Governor Decides, in Juvenile Justice, City Kids Belong Near Home

Govenor CuomoIf Governor Cuomo gets his way, New York City will cut the number of children it sends to state-run juvenile justice facilities by more than two-thirds over the next two years, receiving more than $35 million per year from the state to create a new spectrum of services and incarceration facilities for juvenile delinquents within the five boroughs. Mayor Michael Bloomberg first called for the creation of a comprehensive, city-run juvenile justice system more than a year ago, citing an 81 percent recidivism rate at the state's juvenile prisons and the bloated costs to city taxpayers of supporting an inefficient statewide system. Until today, neither city nor state officials have been willing to provide public details on the progress of the plan, but the two administrations have been in negotiations for the past several months, agreeing on logistics and a financing structure shortly in advance of the governor's executive budget proposal, released earlier today.

"Too many of our young men are sent to prison and lost to the system," the mayor said today. "The governor has proposed a sweeping, progressive reform that will transfer primary responsibility for all but the most seriously delinquent youth from the state to the city, allowing our young people to remain closer to their families and receive the individualized services, supports and opportunities they need."

If the governor's "Juvenile Justice Services Close to Home Initiative" is approved by the state legislature, New York City will take jurisdiction of children who are currently confined in the state's so-called "non-secure" and "limited secure" facilities, a total of 324 kids. Young people who are determined by Family Court judges to require high-security facilities, which look and operate much like adult prisons, will remain in the charge of the state.

It is unclear whether the new programs will also apply to young people currently placed in nonprofit-run residential treatment programs outside the city.

The city does not plan to directly operate any of the planned new facilities. They will instead be developed and run by nonprofit organizations under contract with the Administration for Children's Services, according to a source familiar with the plan.

In the first year of operation, the city would be eligible for a block grant of $35.2 million in state funds for its new services. The grant would go up the following year to $41.4 million and be subject to annual appropriations thereafter. Once the state approves the city's plan, it would also be authorized to shut down facilities of its own, a move that has traditionally been fought by guard unions and many upstate legislators. Governor Cuomo estimates that the measure would cost the state $3 million next fiscal year (which begins in June of 2012), but result in a net savings of $4.4 million when fully implemented in 2014. It's still unclear how much money the city would save under the plan, but if state facilities are closed, the city would likely see significant savings in its own budget.

Advocates for juvenile justice reform in New York City have long called for kids to be housed and served closer to home. "It cannot be understated how important it is for youth who have to be in juvenile justice placements to be placed close to their homes, schools, communities and lawyers," says Stephanie Gendell, associate executive director of the Citizen's Committee for Children.

But while the plan creates new possibilities for young people to remain close to their families and support systems, it leaves many unanswered questions about how an expanded city-run juvenile justice system would operate:

Will the city fund new lockups for kids? Who will run them and how?

The state currently operates five juvenile justice facilities inside New York City. Under Cuomo's proposal, the city would be authorized to lease those facilities for one dollar a year. The city is likely to lease three of the five and turn them over to nonprofit organizations, according to a source familiar with the negotiations. Since there are no city-administered detention programs that qualify as "limited secure," it is unclear which organizations would be qualified to provide a level of confinement and services consistent with those currently offered by the state.

Jeffrey Butts, a justice scholar at John Jay College who has worked with the city on analyzing its juvenile capacity needs, notes that a city-administered system could create new financial incentives to keep kids out of lockups altogether, since incarceration is many times more expensive than alternative programs that provide community-based supervision alongside services like family counseling and job training. "If you have $100 to spend and you can either use that money to put one kid in a facility or work with three or four kids in the community, you'll find that the impulse to put kids in secure facilities goes way down," says Butts.

Over the past several years, the city has created a spectrum of such alternative programs, decreasing the number of kids it sends to state lockups by more than two-thirds since 2000.

