Replacing the Safety Net?

The emphasis on jobs reflects what some see as Bloomberg's belief that the poor deserve some blame for their poverty. The administration's idea of paying people to improve their behavior -- by making sure their children go to school say, or go to the doctor -- reinforces that idea.

In Berg's view, the administration's efforts are based on the "incorrect belief that large government anti-poverty programs haven’t worked, far too based on the false assumption that poor personal behavior is the main cause of poverty, and far too detached from efforts to create jobs and raise wages."

CUNY’s Piven gives Bloomberg credit for not following "Guiliani in singling out the poor for gratuitously mean-spirited initiatives." But, she continued, "neither has it seriously revamped the policies that keep the poor poor. Moreover, it has presided over a real estate boom that has steadily encroached on the neighborhoods of poor and working class people, replacing affordable housing with glass towers of multi million-dollar condos."

Gibbs said the city is "developing new models." At the end of those efforts, she said, it hopes to have created a better safety net -- one that "lifts [people] out of that" to live independently.

Jillian Jonas is a freelance journalist focusing on local and national politics, government and public policy. She is a former national political analyst for U.P.I.

Breaking Down Barriers in the Fight Against Domestic Violence

Photo (cc) oncl_wart

When Ling and her soon-to-be-former husband were dating, they enjoyed the music of Pink Floyd. They also shared the same tastes in movies and many other things. Although he was always the jealous type, she didn't think it was a big issue.

"I accepted it as part of his personality," said Ling, a native of Taiwan who requested her last name be withheld to protect her privacy. But five years into her marriage, her husband's jealous rage turned into physical violence.

"He always imagined someone else pursuing me," said Ling, who has been separated for almost two years and now shares an apartment with her daughter and a friend from church. "He hit me for the first time after the baby was born, and it just got worse." The last straw came when her husband left her bleeding badly after another violent episode and disappeared for days. She called the police and had her husband arrested.

With an American master's degree in business administration, Ling is fluent in Chinese, English and Japanese. She does not fit the image many may have of a typical victim of domestic violence. But a recent report by Garden of Hope, a Flushing-based organization that serves Chinese-speaking victims of domestic violence, showed that among the 200 clients interviewed, more than 40 percent have college degrees or higher. Among their abusers, more than 50 percent have received higher education.

"Domestic violence has nothing to do with race, age and educational background," said Kristen Liu, executive director of Garden of Hope.

The causes of domestic violence can be very complex, encompassing stress over work, drug use, alcoholism, extra-marital affairs, jealousy and different opinions on child rearing. In immigrant communities, cultural patterns and fear of going to the police add to the problem.

Hiding the Shame

In Ling's case, her husband is many of the above: a drug user, alcoholic, unemployed and later diagnosed with clinical depression. But she was reluctant to tell anyone because "saving face" is very important in Chinese culture

"In the beginning, I was thinking about getting help but I was ashamed," said Ling, who relied on her parents for money after her husband closed his business. "I was trying to maintain my social status. I couldn't tell my family or friends. ... I was too shy to tell the truth. I was scared to see how my parents would react."

But eventually she learned about Garden of Hope from a friend in her church and sought its help.

"My counselors helped me to let go of my feelings through art therapy, the Bible and prayers," Ling said, adding that she has finally told her parents. "Now my life is calm," she said.

According to Liu's statistics, Garden of Hope received 1,430 calls and had 307 consultations in 2008. But only 145 individuals decided to take any action against their abusers.

Protection for the Victim

Often immigrant victims of abuse do not know they can turn to the police and social service organizations for help. Many come from countries where domestic violence may be prevalent and where victims have little protection.

"In the majority of Latin American countries, domestic violence is, what can I say, the thing of the day," said Haydee Zambrana, executive director of Latin Women in Action, which primarily serves the Mexican and Ecuadorian communities in Corona, Queens. "It takes place so often and the laws there, as many women indicated, do not protect them as well."

Often, spousal abuse leads to child abuse, Zambrana said. The abuse of a child, she said, is frequently what tips off the authorities to other violence in the home.

"The school is the number one reporter of child abuse," said Zambrana. "Then the Administration for Children's Services will require the parents to attend workshops on parenting, anger management and domestic violence. Through that way they become aware of the services they can receive ... and many women started to come forward."

Help Is Available

A number of community-based organizations like Garden of Hope and Latin Women in Action exist throughout the city to help victims of domestic violence. In addition, he Mayor's Office to Combat Domestic Violence, founded in 2001, has two family justice centers, one in Brooklyn and one in Queens, to provide walk-in services to victims of domestic violence. Its hotline is 1-800-621-HOPE or one can simply dial the city's help line, 311.

The two centers provide a wide variety of serviceswith on-site assistance from immigration attorneys, counselors, family lawyers, police officers, probation officers, case managers, assistant district attorneys and so on.

"The idea is to streamline the process," said Yolanda Jimenez, the office's commissioner who herself is an immigrant from Bogota, Colombia. "We want to ensure that they get everything they need."

About two thirds of the clients at the Queens center and more than a third of those in Brooklyn are foreign born. To serve these clients, the centers' staffs speak more than a dozen languages and offer interpretation in 150 languages through its Language Line Program. Among the many services provided, interpretation is one of the most popular. Every month an average of 225 people take advantage of the translation services at each center, according to Ruth Villalonga, the domestic violence office's communications and outreach manager.

