Sixteen years ago, in the wake of 9/11, then-New York Gov. George Pataki (R) delivered an impassioned speech about rebuilding his shattered state, starting with its children. He spoke evocatively about the dignity of all children, including a few who wrote poems in the memory of fallen first responders, and specifically about overhauling the education system and expanding health care access for youth.
“By recommitting ourselves to a bold new agenda of reform and renewal, by unleashing the heroic spirit of the past four months, we can build a future for our children that’s even brighter than we envisioned four months ago,” Pataki said.
Months later, in 2002, Pataki quietly signed a reform called the Child Welfare Financing Law, which in hindsight looks as bold a reform attempt as his more public efforts in health care and education. The law overhauled how the state served its most vulnerable children by creating a generous reimbursement for counties that invest in support services for families accused of child maltreatment. The plan has been hailed by state and national advocates as a model for helping families before removing a child to foster care becomes necessary.
Now the program is at the center of a vigorous debate and the subject of bitter public statements between state and city officials as New York faces a $4.4 billion budget shortfall. In January, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) proposed placing a cap of $320 million on the state’s funding for child welfare in New York City.
Some city and state officials and advocates who spoke to The Imprint aren’t sure the Governor would follow through with such a proposal.
“This is just part of the budget ritual for Albany, part of that deal-making dance,” said State Sen. Jose Peralta (D), who represents Queens and sent a letter last week to Cuomo’s office opposing such a move. “But if [advocates] don’t push the panic button then we actually get these cuts,” he warned.
Not taking any chances, other opponents of the move have ratcheted up criticism in the past two weeks, as negotiations between the legislature and governor continue in Albany.
“I see it as a major assault on the  legislation, and the spirit and intent of it,” said Bill Baccaglini, CEO of the nonprofit New York Foundling, which contracts with New York City to provide services to foster youth and struggling families. “I don’t know of a proposal that has gone this far,” added Baccaglini, who worked as a policy aide in state government with the Pataki administration 16 years ago to pass that law.
Child welfare research and advocacy groups across the city and state echoed his concern, with several calling the proposal “dangerous,” coming at time when the state is receiving an especially high volume of child abuse or neglect reports in the wake of several high-profile child deaths in recent years.
The governor’s proposal comes on the heels of recently passed national legislation that could significantly alter New York’s federal reimbursements for child welfare services. The Family First Prevention Services Act, which became law in early February and takes effect in early 2019, would offer more federal funds for preventing the use of foster care and less funds for the use of group homes and congregate care placements.
The state fought passage of Family First, fearing a projected $200 million loss in federal funds. Many providers and advocates in New York City supported the bill.
Pataki’s 2002 law provides reimbursement to the city to support struggling families at roughly two-thirds of cost, for services like parenting skills training. Overall spending on preventive services in the state shot up from $310 million in 2002 to $664 million in 2008, according to the Office of Child and Family Services (OCFS). The city has been by far the biggest consumer of state dollars through the uncapped fund, spending $320 million last year.
In his 2019 budget proposal, Cuomo would put a cap on state funding for the city’s matched child welfare services at $320 million, which the budget proposal describes as the city’s total spending for the current year. The city was projected to receive $449 million for fiscal 2019 under the current formula.
In a letter written to the governor and both houses of the state legislature, David Hansell, the commissioner of the city’s child welfare agency, the Administration for Children’s Services, argued that the governor’s proposal threatens to set the city back decades.
“The last time the state made such drastic cuts to New York City’s child welfare system, the results were disastrous,” Hansell said in the four-page letter, which also advocated for the benefits of the uncapped state funding.
In an e-mail to The Imprint, Morris Peters, a spokesperson for the Cuomo administration’s Department of Budget wrote that the city’s arguments are “without merit.”
The state’s spending woes required a budget that “reflect a change in the New York State and New York City overall fiscal relationship,” said the spokesperson. “Given the state’s budget gap of $4.4 billion, the state’s increase in support for the city’s budget in the Executive Budget, and the significant reserves already held by the city, this change is reasonable and understandable.”
Eric Ferrero, deputy commissioner for the city’s Administration for Children’s Services, disagreed in an e-mail to The Imprint: “These would be the most drastic cuts to child welfare in New York City in decades, affecting our core protective and preventive work — and because the state proposes a major shift in how funding is calculated, the impact could be even worse in future years.”
The number of foster youth in New York State, meanwhile, has dropped by over two thirds, from 53,000 in 1995 to just over 16,000 in 2016, with much of the drop occurring in New York City in the early 2000s. There were just fewer than 9,000 youth in foster care last year, according to ACS data, compared to 34,000 in 2000.
Supporters say the funds helped spur the massive decline in foster care placements, after decades of controversy and litigation over conditions in the New York City foster care system, and the negative outcomes for youth who were placed in it.
“The current system has really helped lower the foster care numbers. If it’s working, don’t mess with it. This is about kids’ lives,” Peralta says.