Mayor's Axe to After-School?

The Bloomberg administration is poised to make sharp cuts to the primary source of government funding for hundreds of free after-school programs that currently serve about 53,000 children across the city. Just two years ago, the city's "Out-of-School Time" or OST program received more than $117 million in city funds and served more than 87,000 kids. This fiscal year, the program was reduced to $90 million in city dollars. And now, a recent contract proposal from the administration indicates that, in 2013, the program will be cut to just under $70 million. Advocates say the reduction will nearly halve the number of program slots available to city kids.

"The proposed decrease is just going to be devastating to the system at a time when there is such a high demand," said Kathleen Fitzgibbon, senior policy analyst at the Federation for Protestant Welfare Agencies, which represents 20 of the more than 400 community agencies that currently run the after-school programs. The cuts would be hard not only on the children shut out, she said, but for their families, who rely on the programs for childcare.

"What are working parents going to do?" she asked. "Will they lose their jobs?"

Fitzgibbon said she is also concerned about the jobs lost to providers. "Since 2009 we've seen the loss of five thousand jobs as a result of cuts."

Cathleen Collins, deputy chief of staff at the Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD), which distributes funding for the program, said in an email that one reason for the anticipated cut in slots is that the cost per child is expected to increase.

"In the new RFP, all programs will be required to provide services both during the school year and over the summer. The average price per participant for services is therefore expected to be higher than in the past. In addition, the new RFP sets out a rigorous program model with a strong focus on academics, including the requirement of an education specialist in every program. In recognition of the cost of high-quality services that will yield the positive outcomes we want for our young people, DYCD has increased the maximum price per participant that providers can propose, which necessarily reduces the number of participants that may be served."

Collins said it is too soon to know how many kids would lose services as a result of the funding cuts, as the number of program slots will depend on the proposals that the city receives. She also cautioned that there "are still some budgetary issues at play."

Norah Yahya, a policy analyst for United Neighborhood Houses of New York, maintained that the current situation is different from the usual back-and-forth that organizations engage in with the mayor at budget time. "It's dire," she said. "Cuts of this magnitude to services are not usual."

Programs supported by OST after-school funding are free, and offer academic support, cultural activities and healthy snacks for children after school hours and during school holidays and summer. When the contracts were restructured in 2005, Mayor Bloomberg described the program as a "long overdue" means of providing supervision and enrichment to kids who have nowhere else to go after 3pm. "Our new Out-of-School Time system will better serve children and working parents by engaging youth at precisely the times of the day when they are likely to be home alone or are most vulnerable," he said.

Vickie Lopez is a medical secretary at New York Hospital whose two daughters, ages five and seven, had been attending a city-funded after-school program since they began kindergarten. Last year, program reductions meant they were no longer able to get spots, she said. "I cried," Lopez remembered. She was placed on a waiting list, but said she never heard anything more.

Finally a friend of a friend offered to watch the girls for $150 a week, three hours a day. "It was a very, very rough year for me," said Lopez. She said at times she was forced to bring one of her kids to work with her out of desperation.

A 2011 report by Policy Studies Associates analyzing 10 after-school providers funded by the program found that 84 percent of youth enrolled were black or Latino, nearly one-quarter were English Language Learners, and 18 percent were special education students.

Contracts for the revamped program are due to start in September of 2012 and will last three years. They are funded almost exclusively with city tax revenue, with a small amount coming from the state.

The after-school cuts come at the same time as proposed steep reductions in the availability of government-funded childcare slots for preschool-aged kids, following the loss of federal funds for those programs. They also come just four months after Mayor Bloomberg announced the launch of the Young Men's Initiative, billed as an effort to reduce "the broad disparities slowing the advancement of black and Latino young men." Over three years, the mayor has committed a public-private partnership to creating more than $127 million in programs to "connect young men to educational, employment, and mentoring opportunities."

Yahya said the after-school programs are particularly important for low-income black and Latino youth. "This isn't just a babysitting club." In addition, she said, many of the programs make a point of hiring people from the communities they serve, which allows kids to have a mentor who understands where they are from. "The children can see themselves in their mentors, in working adults that care about them and are successful."