To help victims of domestic violence get back on their feet and gain financial independence, many agencies offer self-sufficiency services, including career training and English as a second language classes.

Immigration and Legal Issues

Immigration status is the number one concern for many victims, service providers say. Many are afraid to go to the police because they have no legal status here or depend their spouse to remain in this country.

"We have seen some cases where immigrants with U.S. citizenship would go back to their home countries to find wives," said Liu of Garden of Hope. "Once they bring their new wives to the U.S., they don't allow them to go out or learn English. If the wives don't listen, they threaten to divorce them and find new ones."

But New York City does offer some protections.

"Anyone who is a victim of domestic violence or a witness of a crime, the police cannot inquire their immigration status," said Jimenez, citing Mayor Michael Bloomberg's Executive Order 41, issued in 2003 to allow all New Yorkers, regardless of immigration status, access to vital city services. As a result, she said, victims should "feel they can come to the police, hospitals, family justice centers and get into shelters."

Federal law may offer protection in some cases as well. Victims of domestic violence may be able to gain legal status under Violence Against Women Act asylum. U Visaprovides nonimmigrant status for four years to victims of crime who are willing to help law enforcement investigate the offense and prosecute. It was specifically created by the Department of Homeland Security in 2007 to "strengthen the ability of law enforcement agencies to investigate and prosecute cases of domestic violence," among other crimes. After three years, visa holders may apply for permanent residency.

In general, Liu said, any victim who "can prove that the marriage is in good faith and that violence does exist ... can self-petition for a green card."

Getting the Word Out

Meanwhile, all the agencies involved in this issue are trying to reach out to immigrant communities and raise the awareness of domestic violence. Garden of Hope and Latin Women in Action both hold seminars for immigrants, while the city office meets with leaders of various community-based organizations to spread the word.

"We found that often time the victims would talk to the clergy before they report to the authorities," said Jimenez.

After two years of separation, Ling is finalizing her divorce giving her full custody of her daughter while her husband is in jail for domestic violence against two other women and violation of his probation.

"I need to settle down my life and my daughter," said Ling, adding there is no chance that she will get back together with her husband. "Even my daughter doesn't want to see him." She plans to move in with her parents, who live in Japan.

Larry Tung, a native of Taiwan, teaches media and film courses at Kean University in Union, N.J. He is also a documentary filmmaker whose work focuses on immigrant and Asian American issues.

Bills Seek to Help Women Prisoners Rebuild Lives

Image (cc) Alice Cope

Davian Reynolds was four years old when he first got to know his mother, Tina Reynolds. "She was the lady who let me jump on the bed," he remembered. At his foster parents' home he wasn't allowed to jump on the bed.

For the early years of Davian's life Tina was in prison serving time for a parole violation, first at Rikers Island and then at Taconic Correctional Facility in Westchester County. A group there helped her arrange visits with Davian and her other son. Tina says getting to know her son and becoming a mother again allowed her to adjust to life outside of prison.

Over 70 percent of women in prison in New York are mothers, and advocates say most of them had been their children's primary caregivers. As of January 2008, more than 44 percent of women imprisoned in New York State were from New York City. About 11 percent were from its suburbs. Mothers from New York City serving time in upstate prisons have to overcome great distances to maintain a relationship with their children.

Since her time in prison Tina has become involved in social work and founded WORTH (Women on the Rise Telling HerStory), a group of formerly incarcerated women who work on issues facing women who have served time. Davian, now a thoughtful but slightly shy teenager living in Brooklyn, occasionally travels with his mother to advocate for helping imprisoned mothers sustain the bond to their children. Davian also posts a video blog, where he discusses being a child with a parent in prison. On Tuesday the two were in Albany with hundreds of formerly incarcerated women and other advocates to ask legislators to consider bills that they say would help give incarcerated women a better chance to recover their lives.

Tina and Davian's account was just one of hundreds of stories that were presented to legislators in the hope that they might encourage them to pass the legislation. The Coalition for Women Prisoners organized the lobbying event, and Serena Aliferi, the associate director of policy for the Women in Prison Project, said that she and her colleagues are hopeful that this year the legislature finally will act on the bills. In light of the legislature's reform of the Rockefeller drug laws and the Democratic control of the Senate, advocates think this is the year their legislation will finally be signed by the governor.

Those supporting the changes say that, as the number of women in prison in New York has exploded, the state has failed to address issues that destroy the lives of incarcerated women. They point out that in 1973 around 380 women were in correctional facilities in New York State. Today there are more than 2,600, an increase of 580 percent.

Proposals for Change

Advocates are focusing on three bills pending in the legislature. The first, which is dear to the Reynolds, is the Adoption and Safe Families Act Expanded Discretion bill. It would give local child welfare agencies more discretion before terminating parental rights when a parent is away for an extended term in prison or for drug treatment. That bill has passed the Assembly where it is sponsored by Jeffrion Aubry of Queens and in the Senate by Velmanette Montgomery of Brooklyn. (For more on women prisoners whose children end up in the foster care system, see A Tangle of Problems Links, Prison, Foster Care

The second, the Domestic Violence Merit Time Bill, would allow victims of domestic abuse who have been imprisoned for defending themselves from or lashing out at an abuser to qualify for time off of their sentences. The bill has been sponsored in the Assembly by Helene Weinstein and in the Senate by Montgomery. In previous years, the Domestic Violence Merit Time Bill was sponsored by Republican Sen. <>Dale Voelker. Representatives of the Coalition for Women Prisoners say that Voelker has indicated he might co-sponsor the legislation this year.