Governor Cuomo's plan does not require the city to reinvest the money it may save from reduced state incarceration into community programs for kids in the city's new system, or into building high-quality residential facilities for those kids who will continue to be locked up. Some advocates for juvenile justice reform worry that financial pressure may work against the interests of young people who end up in city-run residential programs.

"Children who are incarcerated should be placed only in very small facilities staffed by well-trained employees familiar with children's developmental needs and committed to helping them succeed," says Gabrielle Prisco, director of the Juvenile Justice Project at the Correctional Association. "Incarcerated children should receive the kinds of meaningful treatment services shown to both help them improve their lives and decrease recidivism."

Prisco's vision echoes the model that's been described by several of the city officials most deeply involved in juvenile justice reform efforts, but so far there's been no commitment to spend the kind of money that such a system would require. What these advocates say they don't want to see is high-volume, service-poor facilities, regardless of whether they are administered by the city rather than the state.

How will a city system avoid the abuses that have plagued the state's juvenile facilities?

Juvenile justice reforms at both the city and the state level were spurred, in large part, by revelations of widespread abuses in state facilities, including a federal investigation that found rampant overuse of physical force in four state-run lockups.

New York City has its own spotty record on juvenile incarceration. The city currently operates two secure detention centers for children awaiting hearings in Family Court or transfers to state facilities. According to the city's most recent quarterly incident report, young people in those facilities were injured by guards 55 times between July and September of 2011, an average of more than once every other day.

While the city has taken steps to improve conditions in its detention facilities (most notably closing the infamous Bridges Juvenile Center, which had been marked by decades of scandal and abuse), the bulk of its reform efforts have been directed at diverting kids to community programs. State facilities, in the meantime, have introduced a therapeutic discipline model and standards for the use of physical force and restraints aimed at reducing injuries to young people in its care.

Jeffrey Butts of John Jay College notes that detention centers are an imperfect parallel to longer-term incarceration facilities, since their conditions are inherently more volatile. "You have quick turnarounds and high-stress circumstances with kids who aren't sure what's going to happen to them," he says. "There are bound to be more incidents."

While the city programs would be run by nonprofits, advocates worry that any improvements may not survive into future administrations. "Although both the city and state have recently engaged in important reforms, any transfer of power must be predicated on more than the successes of current administrations," says Prisco of the Correctional Association. "Administrations inevitably change and it is imperative that a strong and durable system of protections for children be built into the legal framework of any youth justice system."

Who will regulate, oversee and monitor the city's expanded juvenile justice programs?

Under Cuomo's proposed legislation, New York City's plan for new facilities and services must be approved by the Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS) before it can take effect. OCFS, which operates the state's juvenile justice system and regulates the city's foster care system, will have ongoing oversight and monitoring responsibilities for the city's expanded juvenile justice services, along with the power to retract funding.

As a function of the mayoral administration, the system would also presumably fall under the oversight powers of the City Council and the city Comptroller.

As part of its proposal for providing the new services, the city would be required to hold a public hearing on its plan and justify reasons for disregarding any significant commentary. Still, some juvenile justice advocates question the city's likelihood of incorporating meaningful community input into the design or operation of its new services, particularly, they maintain, since the city excluded them from its planning and negotiations with the state.

"There are a lot of people in the community who are very excited about this," says Avery Irons, director of youth justice programs at the Children's Defense Fund of New York. "We want kids close to home. If the city puts together a plan that we can support we'll stand with them the whole way. They might be surprised at the levels of support and offers of assistance they'd get from community agencies. But we need that plan. They have to open up enough to hear our voices."

State Budget Roundup

Youth programs will shrink, families will lose childcare subsidies, and housing programs for runaway and homeless teenagers will disappear. Governor Andrew Cuomo and members of the New York State legislature have given themselves plenty of credit for passing an on-time budget that closes a $10 billion deficit without raising taxes. The biggest spending cuts are in education and health care, but there are substantial changes in funding for other programs that serve the state's low-income children, youth and families. Read on to see how key services will fare in Fiscal Year 2011-12.