"I'm fearful for what the future holds for youth services, as the pot for them gets smaller and smaller," she added. (The city cut DYCD's total budget by close to $40 million this year.) Programs, said Yahya, are now so stripped down that new cuts likely cannot be absorbed through reductions in supplemental services. "A lot of specialties have already been eliminated. They're down to the marrow."

NYC Closes Transitional Housing for Foster Teens

On December 31, the Administration for Children's Services dismantled its program that gave 125 foster teens on the brink of aging out the chance to practice living on their own while still having the support of the foster care system. For more than 10 years, the now-defunct Supervised Independent Living Program (SILP) has provided foster teens aged 18 to 20 what many experts say is essential to any housing program helping young people transition to independence, a chance to try out living on their own, with a safety net to catch them if they get into trouble. "I thought this was kind of going to be the future for older adolescents in child welfare," says Green Chimneys Executive Director Joseph Whalen, who had hoped to open 20 more SILP apartments. "I was wrong."

In an emailed statement to Child Welfare Watch, the ACS press office said ACS's decision to close the SILP apartments stemmed from its philosophy that young people in foster care are best served living with families. "It can be difficult to transition to independence as an adult, and we believe that a youth should have a family to support him or her throughout each of their lives," the press office wrote.

Providers speculate a tough year for the budget, confusion about whom to place in SILP apartments, and ACS's perception that SILP became what one executive director described as "a dumping ground" for young people who did not make it in a family setting contributed to the decision. SILPs cost around $100 a day, says Douglas O'Dell of SCO Family of Services, a foster care agency with more than 500 teens preparing to age out. For the fiscal year ending July 1, 2010, the SILP program cost $4,422,317, with the city paying $1,459,365, or 33 percent, the state paying 41 percent, and the federal government 26 percent.

The SILP program is ending just as other housing resources are vanishing. The federal government has cut off Section 8 vouchers, and they have become more difficult for young people leaving care to secure.

While many providers praise the SILP program as the best option for vulnerable teens, others fault it for giving young people too much independence and too little supervision. Many agencies minimized this risk by filling SILP apartments with their most mature young peopleâ€, those who could be trusted to live well on their own. But some providers say that as the number of teens in foster care dramatically shrank over the last decade, a higher percentage of the teens left in the system struggle with histories of serious trauma. "Simply stated, seriously troubled kids and indirect s pervision are not compatible," Poul Jensen, president and CEO of Graham Windham, wrote in an email.

Others defend SILP. "It provided them with an opportunity to try out their wings and assume adult responsibility, while still offering a safety net," explains Sister Paulette Lo- Monaco, executive director of Good Shepherd Services.

The 125 young people living in SILP apartments budget their own money, shop for groceries, cook their own meals, clean their own apartments, and learn to get along with neighbors and roommates, all while receiving instruction and oversight from caseworkers, who lead workshops on independent living skills and visit them in their apartments regularly. If the teens get into trouble, say, a landlord complains they are playing music too loud and too late at night, instead of facing eviction, they can move back to a more structured setting in the foster care system, until they are ready to try living on their own again.

In March, ACS informed Good Shepherd Services and other foster care agencies operating SILP apartments that all SILP apartments would be closed by the end of the year. The young people who were living in them at the time of ACS's announcement would either be discharged from foster care or moved to other foster care placements, preferably with families.

Foster care providers and advocates say they are skeptical that they will find families for the majority of the young people in SILPs. Moreover, they say SILP apartments prepare young people to live on their own in an experiential, hands-on way that cannot be matched in any other living situation.

"There are definitely better-than-adequate foster families, but I don't know if you get the same kind of curriculum built in the way it's built in SILP," says Theresa Nolan, director of New York City programs for Green Chimneys, which runs 15 SILP apartments. Nolan believes that the young people aging out from SILP apartments leave foster care more prepared to live on their own than youth in other foster placements. "They actually are sometimes better equipped than youth who do grow up in families, simply because so much attention is paid to the life-skills curriculum in SILP," she adds.

O'Dell, who is assistant executive director of SCO, says that 22 of the 23 young adults who aged out of SCO's SILP apartments over a recent 12-month period left with both income and housing in place. "SILP to me was the best preparation for a young person aging out," says O'Dell.

