When New York lawmakers released their proposed state spending plans late Sunday, one thing quickly became clear: The more than $3 billion investment in child care they sought would be historic, and go well beyond what Gov. Kathy Hochul had initially proposed.
Now, policy experts who have pored over the hundreds of pages of budget documents, say the Legislature is also seeking dramatic increases in spending on child welfare. The Senate and Assembly want increased funding for foster care prevention, caregiver subsidies and pay for human service workers and lawyers. All told, the priorities reflect a growing recognition: Foster care should be avoided if possible, and if children must be taken from parents, they should remain with relatives and close kin whenever possible.
Kate Breslin, President and CEO of the nonprofit Schuyler Center for Analysis and Advocacy in Albany, called the budget proposals finalized last weekend in both houses “investments in child welfare the likes of which we have not seen in more than a decade.”
In her January executive budget, Hochul proposed a more modest investment in children and families as part of a $216 billion statewide spending plan. But a majority of state lawmakers say it doesn’t go far enough. According to an Assembly press release and a statement from the Senate finance chair, both chambers want to spend roughly $226.4 billion over the next fiscal year — although legislative staffers in both parties told The Imprint the Senate proposal could reach $230 billion. Following negotiations between the lawmakers and the governor, a final state budget must be adopted by March 31.
“Now, kids in New York state will have places to go to prevent trauma from happening in the first place, and also to receive the emotional and social support they need if they do get traumatized,” said Assemblymember Andrew Hevesi, a Democrat who chairs his chamber’s committee on children and families, in an interview with The Imprint. “We still have a lot of work to do, but this is a floor from which we can now operate safely — we weren’t standing on a stable base before.”
Several budget items have support in both houses, increasing their odds of passage in the final state budget. Those include:
Foster care prevention
Outside of New York City, cash-strapped local governments have struggled to afford services that help keep families together, such as home visiting, family therapy and crisis intervention, according to a survey of county social service departments cited in New York’s foster care prevention plan.
Now, state lawmakers are pushing to restore the share of prevention services paid for by the state to 65%, as written in state law. After the 2008 financial crisis, former Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) cut the rate to 62%; the Assembly’s new budget proposal would add $30 million to cover the cost of returning to the higher rate.
College support for foster youth
Both houses of the Legislature included $720,000 for the Foster Youth College Success Initiative, which provides academic, social and financial support for New York college students. If adopted along with an equal investment proposed by Gov. Hochul, the funds would increase the program’s budget by 20%, allowing increased enrollment and more direct financial support, said Deidra Nesbeth, director of the Fostering Youth Success Alliance.
Tax relief for working families
Lawmakers also want the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit significantly increased, which would benefit low-income taxpayers. Under the Assembly’s proposals, the funds would be available to families in four installments, rather than once a year, and provided to non-citizen taxpayers, including families with undocumented household members.
Assemblymember Hevesi said sending these funds directly to parents is “one of the most important anti-poverty, trauma-fighting tools we have.”
Child care expansion
Both houses of the Legislature are also proposing a massive infusion in subsidized child care to serve working families: The Assembly outlined a plan to allocate $3 billion this year, while the Senate proposed $2.2 billion for child care this year and 3.7 billion next year, which would have to be passed in that year’s budget.
The proposals would gradually raise the amount a family could earn and still receive state-funded child care, which is currently set at 200% of the federal poverty level. The Assembly wants that rate doubled, while the Senate proposed a ceiling of 500% above the poverty rate. That would allow a family of four making roughly $140,000 to receive subsidized care. Both chambers also call for $200 million for building, renovating or expanding child care sites.
Pre-K for 4-year-olds would also be expanded outside of New York City under the statehouse plans, with the Assembly proposing $150 million and the Senate proposing $250 million.
Four other child welfare spending proposals are also included in the Assembly or Senate budgets. These proposals remain in play, although they are not quite as likely to make it into the final budget as those with support from both houses of the Legislature. They include:
Funds for kin caregivers
The vast majority of New Yorkers caring for children in their extended network do not seek financial support through the formal foster care system, and most are older adults with limited incomes, according to a recent report by the state chapter of the AARP.