JUVENILE JUSTICE

Shrinking the system: The legislature approved Governor Cuomo's plan to downsize the juvenile justice system by nearly 400 beds. They balked at his proposal to permanently repeal the requirement that state officials give the legislature 12-months notice before closing underused juvenile jails.

The notification requirement has traditionally been defended by guards' unions and upstate legislators whose constituencies depend on jails and prisons for jobs. This go-round, they reached a temporary compromise that shortens the waiting period to 60 days. As of April 2012, the one-year rule will be back in effect.

The same deal applies to adult prisons, as well as mental health facilities operated by the state.

Detention dollars: Historically, the state has reimbursed cities and counties for half the cost of running juvenile detention centers, where young people are held while they wait for a court hearing or transfer to longer-term, state-run correctional facilities.

In his February Executive Budget proposal, Governor Cuomo anticipated capping detention funding at $30 million, saying he wanted to save money while also giving localities the incentive to send young people to community-based programs instead of holding them in detention centers. The Bloomberg administration and legislators pushed back, arguing that local governments need both time and money to ramp up their alternative programs.

Instead, the enacted budget raises the cap to $76 million. The state will allow local governments to choose whether they'll spend this money on detention, which the state will continue to reimburse at 49 percent (up to the cap), or divert some of it to alternative-to-detention programs, for which the state will pay a 62 percent share. Another $8.2 million will be disbursed to cities and counties exclusively for community alternatives.

While the state plan aligns, in many ways, with New York City's five-year-and-running effort to divert kids out of detention centers and into community programs, Mayor Bloomberg's preliminary budget projects no decrease in spending for city detention centers next year, according to an analysis by the Independent Budget Office. Nor does the city expect to see a new benefit from the state's alternative-to-detention funding, since its programs are already reimbursed by the state at a 62 percent rate.

Improving state lockups: Despite the plan to cut beds and close facilities, the state budget designates $38 million over the next two fiscal years to increase staffing and improve mental health, education and other services in state-run juvenile jails. These improvements come as a response to serious criticisms and a federal lawsuit over poor conditions and brutal treatment in the state's juvenile lockups, but they mean that the city, which has drastically cut the number of kids it sends to the state over the past five years, will likely see another increase in the amount of city tax levy funds it must contribute to the maintenance of the state correctional system.

CHILD WELFARE

Kinship Guardianship: Most state money for foster care is lumped into the Foster Care Block Grant, which is to be maintained in the new budget at $436 million. This year, some money from the block grant will pay for Kinship Guardian Assistance, a new program that allows foster kids to leave the formal child welfare system and live with a guardian, who will receive a stipend. In most cases, this guardian will be a relative with whom the child has already lived in foster care. One advantage: the child retains his or her legal relationship with parents, which is not the case in an adoption.

The program helps children avoid the trauma of being permanently cut off from a parent. But there's a debate over whether it should be paid for out of the Foster Care Block Grant. "That money is supposed to be for kids in foster care," says Stephanie Gendell, a policy analyst at the Citizens' Committee for Children of New York, which advocated for the state to find separate funding for the program. "Taking that money sets a bad precedent."

"The Foster Care Block Grant is a limited resource and not intended for long term supports like guardianship, which is why the City advocated for the State to share the financial responsibility for this program in the same way that we do for adoptions," says John B. Mattingly, Commissioner of the City's Administration for Children's Services. The City wouldn't bear a significant financial impact in the current year, since families receiving the subsidy would be leaving the foster care rolls, but Commissioner Mattingly argues that the funding system ultimately places the full cost on local governments. "The concern is that there are no new dedicated resources and we know from past experience that block grant funding is unlikely to grow."