Some providers say young people who are most likely to struggle after leaving care are the ones who most need the experience of living on their own while they still have caseworkers to support them. "Some of the worst kids I had, I put them in there to give them a reality check," says Whalen of Green Chimneys. "We understood it as, 'Hey listen, here's an opportunity for kids. We can transition them to independence and keep an eye on them. A lot of them are going to fail, and this is a learning experience,'" says Whalen, adding that when a young person did fail, he simply moved them to a group living situation until they were ready to try again. "These are the kind of things that are powerful teaching moments for kids," he says.

Priti Kitaria, who represents teens in foster care at Lawyers for Children, agrees."It's the best model for youth aging out of care," she says. "Ideally, that's where most of my clients would go."

Velma Frezzell, 21, lived in numerous foster homes as a teen, but says none prepared her for independence the way her year spent in a SILP apartment did. In SILP, says Frezzell, she learned countless things that she believes can only be learned through living them, like the week she and her roommate spent trying in vain to fix a flooded toilet before their social worker explained they needed to call their super. "I thought I was independent, but it showed me independence in a different way," says Frezzell. "You're on your own, you don't have a parent or authority figure telling you what to do, but if you don't do what you need to do, you're going to be living in a bad environment, and no one wants to live that way."

Frezzell now lives in public housing, attends John Jay College full-time and, until just a few days before speaking with Child Welfare Watch, held a steady job as a department-store sales associate. She says her experience in a SILP made her transition out of foster care almost seamless. "I was ready to move out before I was finally discharged," she says. "I don't think I'd be where I am now if I wasn't in it."

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Deficit Reduction Hits NYC Child and Family Services

Mayor Michael Bloomberg's latest strategy to reduce city expenses includes yet another round of budget cuts for programs that serve low-income children, youth and families. As part of his midyear financial plan, released in late November, the mayor directed city agencies to cumulatively carve nearly $1.6 billion out of their budgets for Fiscal Years 2011 and 2012, in an attempt to help shrink a city deficit that amounts, by the mayor's reckoning, to more than $3 billion. Many of the cuts will likely go into effect on January 1st, causing programs to scale back or close immediately.

Among the agencies likely to take significant hits are the Administration for Children's Services (ACS), which must cut more than $60 million over the next two fiscal years, and the Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD), which plans to pull close to $26 million from the community-based organizations it funds. This is the ninth time the agencies have been called on to trim their programs since 2008.

The mayor contends the city has no choice but to cut costs, and starting well in advance of the next fiscal year will minimize the damage to city programs. "The idea is if you start now you make it a more gradual process," says Marc LaVorgna at the mayor's press office. "The further ahead you're planning, the better the chance you have of lessening the impact on people and families served."

Advocates and providers counter that the mayor's plan hurts vulnerable New Yorkers at a time when the safety net has already been weakened. "The agencies that protect and nurture children have already eliminated any duplicative or nonessential services," Stephanie Gendell, an associate director at Citizen's Committee for Children, testified to the City Council last week. Further cuts, she said, "will have a profound negative impact on children."

The mayor's planned cuts have not yet been approved by the City Council, but fiscal analysts on both sides say the legislative nod is likely for the reductions in current fiscal year spending. The larger proposed cuts for the fiscal year that begins in July 2011 will be part of the spring budget negotiations between the mayor and the council.

CHILD PROTECTIVE SERVICES

Over the last few years, ACS has lost 1,000 staff through layoffs and attrition, coupled with a reorganization within the agency. With the November cuts, ACS will eliminate 257 more positions, including 80 managers in the division that investigates allegations of child abuse and neglect. Since the 2006 death of 7-year-old Nixzmary Brown, a child known to ACS who was killed by her stepfather, the number of abuse and neglect reports ACS investigates has remained far higher than it was even at the height of the crack epidemic in the early 1990s. Managers in child protection will now supervise more frontline workers.

ACS will also lay off 118 clerical workers by early spring, while further reducing staff at the agency's training academy. The agency also plans to cut 27 specialists who facilitate case conferences, scaling back a key initiative.

