In her first budget blueprint for New York, which is entering year three of the pandemic newly flush with revenue, Gov. Kathy Hochul has answered a years-long call to increase pay for human service workers. Yet the Democratic governor proposed few changes to existing foster care funding or policies.
In recent weeks, leaders of child welfare agencies and advocates have pored over the nearly 1,000-page budget document she released Jan. 18 to understand its potential impacts. So far the most striking element for industry-watchers in Hochul’s $216 billion proposal is a 5.4% cost-of-living adjustment for the roughly 800,000 human service workers statewide. Of the $500 million allocated for the raises, roughly $10.5 million would be spent on child welfare workers, according to an analysis by the Schuyler Center for Analysis and Advocacy.
The money would increase wages for nonprofit agency workers who serve children and their families and caregivers in the foster care system, as well as the elderly and people living with mental illness, developmental disabilities, homelessness and substance abuse disorders. The increase, if approved by the Democrat-controlled Legislature, would fulfill long-deferred pay increases first signed into law in 2006.
All told, the governor’s “ambitious agenda holds great promise for improving the lives of the state’s children, youth, and families,” Office of Children and Family Services Commissioner Sheila Poole told lawmakers at a Feb. 2 budget hearing.
Nonprofit foster care agencies have struggled with high turnover and difficulty attracting employees, from frontline workers to clinical staff who provide therapeutic care.
Child welfare experts say job turnover should be kept to 12% or less. But a report by the Council of Family and Child Caring Agencies found that roughly 1 in 4 New York case planners, residential care staff and foster care prevention service workers left their jobs in 2020. And there are signs that employee attrition has accelerated among frontline workers in high-stress, low-paying jobs during the pandemic. At Northern Rivers, a foster and residential care agency that employs 1,400 people, for example, turnover has recently been as high as 32%, CEO Bill Gettman said.
In a multiyear campaign, the Human Services Council of New York, a trade group representing nonprofits, framed wage increases as a “key issue of equity” for an essential sector powered largely by women and people of color, who are a majority of the workforce. Nearly half of human service employees are women of color.
In an interview, Assemblymember Andrew Hevesi (D), who chairs his chamber’s committee on children and families, decried the “brutal” underpayment of the “heroes” working in foster care, foster care prevention and child care during the nearly 11-year tenure of former Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D).
“The former administration, they looked at it as, ‘We don’t have to pay them because they’re doing the work anyway,’” Hevesi said. “This is the first time I’ve seen the governor agree in their opening salvo that we need to pay more — that’s a win.”
On top of the cost-of-living increases, leaders of child welfare nonprofits are now pressing the governor to include their staff in her proposal to grant retention bonuses of up to $3,000 for health care and behavioral health workers. The governor has allocated a total of $1.2 billion for the one-time benefits, which so far do not include those working in the foster care system.
Thanks to higher than expected tax revenues and billions in unspent federal aid, Hochul’s budget proposal includes a surplus of more than $6 billion. And for the first time, it includes no gaps in future years: State Budget Director Robert Mujica projects multimillion-dollar surpluses through fiscal year 2027.
The governor’s proposal allocates roughly $4.2 billion to the Office of Children and Family Services, which oversees child welfare, youth justice and child care, an increase of about 2.5% compared with two years ago.
Beyond the cost-of-living increases, Hochul’s budget also proposes a 27% increase for adoption subsidies for children with special needs, sibling groups and children age 10 or older. The move follows a December legal settlement requiring the state to change how it calculates maintenance payments for foster parents to reflect the “true cost” of caring for a child; historically, that same method has been used to calculate adoption subsidy rates. On the other hand, the proposed budget does not include additional state funds to offset the higher foster payments, leaving counties to foot the bill.
Another notable new investment in Hochul’s budget is an additional $11 million to expand the Healthy Families New York home-visiting program for new parents who need extra help — services well-liked by families and supported by scientific research — nearly doubling the total budget to $20 million.
