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Last week, the mayor trumpeted his plans to force some 4,500 homeless families to work for their shelter. But unless the city fixes its official child care system for families in workfare, homeless parents are going to have trouble finding a place to park their kids.

Child care providers complain that the Human Resources Administration is late with payments to day care centers for workfare parents' kids. Sometimes, they say, it fails to pay providers at all.

Already, one big Bronx child care organization is refusing to take referrals from the city welfare agency, and has dropped between 60 and 70 children from its program. According to officials from the Bronx Y, HRA doesn't let them know when families get cut off the program–and then sticks them with the bill.

“About three years ago, it was about $17,000 that they owed us,” said Bronx Y Associate Executive Director Gerry Arrighi, whose total child care operation serves 6500 kids each year. “Now, we're in the hole another $4,000, and we just can't do it anymore. We've had to turn away lots of children that could have a really good program.”

Under workfare, parents report to a BEGIN center, where they get a work assignment and a voucher to pay for child care. Finding licensed, regulated child care is difficult, especially since parents usually have only a few days to do it and there are more than 40,000 kids on the waiting list. More than 80 percent of all parents in workfare instead arrange for friends or family to take care of their children, called “informal care.”

HRA spokesperson Ruth Reinecke admitted there had been complaints about the agency's payment record. But, she pointed out, “most parents do use what we call informal care. In that case, the money is paid [directly] to parents. I don't think that we have similar problems with that system.”

But those who counsel workfare parents pointed out that it would not be so easy for families in the shelter system to turn to neighbors and relatives, and they feared the implications of the mayor's new move. “How are they going to be able to do that, without clarity in system right now?” asked Dillonna Lewis at the Welfare Rights Initiative at Hunter College. “It's going to be a crisis, plain and simple. It's a real Catch-22: Mothers are told that they have to find child care, and then it's not being paid for.”

In any case, the courts may bust the mayor's shelter scheme: Two legal rules prevent the city from implementing the plan, at least until a January 7 hearing.