Yet after heated debate amid an uptick in crime, juvenile justice reforms remain intact and human service workers will receive a wage increase
When Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) announced the passage of the week-late state budget Friday, she touted a $220 billion deal — the largest ever — aimed at helping families recover from a grueling two-year pandemic that has brought disease, job losses, school closures, mental illness and soaring consumer prices.
Although flush with funds, the governor did not agree to invest more heavily in some of the state’s most vulnerable families, including children in foster care or at risk of removal, as well as their struggling parents. Like the governor’s initial spending plan proposed in January, the budget dedicates no new funds for families involved in child welfare, and instead advances tax cuts for the primarily middle-class New Yorkers who own homes and drive cars, plus funds for a new football stadium.
The budget’s marquee investment is $1.3 billion that draws heavily on federal funds to expand subsidized child care to families earning up to 300% of the federal poverty line — an amount that is less than half of the $3 billion the Legislature proposed.
The budget also includes a 5.4% pay boost for human service workers, including foster care case workers, mental health professionals and social workers. The increase does not keep pace with inflation and falls short of the 11% increase for human service workers proposed by the state Assembly’s budget.
And notably, the state spending plan does not increase the pay of Family Court lawyers who represent parents and children in foster care, delinquency and custody cases. Despite a widely-acknowledged “exodus” of such contract attorneys, and the heavy caseloads they carry, the recently passed state budget marks the 19th year they have not received pay increases.
Family Court lawyers make $75 an hour and can carry hundreds of cases, earning less than half of what their counterparts assigned to federal cases make.
Child welfare advocates and some Democratic lawmakers reacted with disappointment to the final budget released last week, after extensive campaigning for far greater investments in foster care prevention and family supports. Some noted the state’s $600 million investment in a new facility for the Buffalo Bills football team as an illustration of contrasting priorities for taxpayer funds.
“It just feels icky to spend all this money on a stadium when we’re barely taking care of those who are barely hanging on,” said Jennifer March, executive director of the Citizens Committee for Children.
Raise the Age reform escapes rollbacks
One of the biggest wins for children’s advocates this month was something that didn’t make it into the final state budget: a set of legislative proposals, introduced by Gov. Hochul amid a surge in pandemic-era gun violence, that would have rolled back portions of the state’s Raise the Age juvenile justice reform laws. Hochul’s proposal, which also drew the support of New York City Mayor Eric Adams, would have made it easier to prosecute 16- and 17-year-olds in adult criminal court for gun possession charges, and allowed judges expanded access to records of justice-involved youth.
Those changes to state law were not made. But under the recently passed budget, Family Court will have new jurisdiction to hear certain cases transferred from criminal court. They involve young people accused of committing crimes before their 18th birthday, yet whose cases did not reach Family Court until after they became legal adults. Now, the statute of limitations in those circumstances will extend to a young person’s 20th birthday.
In the past, it has been possible for youth to have their cases dropped altogether if prosecutors didn’t deliver Family Court filings in time for an accused youth nearing their 18th birthday — although such instances are rare, according to Brad Hansen of the statewide advocacy group Families Together. Gov. Hochul has described this change, sought by some prosecutors, as closing “problematic loopholes” in the 2017 Raise the Age reform.
In response to an inquiry by The Imprint, Nicholas Paolucci, a spokesman for the New York City Law Department, said the clarification is a “step in the right direction.” The changes “allow older youth charged with violent offenses to be held accountable and not avoid liability or lose their chance for rehabilitation due to their age,” Paolucci stated.
New additions to the Family Court Act in the budget also clarify that young people should be offered voluntary rehabilitative services like counseling, treatment, substance-abuse or educational programs before a court petition is filed and they appear at a hearing.
Paolucci said these amendments will be “critical” to public safety and decreasing gun violence, but added “it is important that there be more specificity in the legislation identifying services and providing the resources so that they are not an unfunded mandate.”
Julia Davis, director of youth justice and child welfare at the Children’s Defense Fund also said further investments are critical to stemming crime.
“We cannot miss the opportunity to reach the root causes here,” she said. “Creating a continuum of services and improving conditions in poor communities similar to what exists in affluent communities is where we must head.”
Some upstate Republican lawmakers had endorsed the Democratic governor’s law-and-order proposal, but Hochul’s plan met strong resistance from Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, progressive lawmakers and a statewide coalition of advocacy groups.
In late March, the Raise the Age Coalition, which included groups such as Youth Represent and the New York Civil Liberties Union, rallied alongside Democratic lawmakers Sen. Jabari Brisport, Assemblymember Latrice Walker and Assemblymember Richard Gottfried to reject any changes to juvenile justice reforms. Walker even engaged in a hunger strike to protest the legislation, according to Spectrum News 1 coverage.
After the final budget was passed, however, juvenile justice experts who spoke to The Imprint did not appear to have significant concerns about the relatively minor changes to the 2017 landmark reform law.
No new money for foster care prevention and lawyers
New York’s 2022-23 spending plan, up 3.8% from last year, comes as analysis by the comptroller’s office shows the states’ finances in the strongest position in years, bolstered by billions of dollars in unspent federal pandemic aid and booming tax receipts from the state’s top earners.
“It’s deplorable that in its financial position, the state couldn’t find the funds for kids and families who need a little bit more support at the community level so that they don’t end up in more expensive, intensive systems later on,” said Jeremy Kohomban, president and CEO of the New York City-based Children’s Village. “It’s just unconscionable, in terms of some of the other things the state is investing in.”
Despite united support from the Legislature in their budgets released in mid-March, the final state budget did not dedicate more funds for foster care prevention services like family therapy, or to cover the cost of higher payments to foster parents, which will be required under a recent legal settlement starting in July. Instead, both of those costs will remain with county governments.
Nor did the budget provide a dedicated funding stream for subsidies to kinship caregivers, as the Senate had proposed; the program will continue to be funded out of the state’s Foster Care Block Grant.
The failure to fund lawyers for children and families also left many dismayed.
Last summer, a coalition of bar associations representing tens of thousands of lawyers sued the state on the grounds that the lack of access to legal representation violates children’s and parents’ constitutional rights to effective counsel. The state Senate had proposed doubling the lawyers’ pay in its budget plan, but for the coming year, the rates will remain at the rate set in 2003.
“I am very concerned that the attorneys who do this work currently are not going to be able to afford to continue to do it, because they are barely hanging on,” said Albany attorney Lorraine Silverman. “A good lawyer for these children can help to change the trajectory of a child’s life — it can mean the difference between being placed in a secure facility or going home.”
In response to inquiries by The Imprint, the chairs of the Senate and Assembly judiciary committees — and a spokesperson for the state’s top judge — underscored the ongoing urgency of stemming further losses of qualified attorneys for high-stakes child abuse and neglect proceedings. Such cases determine whether a child is removed to foster care or reunited with their parent, and can lead to the permanent severing of a parent’s rights to their child.
State Sen. Brad Hoylman (D) said he is “very disappointed” that the next state budget will not include raises.
“Overworked attorneys haven’t been properly compensated for this exhausting yet critical work for nearly two decades, which has led to year-long waits for court dates and an incredibly overstretched system that is desperate for resources,” Hoylman said.
Michael Fitzgerald contributed to this report.