And amid an alarming rise in violent gun crimes across the state, Hochul proposed to triple funding for the SNUG youth street outreach program to roughly $25 million. The program, which currently operates in 12 of the state’s largest cities, hires community members to engage with and provide support to teens and young adults at high risk of becoming involved in violence. The new funds will help expand the program to Utica, Niagara Falls and Schenectady, bring gun violence specialists to all 22 of New York State’s trauma centers, and expand workforce training.
Hochul has announced a total investment of $1.4 billion for child care subsidies, up from $840 million two years ago. That allocation includes $75 million to fund a one-time pay boost for the workforce of nearly 50,000, which amounts to roughly $1,500 per person.
Still, advocates said they had hoped for more from the governor, who has been an outspoken supporter of child care and recently led the state’s Child Care Availability Task Force. The nearly 100 members of the Empire State Campaign for Child Care called the governor’s proposal “disappointing,” and the Western New York Women’s Foundation said it “does not meet the urgent needs early childhood educators are facing.”
The governor has so far outlined few specific changes to children and family services, maintaining the prior year’s funding for foster care prevention, stipends for foster parents and kinship services.
In interviews with The Imprint, child welfare advocates and some state legislators said that may indicate she is leaving more in-depth work on funding and policy to be done by the Legislature.
The governor has until Feb. 17 to amend her budget proposal. Meanwhile, the Senate and Assembly are preparing their so-called “one-house budgets,” which will be made public in mid-March. That sets off a hectic two-week sprint to negotiate the final adopted budget with the governor by the March 31 deadline; the next fiscal year begins April 1.
To some observers, the proposal of mostly flat funding for children’s services is a relief. In years past, former Gov. Cuomo often kicked off the budget process by proposing cuts to human services — ranging from 5% to as much as 20% for some programs at the pandemic’s height last year.
This year is different. Rather than having to fight budget cuts, advocates and lobbyists for the industry serving the child welfare system are pressing for large-scale, longer-term investments. The chairs of the Assembly and Senate committees on children and families are backing a bill — so far supported by more than 50 of their colleagues — that would significantly increase funding for a wide range of family supports and services for children.
The expansive Children and Families Reinvestment Act would raise the state’s reimbursement for county child welfare and foster care prevention services from 62% to 65%, directing roughly $30 million in additional funding to cash-strapped county governments — an effort Hevesi has called his top priority this year.
The bill would create separate funding for kin caregivers and guardians, rather than drawing from the foster care block grant, and increase kinship support services statewide. Additionally, it would create a new state fund for community-based services to support families before they are at risk of foster care placement; the federal Family First Prevention Services Act, which took effect in New York last fall, only funds programs for families that have already fallen under the eye of the child welfare system.
Another major aim of the Children and Families Reinvestment Act is to develop a statewide universal child care system, a massive effort that co-sponsors and advocates say will require increasing the child care budget to $5 billion — a far greater investment than what the governor is calling for.
Hevesi said the legislation prioritizes early support for families facing difficulty, rather than continuing “stupid government” that relies on costly emergency systems like foster care, homeless services and criminal justice.
“We have to go for all of it now and redirect the system into one that actually prevents trauma and helps kids who are traumatized,” he said. “We don’t have the luxury of picking one or two wins a year and letting time go by, because we’ll lose kids.”
More than a dozen statewide advocacy agencies are backing the bill, including the Council of Family and Child Caring Agencies, the New York chapter of the Children’s Defense Fund, Schuyler Center for Analysis and Advocacy, Families Together in New York State, and the New York State Kinship Navigator. So far there appears to be little formal opposition in this Democrat-led state, but it is still early in the legislative season.
While acknowledging the distance between the governor’s proposed funding for child welfare and child care and the Children and Families Reinvestment Act, Hevesi expressed optimism that lawmakers will be able to secure greater support for vulnerable children and families.
“It’s a good amount of ground, and it’s completely doable,” he told The Imprint. “I don’t think I’ve ever been in a situation before where everybody who was involved in a budget negotiation was operating in good faith.”
Adilia Watson contributed to this report.