HOMEMAKING SERVICES

ACS plans to restructure homemaking services, a foster care prevention program that provides several months of in-home support to families who might otherwise lose children to foster care. Going forward, the program will focus on short-term help for families with children in danger of imminent removal from their home. While providers support using homemaking services as a way to stabilize families in immediate crises, they say it's critical the program continue serving families who have longer term needs, as well.

About one-third of the families that Brooklyn Community Services now serves are headed by a parent with a medical or mental disability, says Norma Martin, the organization's assistant executive director. One mother in her mid-sixties has cancer and is very sick, says Martin. A homemaker helps her take care of her 13-year-old daughter, who was adopted as an infant and has special needs. "What's going to happen to the little girl?" asks Martin. "Where is she going to go? Foster care?"

HOMELESS AND RUNAWAY YOUTH

DYCD plans to eliminate street outreach for homeless and runaway youth, and to cut funding to drop-in centers for young people on the street.

Youth shelters have been filled to capacity for more than two years, and often turn away youth who have nowhere to sleep. "Balancing the budget on the back of children sleeping on the streets is absolutely unacceptable," Councilmember Lewis Fidler said at a council hearing last week.

At the hearing, DYCD Commissioner Jeanne Mullgrav testified that very few young people went to shelters as a direct result of street outreach, making the program vulnerable to being shut down.

But staff at Safe Horizon's street outreach program point out that their mission goes far beyond steering young people to shelters. Outreach workers bring young people on the streets supplies like food, condoms and coats. It can take weeks or months of outreach before a young person visits a drop-in center or accepts other services.

Johanna Westmacott of Safe Horizon's street outreach program testified that the new cuts will force her organization to turn away even more young people with no place to go. "I cannot describe what it feels like to look a child in the eye who is desperately seeking help and the best advice you can offer them is to find a buddy to take turns sleeping in public and try not to get arrested for trespassing," she said.

AFTER-SCHOOL AND HOLIDAY PROGRAMS

The cuts also hit families who depend on city-run programs that provide child care, academic enrichment and social support to kids outside of school hours.

Each of the 66 city-funded Beacon programs, which serve as school-based community centers, will lose 10 percent of their DYCD fundingâ€, or about $38,000. Though the programs have been much lauded by the city, they already operate on less funding than when they were launched 19 years ago.

"Working families need a safe place for their children to go so they can keep working," says Anthony Ng, deputy director of policy and advocacy at United Neighborhood Houses. "Beacons are already operating on bare bones and the funding continues to erode."

DYCD has attempted to help programs absorb cuts by reducing the number of people each center is contractually required to serve, but providers say they're not willing to turn young people away half-way through the program year. "No one's going to tell the 101st kid who comes to the door, "Sorry, you can't come in,'" says Gigi Li, a policy director at the Neighborhood Family Services Coalition.

DYCD also funds nearly 500 after-school programs across the city through its Out-of-School Time (OST) initiative. Beginning January 1st, those programs will lose 9 percent of their OST budgets.

The city adjusted after-school agencies' contracts, allowing programs to operate on fewer holidays than are currently mandated, but providers say the money they'll save through holiday closings doesn't make up for the funding that's being cut.

"We just can't see where the money's going to come from," says Amy Mereson, director of youth education and arts programs at University Settlement. "Our options are to close down for significantly more time, or we cut all the stuff that makes programs rich, chess, dance, theater, sports, the things that make a quality program, it's all taken away."

"The city's approach to trying to find what's ultimately pocket change on the backs of these populations that we serve, I can't wrap my brain around it," Mereson adds. "The assumption is always that community-based organizations will find a way. We're getting to the point where we can't find a way."

Number of Families Receiving Preventive Services Drops to 10-Year-Low

Administrative confusion in city government has left thousands of families with children at risk of entering foster care without help from critical support services in recent months, according to data released by the Administration for Children's Services. Despite an influx of emergency funding, the number of families taking part in programs that provide everything from counseling and case management to drug treatment and housekeeping fell 21 percent between April and July of this year, ACS data show. The number of children taking part in these "preventive" programs, which are designed to stabilize families in crisis and protect kids from abuse or neglect, has dropped to a 10-year low since April. New enrollments are down nearly 40 percent compared to last year, a dramatic reversal of a core city policy long intended to make sure children are safe at home while parents receive help dealing with extreme poverty, domestic violence, mental health issues and other difficulties.