The third bill, The Department of Health HIV/Hepatitis C Oversight Bill, would ensure that the <> Department of Health monitors the treatment delivered to prisoners infected with HIV or hepatitis C. Currently, the health department does not oversee health care services provided in prison to make sure they meet the same standards of care required of other providers New York. Advocates say that, while the bill isn’t specific to women, if passed, it would open the door for the health department to monitor other medical services provided in prison, including childbirth.

Approximately 12 percent of women in New York's prisons have HIV. The rate is 80 percent higher than for the general population. And women in New York’s prisons have double the infection rate of male inmates. Twenty-two percent of women in New York's prisons have hepatitis C, a rate twice that for male prisoners and 14 times higher than that for the general public.

Sick and in Prison

Of the hundreds of advocates who traveled to Albany to tell their stories, Russelle (Rusti) Miller-Hill delivered perhaps the most striking account. Miller-Hill began using drugs after she was diagnosed as HIV positive. She was eventually arrested and sent to an upstate prison.

Sen. Thomas Duane said that hearing stories like Miller-Hill's when he traveled to prisons across the state spurred him to work for the prisoner health bill. "I couldn't forget their specific stories. I couldn't forget what they had told me," said Duane.

Erik Kriss, a spokesperson for the state Department of Correctional Services said that his agency is "not in favor of the arrangement," of having the Department of Health monitor the standard of care provided to prisoners. "Inmates have the constitutional right to healthcare and we provide it," said Kriss, "and we do a good job." (For more on health care in prisons, see Barred Medicine: Health Care on Rikers Island.)

A Cycle of Violence

The Domestic Violence Merit Time Bill had special significance to a number of women who attended the rally on Tuesday. Sharon White served 11 years in prison for manslaughter. "My ex-husband was an abuser," said White. She believed "the incident that lead to my imprisonment was an indirect result of domestic violence," but said she does not think that was taken into account when she was sentenced.

"Women get all this prison time, yet we fail to acknowledge that the system failed them before they even got to that point," she said. "They didn’t look at the background to see that I was in a horrible relationship that I had to get out of."

White is now remarried and works in social service. She volunteers her time helping women who suffer domestic violence. If the merit time bill was law when she was serving time, White said, "I'd have been given a chance to rebuild my life sooner. I would be a lot further now. But I am very happy with who I am today."

According to the Correctional Association of New York 80 percent of women in prison were physically or sexually abused as children, and 9 out of 10 women in prison have experienced severe physical or sexual abuse in their lifetimes. Sister Mary Nerney, who founded STEPS to End Violence, a program that deals with domestic violence and visits women in prison, said the current system does not serve women well: "It doesn't make sense. We need to look at how we can help families stay together."

Women who have been abused by their spouse say they often do not leave for fear of what could happen to their children or themselves if they call the police. When they strike back, they say, they had finally reached a point where they needed to protect themselves.

Advocates insist women who show remorse and good behavior should be allowed time off their sentences so they can go about repairing their lives and sustaining their families. They note that women sentenced after reacting violently to years of abuse have a zero percent recidivism rate.

"Women who are incarcerated for defending themselves against a batterer or for committing crimes because of domestic abuse pose no threat to public safety," said Assemblymember Weinstein in a statement. "Merit time would allow survivors of domestic violence in prison to return to their children, families and communities and begin to rebuild the healthy and safe lives denied to them before incarceration."

Kriss said the corrections department does not comment on pending legislation but he noted that Commissioner Brian Fischer believes women who were victims of domestic abuse and who were imprisoned for an incident relating to their abuse "should have the opportunity to earn some good time." Kriss pointed to a measure included in the budget that allows well-behaved inmates who are not sex offenders or convicted of first degree murder to earn six-month credits off their sentence. The inmate must also reach a significant milestone like completing two years of college or an apprenticeship.

White said she knows that some legislators and critics see women such as herself as ordinary criminals. "To them a crime is a crime," she said, and they will oppose any move to reduce sentences. "I'm not trying to take away from what I did," said White but she added people just need to better understand how domestic violence affects the battered person and their children. "It"s just not an issue for some people until they are in the situation or they hear about a situation someone went through."

On Tuesday evening advocates gathered in a church on State Street in Albany. Women talked about the experiences they had earlier in the day sharing their stories with legislators. White said she got a pleasant surprise when she turned around to realize that the assistant to one of the legislators was previously her cellmate. "I thought she was just a legislator's assistant but I saw her and realized she was one of my cellmates. I said it just goes to show how far we've come," said White.

In the front of the church speakers congratulated each other and read poetry. At one point a choir took to the microphone and led the room in a chant, clapping and singing, "Ladies, are you ready for a change?"

City Faces a Rising Demand for Food Stamps

A deli in South Williamsburg

As jobs disappear and bank accounts dwindle, more and more New Yorkers are relying on food stamps to put a meal on the table. As of February, more than 1.39 million New York City residents -- nearly 800,000 households -- were enrolled in the federal government's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, as food stamps are officially called.

