Dozens of Democratic legislators in New York are pushing for a major new spending bill that would create a statewide fund for family support services, increase funds for preventing abuse and neglect, and universalize access to child care in the state.
For much of former Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s decade-long tenure, the state budget process was an annual battle by child-serving agencies against funding cuts and program consolidations. But with a vocal advocate for families now in the governor’s office and the state in a stable financial position, lawmakers are seizing the moment to bundle a diverse range of services into a single piece of legislation — one that could drive the largest state allocation for children and families in years.
Last week, Queens Assemblymember Andrew Hevesi (D) and Brooklyn Sen. Jabari Brisport (D) called on Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) to use the next state budget to enact a three-part Children and Families Reinvestment Act that would develop community-centered approaches to family support, expand funding for existing child welfare and preventive programs, and create a universal child care system.
The total cost of the new bill has not yet been estimated, a spokesperson for Assemblymember Hevesi said.
“New York State’s children and families can come back stronger post-pandemic if we make the necessary investments in their future,“ wrote the lawmakers, each the chair of his chamber’s Committee on Children and Families, in a letter signed by 50 of their Democratic colleagues in the Legislature. “We are resolved to provide this foundation to ensure that our children are not doomed or defined by the trauma inflicted upon them.”
The proposal has been met with near universal praise and optimism from leaders of child-serving agencies, who say major investment in the area is long overdue.
“It’s the right time because there’s a growing consensus that the human service system is underfunded, and broken in many places,” said Bill Gettman, CEO of the foster agency Northern Rivers. “Now we have a brand-new governor who’s smart and working hard, and there’s support in the legislature from some very smart people.”
The act drew the immediate endorsement of Prevent Child Abuse New York, the Schuyler Center for Analysis and Advocacy and several other powerful organizations in New York.
The proposal represents “a new framework for thinking about the whole child,” wrote Julia Davis, director of youth justice and child welfare at the New York Chapter of the Children’s Defense Fund.
“We are so excited about this incredible, bold vision for supporting kids and families across many different areas,” said Kathleen Brady-Stepien, president and CEO of the Council of Family and Child Caring Agencies, which represents foster care agencies statewide. “It’s a huge deal to lift this up as a collection of advocates and say, ‘Here’s everything that children and families need to build back as a state.’”
One of the act’s key measures would dedicate state dollars to a new Child and Family Wellbeing Fund set up to foster the growth of family support programs, often called primary prevention, that aim to prevent abuse or neglect by helping parents before problems become crises. Some efforts would be led by local child welfare agencies, such as neighborhood family resource centers designed to host parenting groups, family activities and information on child development and referrals to existing programs. In New York City, outgoing Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) committed this year to expanding from three family centers to 30.
Other family supports would be embedded within standalone community organizations — allowing parents to access resources without fear of attracting unnecessary surveillance by child protective workers. For example, the funding could help an existing organization add classes on child development and managing behavioral issues, or respond to parents’ needs by developing its own supportive services. Counties could even draw funds to offer cash assistance to families and youth in need, covering expenses from furnishings to technology to transportation.
“We need to focus on keeping children and families from getting more involved in the child welfare system than they need to be,” said Richard Heyl de Ortiz, who leads training at Court Appointed Special Advocates of New York State. “Right now primary prevention funding is very piecemeal, and it’s important for us to do better.”
New state investment in early support services would complement federal funding provided by the Family First Prevention Services Act, a federal law that will help states pay for more evidence-based interventions designed for struggling families who have already come under the eye of child welfare workers.
The second part of the Children and Families Reinvestment Act would send a fresh wave of funding to existing family support programs, including restoring the rate at which the state will match counties’ spending on prevention services to the original 65%, up from 62%. The statewide Kinship Navigator program would see new funds, allowing it to expand aid to relatives caring for children outside the foster system, as would the KinGap program, which supports youth leaving foster care for permanent placements with kin caregivers.
It would also funnel more aid directly to children and families, including by expanding the state child tax credit. Housing subsidies for older foster youth and families at risk of losing their children to foster care would increase, reviving an effort begun in the past session.
The final piece of the bill, and the one that would likely benefit the most families, is the creation of a statewide universal child care system. While the proposal doesn’t lay out a specific plan for building out such a system, this month Sen. Brisport introduced a bill that would tap federal funds to bring no-cost child care to the entire state within four years of passage, with first priority for low-income families and children with disabilities or child welfare involvement. Last week, Sen. Jessica Ramos (D) of Queens and Assemblymember Sarah Clark (D) of Rochester introduced their own universal child care bill that would be funded through a new tax on businesses with a quarterly payroll greater than $625,000. Their bill would also require sliding-scale payments from families earning more than 400% of the federal poverty line.
Hochul spent the past summer crisscrossing the state on a “child care appreciation tour.” Since 2018, both she and Office of Children and Family Services Commissioner Sheila Poole have chaired the Child Care Availability Task Force, a nearly 30-member workgroup charged with assessing the gaps in the current system and recommending fixes.
In a 53-page report released this spring, the task force stopped short of advocating for a universal child care system, but called on the state — then led by former Gov. Cuomo — to increase subsidies so that no family would pay more than 10% of their income. Highlighting parents’ need for child care in order to work, the group concluded that fostering equitable economic growth ”requires a dramatically different approach to child care: one that recognizes that high-quality child care is a public good and that provides the necessary public investment.”
The governor’s response to the full Children and Families Reinvestment Act may come as soon as Jan. 5, when she delivers her first State of the State address on the first day of the new legislative session.
Advocates for the bill are hopeful that she’ll be persuaded by their expansive vision of how life could change for millions of New Yorkers if leaders make a major investment in family support programs.
“We’d see a continued reduction in children in foster care, a reduction of children in poverty, and educational gains for all children,” said Gettman. “We’d have an improved workforce, and more equity in how we treat families who are poor and people of color. This would be a real game changer for families and kids and communities.”