With New York shut down by the coronavirus pandemic and vulnerable families under threat like never before, lawmakers approved a state budget late last week gutting support for grandparents, neighbors and other kin caring for children who otherwise might be in foster care.
Tucked into the “Aid to Localities” section of a budget delivered to Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) on Friday, roughly half of 19 local kinship programs could be shut down, according to a review of the state budget and pending contract awards, and interviews with advocates and state officials. Funding to those programs will drop in the next fiscal year from $2.2 million to $1.3 million.
New York has been a national leader in funding programs that support as many as 195,000 children in relatives’ homes – the vast majority of whom are not in foster care, but may have faced abuse or neglect in the past. Since 2016, the state has provided a total of $2.5 million for both the case management programs, and Kinship Navigator, a leading information source for grandparents and other kin caring for children. The state also draws some federal kinship funding – $633,988 last year.
In many cases, grandparents and relatives step in to house children despite their own financial hardships, and the cuts are expected to be deeply felt in the nation’s coronavirus epicenter, now being ravaged by health and financial catastrophes. Kinship support programs help caregivers with daily needs – from applying for public assistance, to offering respite and filling gaps in basic necessities.
“Defunding over half of the local programs during a crisis when kinship caregivers will be stepping up in greater numbers to care for children of parents who become ill, work essential jobs, or must be in quarantine, is a giant step backwards,” said Ryan Johnson, associate director of the New York State Kinship Navigator. “Incredibly, while other states are increasing funding for kinship families, New York has chosen to do less.”
Gloria Woods, an octogenarian who has raised a grandchild and a great-grandchild in her Brooklyn apartment, says her nearby kinship program has been essential. The Family Center, the nonprofit running the program, has helped her replace broken furniture, connected her great-grandson with a therapist, and provided her with legal information for protection from a verbally abusive relative, among other social supports and therapeutic recreation.
“Prayer, my backbone, my little village, and The Family Center are what make it work,” Woods said.
She adds that the program also allows her much-needed respite after a half-century of parenting five young people, often alone and juggling clerical jobs at the neighborhood police precinct, and a medical school.
“They take care of caregivers who don’t always do as great a job of taking care of themselves,” Woods said. “Whether you wanna talk about the thorns or the roses, it’s not an easy thing raising another’s child, especially for an older person who is not where the water is blue and the sand is white.”
The Family Center has served roughly 60 children and their families for each of the last five years, at an annual cost of $100,000. Most of the children served have never entered foster care. This month, The Center was expecting to hear from the state’s Office of Children and Family Services about an application to renew their contract
Then the pandemic hit, and the state budget cuts materialized.
“We are now dealing with a pandemic already affecting the families that are most vulnerable. It’s sad that these cuts are being made on the backs of people that can least afford them,” said Ivy Gamble Cobb, co-founder and executive director of The Family Center.
The Center’s kinship program supervisor, Marya Gilborn, added that the cuts to programs like theirs are short-sighted. “Even if you compare serving these kids for 10 years in our program, versus having some of them wind up in foster care for even a year at a cost in the tens of thousands,” she said, “the savings are significant.”
National data provided to The Imprint show there were 2,681 relatives with an active foster care placement in New York in 2019. The roughly 18 percent of New York foster youth living with a relative was well under the national average of 32 percent, according to 2017 federal data.
But many more are cared for by kin outside the purview of child welfare systems, in informal placements that happen without the court oversight or custody orders.
In those cases, financial support, respite, and caseworker support are usually lacking. That’s where programs for grandparents like Woods fill the gap. Now, as the pandemic gives way to a deep recession, it appears these vital networks are in jeopardy.
“To the best we can ascertain, the state senate just didn’t get it done,” said Gerard Wallace, founder and director of the statewide nonprofit, the Kinship Navigator. “Whether it was purposeful or just in error and someone forgot to put the money in, we can’t say. We’re trying to discover what happened.”
In a recent review of the budget, the Schuyler Center for Analysis and Advocacy, an Albany nonprofit, called the local kinship supports “important and cost-effective” – an assessment at least one influential lawmaker agreed with when reached for comment on the budget cuts.
In an emailed statement, Ellen Jaffee, a Democrat who represents New York City’s northern suburbs, described kinship care as “a vital child welfare resource, providing homes outside of foster children for 195,000 New York children who would be in foster care but for their grandparents, aunts, uncles and other relative caregivers.”
Jaffee also said she would have preferred a bigger investment, but the catastrophic times overtook the legislature’s budget process. “Given the hard financial times and the global pandemic, heart-breaking choices had to be made,” Jaffee said. “While I am disappointed by the funding cut, I am committed to finding different avenues of funding for kinship care.”
Michael Fitzgerald can be reached at [email protected]