Foster Care Advocates Push for Improvements to Cuomo’s Budget Plans

By Yessenia Funes for the Foster Care Roundup

 

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s proposed 2018 executive budget includes a devastating $62 million in cuts to the state’s foster care block grant, the financial lifeline for foster children, their caregivers and the agencies that support them.

The decreased funding, which will directly impact the more than 17,000 children in state care, came as a total shock for child welfare advocates who were looking forward to the state expanding its child welfare programs, not gutting them.

“We’re devastated by that cut,” said Dorothy Hill, the director of policy for the Schuyler Center. “From where we stand, it was not expected.”

With the state’s ongoing opioid crisis, President Donald Trump’s campaign promise to deport up to 3 million undocumented immigrants and a recent spate of high-profile child deaths in New York City, child welfare advocates are preparing for an influx of children entering the foster care system. Amid these trends, advocates struggle to find the rationale of cuts to the system when the need is poised to grow.

“We expected, at least, that no harm would be done,” Hill said.

“We would have been looking for additional resources, but, instead, we are advocating not to cut the foster care block grant,” added Stephanie Gendell, the associate executive director of the Citizens’ Committee for Children (CCC).

The Schuyler Center and CCC are collaborating and working in coalitions with other organizations to push through their legislative and budget goals. “It’s really easy for child welfare to get lost in the shuffle unfortunately, so we’re always looking to partner,” Hill said.

Governor Cuomo is expected to submit his final budget in March, and after negotiations with both houses of the legislature, the new budget is expected to be passed by April 1.

Read more about child welfare changes in the proposed budget. Read the Human Services Budget Briefing Book.

In addition to the substantial cuts to the foster care block grant, here are a few specific policy areas on which advocates are pushing the state for improvements:

 

KinGAP and Kinship Services

“We are concerned,” Hill says, “and surmise, based on past moments with increased deportations that many kids who are separated from parents will end up in the care of kin, whether temporarily or long term.”

This inevitability would place an even greater strain on current programs that provide resources to kin caregivers. Programs like the Kinship Navigator will need more — not less — funding to provide support to kin. We’re talking parenting classes, counseling, assistance navigating public systems.

As for protecting and strengthening the Kinship Guardianship Assistance Program (KinGAP), that involves funding it differently, Gendell said.

KinGAP is a subsidy for children who achieve permanency with kin family, but it is currently funded through the Foster Care Block Grant, which is designed to support children in foster care not those who have exited to permanent families. Advocates are calling for the state to remove the KinGAP subsidy from the foster care block grant and to fund it the same way as adoption subsidies. The current structure places the financial burden on the foster care system, thereby decreasing the use of this critical permanency option. Hill says: “For many years — and this year is no exception — we’ve been trying to get KinGAP funded through adoption subsidies because KinGAP is a permanency option. It doesn’t belong as funded under the foster care block grant.”

Advocacy organizations are also working to have the state provide KinGAP subsidies until a child turns 21, just as adoption and foster care subsidies are designed. They also would like to allow for more sibling groups to remain intact by expanding the definition of kin to include fictive kin as well.

 

College Success for Foster Youth

Nationwide, only 2 to 9 percent of foster youth complete a two- or four-year college degree. Since 2015, The state’s Foster Youth College Success Initiative (FYCSI) has worked to address this challenge for foster youth by providing support services on campus and additional funds to cover necessary expenses like textbooks, food and housing. The program has helped hundreds of students to attend and persist in college in its first two years. For fiscal year 2016, the state allotted $1.5 million to support one cohort of students and $3 million in fiscal year 2017 to support two cohorts of foster students across New York.

However, in this year’s proposed budget, Cuomo included only $1.5 million for FYCSI — enough for only one of the two current cohorts to continue. Advocates are working to restore this funding to support the current students and also to have an additional $1.5 million added to support a third cohort of foster youth.

During an advocacy day on February 7, more than 100 people from across the state were in Albany to meet with legislators about this critical program, said Jessica Maxwell, the director of the Foster Youth Success Alliance. A  coalition of more than 90 organizations from across the state, the Alliance was born out of a need to support youth in foster care who are heading to college. After a year of research, the Alliance built the framework for this initiative, and now works both on implementation of FYSCI with OCFS and the State Education Department and also with the Legislature to have the successful program expanded.

The advocacy day went well, Maxwell said: “We received a lot of positive feedback because people really shared stories about why getting a college degree is important for them.”

 

Housing Security and Homelessness

Between 18 to 26 percent of foster youth in New York who age out spend time in homeless shelters. Since 1988, the Social Service Law has provided for a child welfare housing subsidy to help stabilize housing for families and youth and prevent children from entering foster care, help families when children reunify from foster care, and help youth who age out of foster care.  Due to the low subsidy amount of $300, the child welfare housing subsidy is no longer able to effectively prevent homelessness for families and youth involved with the child welfare system.

Advocates are calling for the state to increase the housing subsidy to $600 and to offer it until the young person turns 24, up from 21. The current amount has remained the same since 1988 even though housing affordability levels are dropping throughout the state. The New York City Council supports this change: It passed a resolution last year urging the State Legislature to get on board.

“This is not meant to cover the full cost of the rent — $600 is not going to do that,” Gendell said. “But for some people, getting an additional $600 a month will help them.”

She has a point: Youth who have aged out of care can’t have a roommate if they want the housing subsidy. Unless that changes, even $600 isn’t enough without a roommate. So organizers are working to change that, too. “That piles on the complications,” said Hill of the Schuyler Center, “because of course in New York City, and even lots of other places, you need a roommate to make your housing affordable.”

 

Other Priorities

Mary Jane Dessables, director of information at the Council of Family and Child Caring Agencies, is focused on the system that creates meaningful relationships with children in care. Often, these relationships stem from their interactions with the child welfare system and the people who work there.

“These are the state’s children,” she said. “They’re in our custody, and they deserve to have the best services and the best staff delivering those services.”

The council is proposing the state add $1 million to the budget to create a Child Welfare Workforce Higher Education Program.

“We have people that do wonderful jobs at the line worker level,” she says. “They’re wonderful case planners or terrific direct crew workers in youth facilities, and when you talk to them about moving on up or expanding what they’re doing, education is sometimes holding them back.”

So the program would help pay for their tuition and also offer them student loan forgiveness to prevent the burden of debt from pulling them out of the industry.

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