These people also will see an increase in the size of their benefits, thanks to the federal economic stimulus package, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced last week.

But even though New Yorkers now will collect more than $200 million in food stamps every month, hundreds of thousands more city residents may be eligible for benefits but not receiving them. Despite the city's efforts to spread the word about food stamps and improvements to the application process, anti-hunger advocates say too many barriers still remain for New Yorkers who need help feeding themselves and their families. Meanwhile, the system is showing signs of strain under the heavier caseload, as some applicants have to wait beyond the legal time limit for their benefits.

Spreading the Word

According to New York City's Human Resources Administration, the demand for food stamps has grown steadily under the Bloomberg administration. Since 2002, the number of New York City residents on food stamps has grown by 74 percent, even as enrollment in federal welfare programs that pay cash -- like the Family Assistance Program and Safety Net Assistance -- has declined, partly because of more stringent requirements. In 2008 alone, the city enrolled 200,000 new food stamp recipients who did not receive cash assistance.

Anti-poverty advocates say that as many as 700,000 more New Yorkers could be getting food stamps but won't apply because they don't know they are eligible, they fear being stigmatized, or they feel the benefit isn't worth the frustration -- and sometimes humiliation -- of the application process. Advocacy groups report that some workers in the city's food stamp offices routinely dole out shame along with the benefits.

Community-based organizations and advocates have been working with the city to add eligible residents to the food stamp rolls, and the Human Resources Administration last year launched some focused outreach campaigns. The city targeted working families, some of whom may not have realized they were eligible for food stamps, and Medicaid recipients. It also issued multilingual informational brochures in an effort to reach more immigrants.

Despite all that, Leslie Annexstein, director of the Urban Justice Center's Homelessness Outreach and Prevention Project, said the city could do more to get the word out, particularly to immigrants.

"The applications are available in many different languages but the support materials are still just in English and Spanish," Annexstein said. "There's a significant proportion of our clients who speak Chinese, and there's definitely a hole in HRA's ability to communicate with Chinese speakers in this city. That's a big population who need to be getting food stamp benefits."

The Red Tape

Food stamp offices employ some new practices designed to make it easier for the city's working poor to enroll and then be recertified when the initial benefit period runs out. In the past, anyone seeking food stamps had to apply in person at one of 20 outlets spread over the five boroughs, and applicants sometimes had to wait for hours before they could see a counselor. Now, according to human resources deputy commissioner Seth Diamond, many people can apply over the telephone and simply mail in the required papers. This saves them from having to take precious time off work and lose a day's wages.

Despite this, advocates still get frequent complaints from applicants about how much time they have to waste at the food stamp office.

"When clients come in, they tell us how frustrated they are with the amount of time that they are required to spend in order to get food stamps, with the amount of documentation they need to bring in and the fact that they need to bring it again when it should be in their file already," Annexstein said.

Applicants who visit certain soup kitchens or food banks can also apply online from computers at those facilities, thanks to a federally funded pilot program by the city and the New York City Coalition Against Hunger. City Councilmember Eric Gioia has called on the Human Resources Administration to speed up its efforts to implement a wider online application system.

Some community groups applaud the city's actions but say they do not go far enough. Community Voices Heard, a grassroots organization of low-income people, recommends putting "help desks" in welfare offices, staffed by volunteers from anti-poverty groups. Such desks, they say, would help answer the myriad questions applicants have about eligibility, work requirements and documentation, and could even provide on-the-spot translations of agency letters and brochures. Such "help desks" existed decades ago, until then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani outlawed them by executive order.

New York City Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum is sponsoring, for the second time, a bill in City Council that would reinstate the help desks, but the Bloomberg administration, which successfully fought the proposal several years ago, is again standing firm against it. Barbara Brancaccio, human resources' deputy commissioner for public information, describes the bill as a "red herring." She said that nothing bars applicants from arranging ahead of time to have an advocate accompany them to a benefits interview, but that permanent help desks might disrupt food stamp offices. Further, Brancaccio said, the city is worried that it could be held responsible for the accuracy of information given out by the volunteers staffing the help desks.

Another bone of contention is the requirement that every applicant -- and every adult in the applicant's household, regardless of employment status -- must show up in person for finger imaging, an anti-fraud procedure that captures the applicant's digital fingerprint.

Joel Berg, head of the Coalition Against Hunger, says there are more effective deterrents to fraud, as evidenced by the 46 states which do not require finger imaging of their food stamp applicants.

"What finger imaging prevents is by far the least frequent kind of food stamp fraud, where people actually create duplicate cases," Berg said. "I mean, it's so hard to get food stamps in the first place. So many people are eligible and not getting them, the notion that people are creating false identities is a little Hollywood."

But the city has not been swayed. "I think there is tremendous public support for food stamps and for making the program easier, and that's very helpful to us, but that public support would erode very quickly if taxpayers thought that there were people getting benefits who were not eligible, " Diamond said.

