Three days into her new role as governor of New York, Kathy Hochul has yet to mention how she will serve the 16,686 children in foster care across the state. Yet leaders of the nonprofit sector who serve foster youth are hopeful that Democratic Gov. Hochul will take a more active interest in supporting the state’s most vulnerable families than former Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D).
Tests of her commitment will play out in the coming months, as she chooses whether to sign or veto critical child welfare legislation that is on her desk.
Taking office as the Delta variant drives a new surge of coronavirus cases, Hochul told New Yorkers this week that her top priorities are to control the pandemic, open schools safely and expedite the delivery of pandemic relief funds to struggling families.
She also staked out a contrast to the opaque political tactics of her predecessor, pledging to make transparency a “hallmark” of her administration and to “focus on open, ethical governing that New Yorkers will trust.”
Hochul also acknowledged the historic injustice that haunts the lives of the neediest children and families, declaring: “It’s our time to make greater progress ending the ugly specter of systemic racism.”
For many child welfare leaders, Hochul’s first public address as governor inspired confidence.
“I heard a willingness, a desire and a conviction that change is coming, both to government and to our priorities,” said Jeremy Kohomban, CEO of Children’s Village, serving children in the New York City area.
The future of several child welfare bills that passed in this year’s legislative session is now in Hochul’s hands. They include legislation enabling courts to order continued contact between a child and a birth parent after a termination of parental rights ruling; allowing youth who left foster care as teens and now face homelessness to re-enter and receive financial and housing supports; and a new formal designation for “kinship caregivers,” enabling better access to public benefits.
Hochul also has the opportunity to sign significant juvenile justice reforms into law — including legislation that would raise the minimum age of arrest from 7 to 12; ban the use of handcuffs or shackles on anyone 21 or younger appearing in family court; and seal the records of juvenile offenders.
A sampling of child welfare leaders and advocates for children in foster care told The Imprint that Hochul’s brief remarks this week inspired optimism — some enthusiastic, some cautious — that her administration will provide more willing leadership than Cuomo on issues critical to struggling New York children and families.
“Child welfare was not really top of mind for our previous governor,” said Richard Heyl de Ortiz, training director for the state’s court-appointed special advocates program and former head of the statewide coalition for adoptive and foster families. “It’s a new day, a blank slate.”
Hochul, who turns 63 this week, grew up in a working-class Irish Catholic family in the suburbs of Buffalo. Her family was active in church outreach programs that served families living in poverty, Hochul told a local TV news station in 2017.
Joyce McMillan, an advocate for parents who has called for the abolition of foster care, said she was “less optimistic” that Gov. Hochul would make fundamental changes to the child welfare system — in large part because of her close ties to Office of Children and Families Services Commissioner Sheila Poole. The two recently co-chaired a task force on child care availability.
McMillan wants to see more radical reforms that upend the current system by shifting resources to the families who lose their children to foster care — before that separation ever occurs.
“Instead of giving the foster families money, give that subsidy to families so that they can thrive,” she said. McMillan added that the state needs to “stop putting them in a situation where they don’t have food at home, where they’re leaving their 9-year-old watching a 2-year-old because they’re trying to work a miniscule job.”
Several other advocates expressed similar urgency about better supporting families in New York, which has been among the slowest states in the nation to disburse federal rent relief funds. Housing instability and related factors can be a significant driver of children entering foster care — yet as of Tuesday, New York had distributed just 8% of the $2.7 billion dollars it received from the federal government, according to a recent statement by Gov. Hochul.
“The more resources families have in general, the better off they’re going to be — especially if they come into the crosshairs of child welfare,” said Brad Hansen, policy director of Families Together in New York State, an advocacy coalition.
In the state’s most recent budget, legislators successfully lobbied former Gov. Cuomo to include new child care subsidies for low-income parents — another social support considered crucial for impoverished families at risk of entering the child welfare system. Sheri Scavone, executive director of the Women’s Foundation of New York, said she is optimistic Hochul will support an even greater investment in child care, noting the governor’s personal struggles as a working mom.
“Gov. Hochul herself left the workforce because of child care issues, and we’re extraordinarily fortunate that she’s been a champion for child care as a basic workforce support and an economic driver,” Scavone said.
Agency leaders and advocates said in interviews this week that the governor has a historic opportunity to increase supports for families at risk of losing their children to foster care, and to make that investment a lasting one.
“We as a society wait too long until there’s a crisis, rather than supporting families well before, with the resources they need,” said Kate Breslin, president and CEO of the Schuyler Center for Analysis and Advocacy. “We have an important opportunity and expectation from the federal government that we’re going to start doing things differently.”
To be sure, Hochul will have to contend with intense political pressures and the precarious position of a short guaranteed term. Her tenure began unexpectedly, following accusations by women who accused Cuomo of sexual harassment and groping — experiences later corroborated by the state’s attorney general.
Hochul takes office just 10 months before facing off in a primary election to keep her new job. She is expected to be challenged by candidates from the political powerhouse of New York City, who are expected to enter the race as soon as next month.
Now challenged by boosting name recognition and filling her fundraising coffers, the new governor will have a narrow window to make an impression on New Yorkers.
“I take her for her word,” said Bill Gettman, who leads Northern Rivers, a residential care agency in the capital region. “If she comes out strong and gets some quick wins, that will give her some time.”