Financial support available to caregivers through the Kinship Guardianship Assistance Program (KinGAP) currently comes from the state’s foster care block grant. But this year, the Senate proposed a separate funding stream of $25 million for the subsidies.
Kinship advocates and at least 62 lawmakers say separating KinGAP funding would prevent child welfare agencies from having to choose whether to spend limited resources on children in foster care and at risk of removal, or on those already living with extended family or close friends.
Higher pay for workers
While both state lawmakers and the governor want to raise wages for child welfare workers, the Assembly’s proposal — an 11% cost of living adjustment — is double the figure proposed by the others. The raises would also be extended to foster care prevention workers under the Assembly plan.
Foster and residential care agencies have long struggled with recruitment and retention of staff, but turnover endemic to the industry accelerated during the pandemic. Women and people of color make up the majority of the human service workforce, according to a report released last summer by the statewide Human Services Council. That makes the push for higher pay “a racial, gender and economic justice issue,” Assemblymember Michaelle Solages said at a virtual rally for Just Pay Tuesday organized by the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus, which she chairs.
“We’re essential — we’ve been fighting through COVID, we work through holidays, we work through anything they put in front of us — and a little help would go a long way,” Diloo Brown said during the rally. He works with youth with developmental disabilities on Long Island and supports a minimum wage of $21. “I love my job, but at the same time I have to be able to care for myself.”
Foster and adoptive parent boosts
The state Assembly has proposed providing $55 million to offset higher payments for foster parents, which county child welfare agencies may soon be required to provide under the terms of a recent court settlement. If approved, payments to foster parents could increase as much as 46% per child, costing about $200 million in all, according to the New York Public Welfare Association, which represents county social service departments.
The Assembly budget calls for nearly $27 million to fund higher adoption subsidy payments. The subsidies are available to families who adopt sibling groups, children with medical or special needs, children ages 10 and older of all races and those 8 and older who come from communities of color.
More pay for legal representation
Poor pay in New York for Family Court attorneys has long been widely acknowledged, in high-level reports and a recent lawsuit.
In November, 10 bar associations sued the city and state, alleging rock-bottom pay rates for lawyers representing Family Court clients deprives vulnerable families of access to effective counsel. Since 2004, the hourly rate for these attorneys on state cases has been capped at $75. The low pay means these attorneys often have to take more cases and spend less time on each of them, or further overwhelm caseloads with private pay clients to supplement their income, according to a 2019 report from the Commission on Parental Representation.
The state’s failure to keep pace with the market rate for attorneys “perpetuates a dehumanizing experience that has a disparate impact on Black and Latino litigants,” said Anne-Marie Jolly, administrative judge of the New York City Family Court, in the lawsuit.
To address some of these widely acknowledged problems, the Office of Parent Representation has asked for $9 million to improve the quality of parents’ legal support. The funds would pay for training for attorneys on child welfare law and the hiring of support staff, including social workers and parent advocates with personal experience in the child welfare system.
In making the case for more robust funding, Angela Burton, the director of quality enhancement for parental representation at the state Office of Indigent Legal Services said in an interview Friday: “We’re fighting against an unjust system that destroys families, and we’re just asking for some funding to start to reduce the impact of that harm.”
In January, the governor proposed spending $2.5 million on these efforts — the first time such items have been included in an executive budget. While the Assembly proposed adding an additional $2.5 million this week, the Senate proposed adding $6.5 million to fulfill the office’s complete request.
Furthermore, the Senate’s plan would address the problem of low pay for lawyers assigned to represent low-income parents and children in family court by doubling their hourly rate.
That would go a long way in addressing widespread problems: Court-appointed counsel for low-income parents in Family Court are self-employed and fund their own health care, taxes, retirement, technology, transportation and office space. They also foot the costs for paralegals and administrative staff.
Longtime attorney Karen Crandall — who has represented children and parents in the Capital District for nearly three decades — advises new lawyers to stay clear of the work she loves. She is among those connected with the state’s most vulnerable families who would be better able to help should the Legislature’s budget proposals be signed by the governor.
If things don’t change, Crandall said, “I’d tell them to get a job with the state where you have benefits. “Here you don’t have days off, or a retirement. I joke that I’ll probably die at my desk.”