Food Stamps Offices Go Digital

New technologies also are helping the city handle the growing food stamp caseload. Food stamp offices became fully digital in 2008, Diamond said, with computers and scanners taking the place of paper forms and photocopies. The so-called "paperless office system" is designed to improve accuracy, speed enrollment and recertification, and reduce the agency's workload. Earlier this month, Gotbaum released a report sharply criticizing the system for frequent breakdowns, based on a survey of workers who use the computers and scanners.

Agency officials quickly dismissed the report for its flawed methodology -- fewer than 7 percent of the workers completed the survey. According to Brancaccio, the city's records show that workers used the paperless office system 95 percent of the time during the months covered by the survey, October and November, and only rarely resorted to the old paper-based methods.

"On top of that, we registered something like 52,000 applications in the food stamp program in those two months alone," Brancaccio said. "We could have not absorbed the huge numbers that we have if we didn't have a functioning system."

The Wait for Benefits

Those numbers mean that more cash-strapped New Yorkers are able to eat, and more federal dollars are being funneled into the city's economy through the bodegas, corner stores and grocers that take food stamps. The average monthly food stamp benefit for a family of three is now about $150, and every food stamp dollar spent has an economic impact of $1.70, according to the city comptroller's office.

But the increased caseload may have exacerbated delays. Under state and federal law, a person must begin receiving benefits within 30 days after the city receives the application -- within five days in the neediest cases. A year ago, the administration settled a class action lawsuit in federal court brought by food stamp applicants who had not received their benefits on time. The city agreed to comply with the time limits and make periodic reports showing compliance.

Now, attorneys for the plaintiffs in that settlement say that the city's own reports indicate that it still is late in issuing benefits to roughly a quarter of its applicants. They would not say, however, how late the benefits generally were.

"We tend to measure the data as 'late or not late,'" said plaintiffs' attorney Marc Cohan, director of litigation for the National Center for Law and Economic Justice. "Our view, of course, is that when people are hungry, even a day late is one too many."

Diamond said that given the changes in food stamp offices' procedures and the spike in caseloads, the resulting stress on the system is "only natural," but the agency is working to shorten the wait times.

Anat Gerstein, senior advisor to the Public Advocate, said that her office gets calls every day from people who are caught up in bureaucratic red tape at the food stamp office. She and others worry the situation could get worse as the recession continues.

"More people are going to need food stamps to put food on the their table. This is going to put more pressure on HRA to process more people, and they can't process the people who are walking through the door now," she said.

Diamond does not agree with that assessment, but he is aware that the demand for his department's services has increased at a time when all city agencies are scraping for diminishing resources.

"We remain somewhat optimistic that the stimulus bill, or some other changes, will help," Diamond said. "But in the short run, we're looking at continuing the trends."

"It certainly is a challenge."

A City's New Poverty Guidelines

Just as some of New York's best-paid workers began streaming from humbled investment banks, City Hall made an announcement regarding people at the other end of the economic spectrum. It reported that almost a quarter of New Yorkers live beneath the administration's revised poverty line of $26,138 a year for a family of four. The adjustment, announced in July, increased the city's 2006 poverty rate to 23 percent from the 18.9 percent under existing federal guidelines. The jump wasn't a product of the economic crisis, but of the city government's new way to measure who is poor.

The city's Center for Economic Opportunity developed the new threshold as an alternative to the federal measure, which was introduced in 1969 and is widely considered outdated.

"Since the mid-'60s the economy has vastly changed. So has society and so have government benefits but the poverty formula hasn't adjusted in response," Mayor Michael Bloomberg stated in the city's press release.

The Center for Economic Opportunity hopes the revised measure will aid policymaking by providing a clearer and more nuanced picture of poverty in New York.

How It Works

The new threshold is based on guidelines developed by the National Academy of Sciences that say poverty measures should reflect the cost of food, clothing, shelter and utilities. The existing federal measure focuses primarily on the cost of food, which, over the last few decades, has since shrunk from one third to one eighth of household spending, according to economic opportunity office. Unlike the federal standard, the new threshold also considers out-of-pocket medical expenses and costs associated with employment, such as transportation and childcare, and counts as income government benefits like food stamps and housing vouchers. The federal measure also fails to account for geographic differences.

The net effect, says Mark Levitan, the Center for Economic Opportunity's director for poverty research, provides a better gauge of the effect of government policy.

"What's been the focus of policy in the last 15 years? It's been single moms and their children," said Levitan. The new measure, by taking government benefits into consideration, reflects the impact of this focus. "We see how nutritional assistance programs and tax credits are benefiting those families," he said. Under the new threshold, the number of children in single parent families living below the poverty line decreases by almost three percentage points.

The new measure also exposes areas where policy is lacking. The poverty rate among New Yorkers 65 years old and up balloons from 18 percent under federal guidelines to 32 percent. And the poverty rate for the working poor -- families with at least one full-time worker -- rises from 28 percent to 36 percent.

The Effect on the Poor

While the new measure makes it easier to analyze poverty, for now it won't help alleviate it. The federal government determines eligibility for benefits like food stamps, so the more than 300,000 New Yorkers who are poor by city, but not national, standards will have to wait for change from Capitol Hill.

Levitan believes that the new Congress will address the issue, but he stresses that the city wants a new poverty measure as a policy tool, not a determinant of eligibility. "It would be a little naive to think that New York City engages in a process of measuring poverty, [we] find more poverty, and then we open our pockets expecting billions of new largesse from Washington," he said. "We knew that that wasn't going to happen."