Adoption subsidies: When kids are adopted out of foster care, their adoptive families usually receive financial support from local governments. The state has traditionally reimbursed cities at a significantly higher rate for adoption subsidies than for other foster care expenses. That way, localities had an incentive to get young people out of foster care and into permanent families.

Under the new budget, the state's share of adoption subsidies will drop from 74 percent to 62 percent, the same as for preventive services, child protection and other child welfare expenses. There are currently more than 27,000 children receiving adoption subsidies in New York City, at an average of $980 per month. The city plans to make up for state reductions with about $3 million in city tax revenue.

Sexually exploited youth: The new budget eliminated a plan to build a $3 million safe house for sexually exploited youth, usually kids who've worked as prostitutes under the control of a pimp.

PREVENTION PROGRAMS

The state will continue to fund traditionally defined preventive services, which aim to stabilize struggling families and prevent their kids from ending up in foster care, at last year's reimbursement rate of 62 percent.

However, in his budget proposal, Governor Cuomo conceived of a new funding stream that would have lumped together a wide array of other programs that strive to keep kids out of the child welfare and juvenile justice systems.

The plan would have cut funding for home visiting programs for new mothers and babies, and as a result it would have made the state ineligible for millions of dollars from the federal healthcare reform act, according to budget analysts.

That proposal was ditched. In the enacted budget, the legislature restored last year's $23 million in funding for the state's largest home visiting program, Healthy Families New York. The state's other major home visiting program, the Nurse-Family Partnership, will lose $2 million in designated money but remain eligible for a competitive funding stream known as Community Optional Preventive Services, which will receive a total of just over $12 million, down from $24 million last year..

Other preventive programs will receive a total of about $21 million, or half the funding they received last fiscal year. These programs range from after-school services that keep kids off the street to temporary housing for runaway and homeless youth. (For a full list of the prevention programs and their allocated funding, see the Citizens' Committee for Children budget analysis here.)

CHILDCARE

The state's $393 million Child Care Block Grant, which helps cities and counties subsidize childcare for low-income families, will stay at the same level as last year. However, the state will lose nearly $50 million in federal childcare money that it received in the 2009 stimulus act.

The loss will be a hard hit for New York City, which has seen its own childcare costs rise by more than 60 percent since 2004, according to the IBO. In 2010, the city provided childcare subsidy vouchers to about 102,000 kids. This year, it plans to cut more than 16,000 of those vouchers, or about one third of the subsidies that currently go to families that aren't on public assistance. Many advocates have raised the concern that cutting childcare for working-poor families will push more New Yorkers into unemployment.

The budget provides $4.9 million to subsidize childcare for students at SUNY and CUNY colleges, and for childcare demonstration projects that provide care to working families whose incomes make them ineligible for city vouchers. Those programs received $7 million from the state last year.

YOUTH PROGRAMS

The Summer Youth Employment Program, which provides work experience to young people around the state, has been a New York City budget football for years. First the funding gets cut, then advocates scramble to get it restored, usually by the City Council.

This year, the governor proposed to kill state funding for the program altogether. The legislature reversed that move, restoring the full $15.5 million that the program received last year. However, New York City still faces a loss of 12,000 summer youth jobs due to a loss in federal stimulus funding, according to Anthony Ng, Director of Policy and Advocacy at United Neighborhood Houses.

The state will also lose $4.5 million for Advantage Afterschool programs, which provide activities for kids in the afternoon. Total state funding for the programs will be $17.7 million.

PUBLIC ASSISTANCE

In 2010, the state decided to implement a three-phase, 33 percent increase in public assistance grants, which hadn't been raised in the previous 20 years. This year's budget delays the third and final increase by a year, putting it off until July 2012.

The legislature rejected a proposal by the governor to apply harsher sanctions to families where a parent fails to comply with work requirements. As in the past, sanctions will apply to the portion of benefits that go to support the parent, rather than benefits allocated to the entire family.

