Welfare's Foster Scare

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Maria's two foster children are three years old and each have severe mental and physical handicaps. Since she took in the boys when they were infants, she's had extensive training, including CPR and lessons on intravenous feeding. Caring for them is a “24-hour job,” she says. “I don't get much sleep … Right now one of mine is sick. I will take him to the hospital. I may have to spend the whole day there.”

But, since Maria receives welfare, the city is ordering her to sweep streets or clean toilets as part of a workfare initiative without providing sufficient resources for her to find good day care for the kids. “I told them that I have children with special needs, but they don't want to hear that,” she says.

Unable to find affordable or competent daycare alternatives, Maria may face a loss of her welfare benefits simply because she wants to be a good mother. “They're going to call me again in May,” she says in a whisper. “They may have to close my case.”

Over the next five years, expect to hear about a lot more Marias unless the state takes on the safety net role that the state constitution requires. As federal welfare reforms begin to take effect, many parents–especially foster parents–who receive public assistance will have to choose between abiding by workfare rules or raising their children. And when they reach their five-year welfare time limit, parents, along with their vulnerable children, will be kicked off the rolls altogether.

Welfare reform, advocates say, will decimate the already beleaguered foster care system. First, workfare requirements will render foster parents unable to continue taking care of their young charges. Second, as more poor families are kicked they will begin abusing their kids, who, in turn will flood a foster care system unprepared for the deluge.

Of all the bad news about welfare reform, the impact on foster care may be the worst news of all. For Maria, all these projections coalesce into one desperate worry. “I don't want to lose my kids,” she says.


For many of the 540,000 New York City kids receiving public assistance–the majority of those facing loss of benefits and resources under the new federal law are children–life is about to get much, much worse. According to the federal Department of Health and Human Services (DOH), an estimated 22,000 New York State children who will be denied public assistance are likely to require child protective services due to abuse or neglect.

That's because work requirements and benefit cut-offs will start a dangerous chain reaction that causes shaky families to split apart. The DOH recently reported that the poorer a family gets, the more likely they are to abuse or neglect their kids. It off the rolls, goes to follow that welfare reform could massively increase the burden on a foster care system that has been overloaded for years, child welfare experts say.

A report commissioned by the Foundation for Child Development estimates that if, in any given year, just two percent of the kids currently supported by welfare are forced into foster care, there might be twice as many admissions into the system. Since each foster care case costs the city $15-$20,000, the bill for the new cases would be at least $165-million. (In contrast, the average Aid to Families with Dependent Children grant for a family of three is $6,900 per year.)

However, that study's numbers may be conservative–the caseload could more than double. “Everybody I talk to says that kids are going to come into the system and the system will be swamped,” says David Tobis, Director of Social Welfare, Research and Planning at Hunter College's Center for the Study of Family Policy.

“And this is a system already teetering on the brink of collapse,” adds Gail Nayowith, executive director of the Citizens' Committee for Children of New York.

Governor George Pataki, who is required to oversee implementation of the federal law, has told Washington he plans to institute a “family cap,” which would deny additional benefits for children born after a family has already been on welfare. The Childrens' Defense Fund's Marlene Halpern estimates that by the year 2005, just over 60,000 infants in New York State will be born into poor families no longer entitled to any additional increases in their grants to support that child.

In 1991, when the California's welfare grant was reduced by just 2.7 percent, Los Angeles County officials reported that child abuse and neglect referrals rose by 12 percent. When benefits were cut 5.8 percent the following year, referrals rose by another 20 percent. “It is not surprising to hear that a decrease in AFDC grants results in a concurrent increase in abuse and neglect complaints, since that is the population we serve,” remarks Nicholas Scoppetta, Commissioner of New York City's Administration for Children Services. “Any decrease in aid and service is likely to make our job of protecting children more difficult.”

Dr. Larry Aber, executive director of the National Center on Children in Poverty at Columbia University School of Public Health, says child welfare case workers will be hard-pressed to keep up with new cases of “technical neglect.” “It's an invisible problem–they don't call the child welfare authorities and say 'I'm going to leave my kid at home.” he says.

Others say the workfare implications for some families could be even more devastating. “We also think that more people will involuntarily give up their children out of desperation,” adds Elie executive director of Statewide Youth Advocates. “There's no recognition that we have to do some planning.”

And once families are split up by foster care, getting them back together will be very difficult. Mary Ellen McLaughlin executive director of Good Shepherd Services, which runs a foster care agency, concedes: “We couldn't send a child back to a family that has no source of income.” The cuts also threaten to punch a huge hole in the foster care safety net itself.

“It is not surprising to hear that a Foster care stipends, which average $400 per month per child, are not sufficient to support entire families, should they lose their welfare benefits, says Edith Holzer, executive director of the Council of Family and Child Caring Agencies.