In the meantime, he said, the message to vulnerable New Yorkers is that when the city commits itself to solving a problem, "we don't do these things by the seat of our pants."

It remains to be seen though, whether the poor and the people who work with them have gotten that message.

"This is the first I've heard of it," said Lucia Russett, director of advocacy at Little Sisters of the Assumption, a multi-service community organization in East Harlem.

Her clients are struggling with the rising cost of housing. One woman, married with four children, receives $549 per month in food stamps and another $324 in support from her first child's father. She does not work so she can stay home and take care of her children. Her husband, who has limited use of one arm, receives $660 in Supplemental Security Income and Social Security disability. The family's rent in public housing is $521 per month, leaving little for clothing and other expenses.

"It's great to have another way of getting closer to a more accurate picture of what poverty is in the city, but if it's not effecting any real change at the policy level, that's the next step in this," said Jilly Stephens, executive director of City Harvest, a food rescue nonprofit.

The Prevalence of Poverty

Some also question whether the revised line is generous enough. In 2004, the Women's Center for Education and Career Advancement published a report that calculated "self-sufficiency" standards for New York City families. The report found that households needed incomes of about $50,000 to $78,000 to afford basic expenses for a family of four -- more than twice the city's new poverty line.

While illustrative, these figures don't assist policy making, said Levitan, who estimated that 50 percent of the city lives below such a standard.

"Suppose we had put out a report and we'd said, '50 percent of the city's population is poor,' would that be a guide to policy making? It would be a totally meaningless statement," he said. "Poverty should have a sting to its meaning, and if half the people in the city are poor, then poverty becomes a meaningless concept. Poverty should connote a level of deprivation that is unusual in society."

Even by Levitan's standards, so-called "near poverty" is pervasive. According to the Center for Economic Opportunity, 44 percent of New Yorkers live on less than 150 percent of the revised poverty line, or roughly $39,000 for a family of four.

The new threshold also raises questions about the minimum wage. At the current rate of $7.15 per hour, a full-time employee working year-round earns almost $15,000 annually. If she has one child, her earnings put her above the 2006 federal poverty line for a one-adult, one-child family ($13,895), but leave her beneath the city's figure of $18,280.

"These are the inconsistencies that start coming out as soon as you go down this line, and that's why it's so important that the city begin to dialogue in an official way," said David Jones, president and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York.

He said that the poverty line should be seen only as a first step, but an "extraordinary" one nonetheless.

"The self-sufficiency model is what we think we should move toward, but no one else is proposing even what this mayor and his team have come forward with, so as a first step we can do nothing but applaud," he said.

"It's very good news for people who are advocating for low-income communities, because certainly it could be used to say 'look at how low-income people are living and how this compares to what's possible and what's really livable and dignified,'" said Russett.

Skeptics exist, too. A July New York Post editorial faulted the measure for overlooking income earned in the city's underground economy and suggested that Bloomberg was merely seeking attention.

City Hall's attention to poverty may be prescient. New York City's unemployment rate rose from 5 percent in July to 5.8 percent in August, the biggest monthly increase on record. And overall economic conditions are hampering the work of charitable organizations.

"At a time that organizations like City Harvest are potentially staring down a decrease in donations that fund the types of programs we're providing, we're seeing an increase in the number of people turning to the types of programs that we're supporting," said Stephens of City Harvest. "Our aim is just to do all we can to make sure we can continue delivering the services."


Meeting the Gray Wave

chinatown senior center
Photo (c) Daylife
Seniors playing Chinese Chess at a senior center in Chinatown

While rest of Lower Manhattan grumbled through a Monday, the basement of 100 Gold Street was hopping. In one brightly lit room, a cluster of Chinese immigrants practiced English. Next door, others gyrated in unison to folk music. In the dining hall, scores of guests chattered while a replay of the Olympics closing ceremony flashed on an overhead screen.

Between bites of glazed salmon and bok choy, Yu Chiao Ho Leung, 71, said she started coming to the City Hall Senior Center, run by the community organization Hamilton Madison House, after she lost her job at a garment factory following 9/11. The dancing and mahjong give her a reason to stay active, she said. Otherwise, "I'd be at home watching television. That would be stifling."

At a nearby table, Muriel Gursky, 80, marveled at a study sheet for the test immigrants must take to become naturalized citizens, circulated by her Chinese tablemates. "That's very advanced," she said. "The Constitution and all that... This is very hard stuff."

That same afternoon, a more somber senior gathering took place up the street, on the steps of City Hall: a protest against budget cuts to senior centers in the city's public housing projects.

Standing behind Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, who likened the closure of senior centers to "the bulldozing of [a] town square," elder protesters held up a hand-written sign: "Don't break up our family-Marlboro Senior Center."

This is a challenging time for aging New Yorkers - and for the organizations that care for them. As services for seniors are more needed, and perhaps more endangered, than ever, the Bloomberg administration seeks to dramatically change the way these programs work.

Shaking Up the System

By 2030, one in five New Yorkers will be 60 years old or older as boomers retire, immigrants become grandparents, and medical advances continue to lengthen life spans.

