After six years leading the New York Assembly’s efforts to confront some of the state’s most intractable social issues — homelessness, domestic violence and human trafficking — Assemblymember Andrew Hevesi (D) told The Imprint he’s shifting his focus to a different approach: preventing early trauma that can compound into lifelong problems.
The new chair of the Assembly’s Committee on Children and Families, Hevesi said he’s now focused “like a laser beam” on ways to reduce Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs, such as abuse, neglect, and separation from or loss of a parent. Previously, he authored bills requiring domestic violence and childcare workers to be trained on how such experiences impact children, the first use of the term “ACEs” in New York law.
For 15 years, Hevesi has represented a cluster of middle-class and upper-income neighborhoods in Central Queens, the same district his father, Alan Hevesi, held throughout the 1970s and 1980s. In recent years, his child welfare legislation allowed foster youth who live with roommates to receive rent subsidies, and extended foster care payments for kinship caregivers to non-relatives who are close family friends. Last week, he took over a bill that would raise the minimum age of arrest in New York from 7 to 12.
He has also been an outspoken critic of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposed cuts to preventive services, as well as his management of the halting vaccine rollout. Hevesi said he is open to “almost any tax” that will raise enough revenue to maintain funding for social services, and released a letter urging the governor to prioritize vaccines for foster parents and youth living in congregate facilities.
While Hevesi told The Imprint he thinks highly of both the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) and Commissioner David Hansell, he also said he’ll support a bill that would require child protective workers to read parents a Miranda-style warning about their rights. And, he said, he is very concerned that the child welfare system is most likely to intervene in the lives of Black and Latino children, indicating “some kind of inherent bias” — one of several problems he plans to
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
How did ACEs and childhood trauma come to be a frame for approaching your work on the children and families committee?
I worked for six years straight on a housing subsidy for the homeless, which is a good policy, but it started to occur to me that it doesn’t prevent the problem. I came across a quote from Archbishop Desmond Tutu that resonated: “When people are drowning in the river, there comes a point when you have to not only pull them out, but you’ve got to go upstream and figure out why they’re falling into the river in the first place.”
Smart government prevents problems, so I was looking around and somebody told me about ACEs. I read a book about executive function and kids’ brain science, and you can trace almost all of these problems back to kids who suffered trauma — and we didn’t mitigate the effects.
We don’t want our kids to be defined or doomed by their adverse childhood experiences, and yet that’s just what we’re doing in society. We’re letting rampant generational trauma continue to hurt people and then destroy taxpayers, because every time a kid experiences trauma, that kid’s going to need more expensive services. It costs money to house people in shelters, to house people in jail, to run the court system. So if we want to break these cycles, the way to go after it is to really invest in preventing and mitigating trauma.
Let’s jump right into the idea of preventing trauma — what opportunities do you see for the Legislature to make an impact there?
Before I’m able to make an impact in a positive way, we’re playing defense against one of the governor’s proposals that I object to the most. Currently, New York state has a fantastic uncapped reimbursement for preventative services, which no other state has. Because of that policy, the foster care numbers dropped from 40,000 in the 1980s to about 8,000 now, and thousands of kids were prevented from being abused. In this year’s budget, the governor proposed to cut preventive services by 5% — the third year that he’s tried to cut them. The governor’s budget not only doesn’t account for the trauma that’s happened in the last year, but he’s cutting back on money we would normally spend. It’s remarkably bad policy.
What is your game plan for opposing that proposal, and what have you learned from the last couple years where you’ve had to fight that fight?
There are two main pressure points I’ve learned: people don’t like kids getting abused, and they don’t like their counties having to pay for services that the state should pay for.
When I briefed the Democratic Conference of the state assembly about the children and families budget, I hit hard on, “I guarantee that more kids are going to be abused if preventive services funding is cut.” They don’t like that. And remember, these legislators all come from counties that are broke. I think my colleagues on both sides of the aisle, in both houses, are going to reject anything that’s going to slam the counties with more expenses they can’t cover.
You were involved in advocacy efforts to get New York to allow foster youth to remain in care during the pandemic, and the recent federal stimulus bill imposed a nationwide moratorium on aging out. Would you like to see New York make this change permanent?
Yes, I do want to prioritize or have a conversation about when we do that, because there’s a limited availability of funds right now, but that's absolutely something we should do. We cannot be in the business of saying, “Hey it's your birthday, you’ve got to get out when there's no housing and there are no jobs during COVID.” Foster care youth are unbelievably vulnerable and exponentially more likely to become homeless or fail out of college, so we’ve got to be really careful about how we deal with that population. I think an extension to age 23 is something that's reasonable and we should talk about.
You mentioned earlier that the number of children in foster care across New York has dropped a lot — it’s down 40% over the last decade, even more in New York City. What policies should the state pursue to help more children remain safely with their families?
Well first, you make sure that we go heavy into prevention, so you’ve got to stop the governor. Number two, I'd invest heavily in more primary preventive care so you can get to kids before problems metastasize. The Community Optional Preventive Services (COPS) program is a great program for kids who are not involved in the criminal justice system, but the governor proposed combining that funding stream with another program for kids who already have a criminal justice case and then cutting them both by 20%, which I think is a terrible mistake.
The advocates tell me that when counties have to decide where to spend this limited pool of money, they're not going to spend it on COPS, they're going to spend it on the other program. You've just walked away from primary prevention, which is really, really dumb during COVID.
The pandemic and the recession have added a lot of financial stress to families. Looking broadly, what kind of family support policies should the state enact right now?
I think the hottest topic for helping families this year is childcare, and I'm honored to take over at a time when there's real opportunity there. The most exciting reason is that the state now has $456 million from the smaller federal stimulus in December — that’s the first time the child care industry has had a lump sum infusion of federal cash in decades. Number two, there's positive signs in the governor's budget: They proposed $40 million to cap families’ co-payments for childcare at 20% of the poverty level, which currently vary by county. The last big reason is that the Child Care Availability Task Force is finalizing a report focused on making the child care system more equitable — I think we can overhaul the entire childcare system.
Following the Black Lives Matter protests, there have been several protests against the Administration for Children’s Services and the child welfare system. What steps should be taken to help restore trust between New York families and the child welfare system?
We need to engage the people who are furious at the system, the people at those rallies and the people who have been harmed by the system have to have their voice heard, either in a hearing or just a personal meeting. That way, I can weigh their experiences and anger against what I'm hearing on the other side from ACS and other local social service districts throughout the state. I haven’t really started focusing on the CPS system yet because of bandwidth, but giving voice to parents’ concerns and being open and fair with them is paramount, because it's not a full conversation if I just bring in the people who run the system to talk about the system.