The city council's welfare committee estimates that 40 percent of the city's 15,000 foster parents currently receive public assistance. And foster care providers tell City Limits they are worried that workfare will discourage welfare recipients from applying to become foster parents in the first place. A foster parent shortage in poor neighborhoods could even put a serious crimp in Scopetta's ambitious plan to place foster children in nurturing homes near their old residences.


One obvious way for the new welfare system to function is for government to expand its subsidized child care system. Governor Pataki has proposed in his state budget plan to dedicate $54 million in federal money for the creation 23,000 new child care slots. In April, Lilliam Barrios-Paoli, the new city welfare commissioner, announced that her agency estimated the city may need an additional 12,000 day care slots.

But that won't be enough, experts say. The Independent Budget Office estimates that the city alone will need to add to make even between 33,000 and 84,000 full-time child care slots by the year 2002. That's if Pataki convinces the state legislature to enforce a GOP rule mandating that all welfare recipients be put to work within two years of their getting on the dole.

New York City now spends only $80 million a year to provide subsidized child care to a mere 25,000 children whose parents were in welfare-to-work jobs–and as of 1994, only one in seven eligible parents was getting subsidized care.

The city, according to the Citizens Committee for Children, would need to increase spending by nearly a half a billion dollars to cover the cost of putting 300,000 Ward, children of workfare-mandated parents in day care.

In a single-house bill passed last month, the state assembly proposed adding $140 million for child care for parents in very difficult. welfare-to-work activities, plus $90 million for low-income child care.

Instead, Pataki's proposal calls for something called “informal” child care, where parents are given about $45 a week per child and are left to make their own arrangements. Such a system–without significant government oversight–could result in “dangerous day care situations,” according to the Children's Aid Society's Jonathan Rosenberg.

In addition, Pataki wants to provide day care money–or work fare exemptions–only for parents with kids six and under. The assembly wants to maintain the state's existing under-l3 commitment.

In 1995, Pataki cut child protective and preventative services, resulting in a $131 million cut to New York City child welfare funding and forcing city officials to scale back key programs.

This year, Pataki has proposed setting aside $70 million from the new federal welfare block grant program for child welfare services and another $20 million to make up for the cut in the state's Title XX allocation, which funds child protection and family preservation services.

Advocates also question whether the $74 million Pataki has set aside to make up for the loss of federal Emergency Assistance to Families funding–for services like emergency shelter for children, child care, child protection, and foster care–will be adequate.


So far, Pataki hasn't shown much desire to make the workfare-vs.-child-care squeeze any easier for parents.

If parents fail to show up at their work-fare assignments, the entire household–kids included–would lose their benefits, a much harsher punishment than under current law.

In addition, the governor also wants the right to drug-test recipients and kick their families off the dole if they fail the test twice, despite the fact that three-quarters of child abuse and foster care cases come from chemically dependent parents. Pataki plans to spend $250 million on the testing program, but hasn't slated a penny for drug treatment programs.

The competing Assembly proposal would sanction parents, but not their kids and features a more limited drug-testing scheme while proposing $50 million for drug treatment. But Pataki spokesman John Signor blasted the alternative proposal as fiscally irresponsible. “The Assembly wants to be all things to all people,” he says.

Signor said the governor would encourage localities to come up with their own solutions, “Why can't a welfare recipient have training and be a child care provider and watch the children of other welfare recipients?” he asked.


To parents on welfare, such gray-suited suggestions from Albany seem to mock their own struggles to get real jobs outside of welfare and workfare.

Elsinia Cortez, a Brooklynite who cares for her three young children, has tried to find a job and get off welfare, even enrolling herself in a ten-week computer training course. The city gave her $30 a week for child care and $15 for subway fares while she participated in the program, but she paid the full $45 to a friend to care for her one-and-a-half-year-old boy. She walked over a mile to class each day.

Training or no, she still can't find a job. All the local day care centers are booked, she says, with waiting lists in the hundreds. The after-school programs she's approached don't have any openings either.

This summer, while she tries to figure a way out, she's decided to ship the kids off to their grandmother in Texas.

“After that,” she admits, “I don't know what I'll do.”


Estelle Wilson is a welfare recipient and a foster mother of two boys, ages 11 and 15. Both of her boys have severe behavioral problems and require con-stant supervision. She not only cares for the boys but also watches her two grandsons every evening and teaches a parenting class each week.

Since February, she has also been enrolled in the city's Work Experience Program, answering phones in a city administration office.

How does she take care of the kids and work at the same time? Her 20-year-old son, who came home from college in February, has been around to care for the kids while she is at work. But when he goes back to school on May 13, there will be no one around to watch them. “Once he goes, I'm at risk of losing my children,” she says.

Since she began workfare, she hasn't been able to give her kids the level of attention they need. She Is worried about what might happen to them if she can no longer care for them herself.

“If these children weren't in this foster care program, they'd be in an institution,” she says. After a pause, she adds, “Welfare reform is a good idea–but they didn't think it out, they didn't think about who it's going to affect.”

Adam Fifield and Evan Halper are freelance writers based in New York City.

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