The demographic surge looms over a well-worn, tightly stretched network of agencies that have fed, entertained and counseled the city's elderly for generations. Facing the "gray wave," the Department for the Aging wants to implement a plan the administration believes will make programs more comprehensive and better coordinated.

This involves reshaping three "core services": meal delivery to homebound older people; case management, which coordinates care and benefits; and senior centers that have long anchored older adults in their communities.

Many senior centers grew organically out of local civic and faith organizations, said Caryn Resnick, the aging department's deputy commissioner of external affairs. Now, she said, they need restructuring to adapt to emerging needs - from promoting fitness, to engaging immigrant communities, to reaching out to elderly gay people.

"A lot of it is being able to work with existing resources with really just a different mindset," she said.

But while service providers and officials around the country agree that the aging process is evolving, the city's plan has met resistance from some organizations, who fear it will undermine homegrown, grassroots programs and impose a stiffer, corporate model.

"You do your best job when you can provide meals [and] services locally," said Bobbie Sackman, public policy director with the Council of Senior Centers and Services, "so you understand the community, you understand the culture, you know where the resources are."

The administration's initiative, she said, "is moving away from, 'What does it really mean to be community based... What does it mean to really have a presence within a community?'"

The New Old Age

The rumpled patchwork of senior programs has begun incrementally reworking itself. The city has already launched a new case-management system, and meal delivery is currently being restructured.

The city's plan makes case managers "gatekeepers" who connect seniors to other programs, like meal services, legal help and home-based care. In April, the Department for the Aging initiated new contracts under a revised geographic scheme that reduced the number of case management regions from 32 to 23. Agencies will cover broader swaths of the city, which might encompass various language and cultural groups.

A number of service providers fear the consolidation does not adequately consider the personal and cultural nuances that form the bedrock of more localized programs.

As agencies turned their clients over to new case managers, some groups criticized the handover as abrupt and bureaucratically haphazard, leaving both staff and seniors disoriented.

In Chinatown, seniors who previously received less formal case management from local groups - in tandem with meal deliveries - are now served by a larger organization not based in the Chinese community. Some advocates worry that the new case managers may not be as attuned to Chinese seniors' everyday lives as neighborhood-based providers.

Hong Shing Lee, chief operating officer with the Asian American Federation, which represents community agencies, said cultural competency is a key concern. Even a bilingual provider could be out of touch with cultural norms and fail to monitor clients comprehensively. Under the previous system, which integrated case-management assessments with daily meal delivery, staff would have a "more holistic" view, he said. "They would know where the gaps are."

Meal programs, meanwhile, also are being reshaped. To boost efficiency, the Department for the Aging has consolidated service districts so that providers may ship meals, fresh and frozen, over larger regions. Critics worry that the attention to economies of scale will chill the warmth of traditional, locally rooted programs that deliver hot food from local kitchens, often within the same neighborhood, catering to dietary preferences from Hindu to Kosher.

staff at the Henry Street Settlement's Senior program
Photo (c) Henry Street Settlement and Sari Weintraub

Henry Street Settlement, a Lower East Side-based organization, has partnered with other local groups to apply for a contract under the new scheme. The agencies hope this will enable them to keep delivering meals while maintaining community ties. But administrator Janet Fischer worries that the city is departing from a relatively intimate approach to a "bigger is better" concept.

Under the new contract system, she predicted, "you'll lose the sense of community. You'll lose the sense of involvement... 'Bigger and better' may be great as a machine, but it takes away everything that human service organizations stand for."

Senior Centers of the Future

A basic premise driving the city's plan is that the traditional senior center, which served as a simple gathering spot for meals and conversation, does not fit the lifestyle of increasingly active older adults.

"Today, seniors are looking for volunteer opportunities, they're looking for health promotion programs, they're looking for lifelong education," said Ron Soloway, of UJA-Federation of New York. "So there is a need to transform the senior centers that exist in the city up to the next level."

To upgrade senior centers, Resnick said, the city will establish "a very flexible model that would go from being citywide... to the community." Smaller centers would focus on local services and health-related activities, while larger "multi-service centers" would offer a wider array of programs on a larger scale. In light of the concerns that community groups voiced about the case-management restructuring, the city has slowed down the plan for senior centers and says it has been consulting with community groups to ease the transition.

Covering the Costs

Much of the anxiety the providers express may not stem specifically from the overhaul, but rather from the overarching budget crises that could cripple many senior programs. While budget strains affect the state government, on the city level, aging-services providers face a 3 percent cut to contracts. Federal funds for public housing have also crumbled, threatening scores of senior centers in public housing projects. (About a third of city Housing Authority households are headed by people over age 62.) It is unclear how all this will affect the restructuring efforts.

The idea of modernizing in the face of the fiscal crunch seems unreal to Fischer of Henry Street Settlement.

"Maybe if we're lucky, we'll win this program contract," she said, referring to the group's bid for the meal program. "On the other hand, we may not have a senior center to work from. It's crazy."

"We're setting up systems that continue the basic inadequacies," said Sackman, pointing out that many programs have long waiting lists. The city's overhaul would have been more beneficial, she said, if "it had brought with it maybe some additional funding, maybe lower caseload sizes, maybe a way to do more intensive case management for people that need it. But none of that exists. We just rearranged boundaries."

Nancy Wackstein, executive director of United Neighborhood Houses, an umbrella group, said the dollars lag behind the rhetoric of modernization.