Cuomo Plan Cuts Home Visits for New Moms

If it makes it through the legislature, Governor Andrew Cuomo's budget plan could wipe out state funding for one of New York's best-proven methods of preventing child abuse, neglect and long-term poverty, while also making the state ineligible for millions of federal dollars through the health care reform act. New York is home to two large-scale home visiting programs for low-income mothers whose babies are considered at risk of entering the child welfare system. Starting early in pregnancy, educators meet one-on-one with new moms, talking about everything from bonding with their babies and child brain development to filling out job applications and planning a budget. The idea is to build trusting relationships, teach concrete parenting skills, and help mothers navigate difficulties in their own lives that might interrupt bonding or lead to abusive or neglectful behavior later on.

In the sometimes numbers-fuzzy universe of social services, Nurse-Family Partnership (a national program administered here through the city's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene) has been the subject of a series of rigorous, controlled trials, with some pretty stunning statistical results. In one long-term study, rates of child abuse and neglect were 48 percent lower among families that received home visiting services than families in a control group.

By the time kids who'd been in the program turned 15, they were 59 percent less likely to have been arrested than kids in similar peer groups and 90 percent less likely to have been designated by a court as needing external supervision because of incorrigible behavior. The RAND Corporation estimates that taxpayers get a return of up to $5.70 for every dollar they invest in the program.

In a smaller-scale study published last fall, Healthy Families New York showed statistically meaningful results on improved birth weight, language delays, child maltreatment and the need for special education. The program serves about 5,500 families across the state.

Currently, the state spends $23 million for services through Healthy Families New York and $6.3 million on Nurse-Family Partnership. New York City also invests substantial funding in Nurse-Family Partnership, which operates at a budget of just over $14 million to serve more than 3000 families. (For more on the program's services targeting young mothers in foster care, see this article in the Center for New York City Affairs' latest edition of Child Welfare Watch.)

Both stand to be slashed out of the state budget come June of this year as part of a $50 million state cut to services designed to prevent involvement in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. Under Cuomo's plan, home visiting would compete for funds with a long list of other programs, ranging from juvenile delinquency programs to shelters for homeless teenagers. Added together, all of these services currently receive $85 million from the state, according to an analysis by the Citizens' Committee for Children of New York. Once they are all lumped into the new funding stream, they'll battle for a total statewide pot of $35 million, a cut in overall funding of nearly 60 percent.

"These are programs making observable, measurable differences in children's lives," says Christine Deyss, executive director of the advocacy group Prevent Child Abuse New York. "By reaching them as early as these home visiting programs do, their whole lives are changed in ways you can't change them if you wait. Unfortunately we have some political leadership that doesn't seem to be concerned about saving money in five or ten years but cutting right now."

The Cuomo administration contends that combining preventive services into a single, competitive funding stream (called the Primary Prevention Incentive Program) will allow counties to make targeted decisions about which programs are most vital to their communities. "New York State is facing a severe and unprecedented fiscal crisis requiring deliberate choices be made prioritizing our limited funding opportunities," says Susan Steele, a spokesperson for the Office of Children and Family Services, which administers Healthy Families New York. "The Proposed Executive Budget includes a flexible Primary Prevention Incentive Program intended to give local discretion for those programs considered to be most effective. Healthy Families programs may be funded using this innovative funding stream, and those localities who choose to invest in the vital services that home visiting programs provide, may elect to use their flexible dollars in that regard."

Cutting the home visit funds may also mean the state will lose access to millions of federal dollars provided under the Affordable Care Act (the Obama Administration's healthcare reform initiative), according to advocates. The act includes an initiative to support home visiting programs, but states are eligible only if they demonstrate that they've maintained their own funding at the same level as when the act was passed in March 2010.

"There's just nothing about this that makes sense," says Meredith Wiley, state director of the advocacy group Fight Crime: Invest in Kids. "If we know so much about how to prevent abuse and neglect and we don't do it, what does that say about us as a state and people? This is the last thing we should cut; not the first."