The disclosure comes in the wake of the September 2nd death of a malnourished, medically fragile four-year-old Brooklyn girl, Marchella Pierce, whose mother has been charged with assault, drug possession and endangering the welfare of a child. The family had been receiving preventive services from the nonprofit Child Development Support Corporation, but the agency apparently stopped monitoring the family when its contract ended in June.

Preventive service programs have been hit by a triple-whammy of budget cuts, operational errors and strategic planning decisions that many advocates describe as both shortsighted and dangerous. "It's a train wreck," says Michael Arsham, executive director of the Child Welfare Organizing Project, a self-help and advocacy organization of parents involved with the child welfare system. "The provider community is in chaos."

Preventive services have been on the city's chopping block since ACS issued its most recent request for contract proposals this spring. In anticipation of a budget squeeze, and as part of a plan to provide more intensive services over shorter periods of time, the agency planned for a reduction of 2,400 (out of about 11,000) preventive service slots.

By the time ACS finished evaluating proposals this April, 600 more slots had fallen to budget cuts. Nine agencies were told they wouldn't be awarded contracts with the city, and many more were instructed to shrink their services and begin closing or transferring cases. "Child safety and risk were carefully considered in these assessments," says Laura Postiglione, a spokesperson for ACS. "Where families were found to need continued child welfare services, those families were transferred to another preventive program or re-referred to child protective services."

But administrators at preventive service agencies describe the period of caseload reduction as disorganized and painful. "It's not possible to cut 3,000 cases without putting children in danger," says Robert Gutheil, the executive director of Episcopal Social Services of New York, which was slated to lose nearly 50 slots at its Bronx preventive service site. "You have no choice but to reduce intake, which means only those with the most glaringly obvious problems are going to get any attention. Just as night follows day, we're going to have horror stories."

More than two months into the caseload cuts, a whole new layer of administrative chaos hit the system when the administration announced it had made a mistake in scoring contract proposals, and that its award recommendations, which had sent agencies scrambling in the first place, would be rescinded. Meanwhile, in June, the City Council announced that it would restore funding for 2,900 of the 3,000 lost preventive service slots.

ACS sent a memo to contracted providers, asking them to halt reductions. The administration reverted back to its previous set of contracts, extending all but two until the end of June, 2011, and asking provider agencies to ramp back up to their previous service levels. But by that time, many agencies were well into shut-down mode. Several had laid off staff, some had terminated leases and many had announced to clients they were cutting back on services.

"It's more than fair to say that hundreds of families fell out of the system," says Sophine Charles, a program director at Steinway Child and Family Services, which was scheduled to close after it didn't receive a contract award from ACS. "Now we're required to go back to our original utilization rates, but it's starting from scratch. How do you hire staff when your funding is only secure for the next eight months?"

The number of families participating in preventive services fell from more than 15,200 in June 2009 to just 12,230 in July 2010, according to data recently released by ACS (click to view chart). New enrollments fell from more than 1,100 in the month of March 2010 to just 579 during July (click to view chart). Many families must enroll in these programs under court order; others attend voluntarily with the encouragement of ACS child protective caseworkers, or they are referred by social workers, physicians or others in their communities.

Child welfare advocates, as well as members of the City Council, are pushing to have the money from the council's restoration funding baselined into the mayor's budget before the next fiscal year, which begins in July 2011, so that agencies have the ability to develop stable, long-term planning. The council's General Welfare Committee plans to hold a hearing on the changes to the preventive service system on September 28th, says Meghan Lynch, chief of staff for the committee's chair, Annabel Palma.

Public Advocate Bill de Blasio has also launched an inquiry into preventive service reductions, linking the cuts to the death of Marchella Pierce. In a letter to ACS Commissioner John Mattingly, de Blasio called on the agency to review every case that was closed during the April-to-July reduction period. "The heartbreaking circumstances surrounding Marchella Pierce's death raise troubling questions about ACS policies and practices and the possibility of systemic problems that could leave an untold number of children at risk," he wrote.

Chart: ACS new preventive cases, August 2008 , July 2010.

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