"It's great to talk about enriched services. It's great to talk about expanding needs," she said, "but we haven't seen any plan that talks about how those are going to be addressed and paid for."

Resnick acknowledged the current fiscal uncertainties, but said that service providers could fulfill the aging department's goals while staying within current budget limitations. Ultimately, the city promises to improve services and ensure efficient spending by developing new ways to track the performance of programs.

Citing statistics on meals served at senior centers -- a measurement that critics say is too limited -- the city concludes that more than 40 percent of centers are "chronically underutilized."

"It's very hard to say we need to bring additional dollars to bear when, in fact, we weren't spending the dollars that were actually in the network," Resnick said.

Many providers say that they too want to revamp programs, but that funding gaps impede change, as groups struggle to make even basic improvements, like boosting staff and renovations.

Isabel Ching, who helps run senior services at Hamilton Madison House, wants an opportunity to build on her group's own ideas for innovation, such as offering educational programs, fitness initiatives and group travel overseas. "We can make it a bigger and better program," she said, "but give us that flexibility, give us resources."

Stuart Kaplan, chief executive officer of Selfhelp, which manages several senior centers in Queens, said the modernization is moving in the right direction, but faces "the perfect storm."

"The population's growing, the dollars are down, and innovation is supposed to go up," he said. "Well, it sounds like this triangulation will make it more challenging to achieve the objectives."

Michelle Chen is a freelance reporter in Manhattan and a native New Yorker. 

When Foster Children Become Pregnant

(Adapted from Child Welfare Watch Vol. 16)

Correction: This article originally stated incorrectly that in order to participate in the Nurse-Family Partnership, teens must sign up by their third month of pregnancy. In fact, any low-income, first-time mother-to-be living in one of the Nurse-Family Partnership's service areas can sign sign up for the program as long as she is no more than 28 weeks pregnant. The partnership also has an initiative that targets teens in foster care, where a nurse travels to meet the mothers wherever they reside. The article below has now been corrected.

foster children with kids
Photo by Arpan Munier
Mayra Pacheco with her daughter, now 5

Just before Mayra Pacheco gave birth at age 16, she moved in with a foster mother who owned a brownstone in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. Pacheco had two rooms, a bathroom and even a tiny kitchen for herself, her brother and her soon-to-arrive baby.


Teens present particular challenges for foster parents. What are city agencies and private organizations to help old youngsters in the foster care system stay with families and out of institutions?
Giving Foster Teens a Place to Call Home

What she didn't have was much guidance. Arriving home from the hospital with her newborn daughter, Pacheco was terrified. "It was crazy," Pacheco, now 21, recalls. "It was very scary. I was so young. And I don't have any family members here."

Pacheco found prenatal care for herself at a nearby hospital and took a birthing class there with her boyfriend. But she says her agency never referred her to parenting classes. Her foster mother wasn't around much and did not offer any advice on how to care for a newborn.

As a group, teen mothers face many of the same daunting odds as teenagers in foster care (see related story). Both groups are more likely than their peers to live in poverty and drop out of high school. Yet in New York City, the foster care system has largely overlooked pregnant and parenting teens. The city's Administration for Children's Services does not provide the privately run foster care agencies it oversees with guidelines on services for pregnant and parenting teens. Nor does it keep track of how many teens in the system are pregnant or parenting.

A 2005 survey by the public advocate's office estimated there to be 437 pregnant and parenting teens in the system. But there are only about 42 beds for pregnant teens in the city's maternity shelters and 157 beds for teen moms in residences for mothers and their children. This means most pregnant and parenting teens in foster care live in foster homes.

Yet there are no citywide standards for how foster parents should be trained to help young mothers, and ACS does not measure whether pregnant teens receive prenatal care and instruction in parenting skills. The agency does conduct periodic random reviews to determine whether foster children-pregnant or not-are receiving appropriate medical care. ACS also encourages agencies to refer pregnant teens to the Nurse-Family Partnership, which provides intensive in-home support to new moms for two years.

For teens in foster homes, supervision and assistance generally falls to the foster parents, who must negotiate caring for a teen who is in the foster care system and a baby who is not. "Some foster parents take over and try to parent the baby themselves," said Miranda Seaton, a caseworker at Good Shepherd Services. This can prevent the teen from stepping into the parenting role, she says.

In 1968, Inwood House created the city's only foster home program for young mothers. The agency recruits foster parents to work with teen mothers and has tailored the foster parent training program to include topics like talking to teens about contraception and how to allow your teen to be a teen while teaching them to be a parent. The agency also holds offers a support group for foster parents and provides them with lots of attention, says Norma Uriguen, director of teen family support services.

At 17, Melissa Cueves had a new baby who'd been born with disabilities and was living in a kinship foster home with her aunt, who had four other kids. "I needed all the help I could get," she recalled. Cueves and her aunt went to Inwood House's program. There, Cueves took classes on budgeting, domestic violence and parenting skills. Her social worker accompanied her on doctor's visits and taught her how evaluate daycare centers. And Cueves met a group of peers, some of whom she's still in touch with six years later.

"Everyone was dealing with the same issues as me," she said.

Child Welfare Watch is a joint project of the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School and the Center for an Urban Future. Edited by Andrew White.


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