Up to two-thirds of the state's kinship care programs – which offer legal guidance and benefits information, housing help and support groups for relative caregivers – could be eliminated this year.
"Those children are in need," says Patricia Bell, 57, who lives on disability and food stamps and raises her grandson, Rasheen, 13, in Bed-Stuy. "They need all the funding they can get."
Bell is one of thousands of New Yorkers currently eligible for the state's kinship services whose funding is in jeopardy.
In New York state, about one in 11 children – more than 400,000 kids – live in houses headed by non-parent relatives. Most of them are grandparents, and about one in five of these grandparents live below the poverty line. Few of them planned for a second round of childrearing, but when drugs, illness, money problems or prison left the biological parents unable – or unwilling – to parent, these relatives agreed to do it themselves.
The vast majority of these kin caregivers raise their children outside of the foster care system. As a result, they're eligible for little government assistance beyond the basics: food stamps, Medicaid and Social Security.
In 2006, the state legislature passed a bill that established the New York State Kinship Caregiver Program. The program, which is overseen by the Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS), includes 21 sites around the state, with six in New York City. The community-based sites offer relative caregivers counseling and childcare support, classes on parenting and personal finance and help finding legal aid and public assistance. Last year, 3,745 caregivers and 4,827 children used these services, according to the OCFS.
The total budget for those programs two years ago was close to $3 million. Last year it was down to about $1.1 million. That's out of a pool of about $70 million for foster-care prevention. Cuomo has proposed cutting that larger foster-care figure in half this year, to $35 million, and creating a single pool of funds for dozens of foster-care prevention programs. The OCFS commissioner will decide how that money gets divvied up.
There's no telling yet how the state's kinship programs will fare once the dust settles and the money's distributed. But their experience with past funding cuts, and their knowledge of the competition among equally needy programs for the shrinking budget, has kinship advocates are bracing for the worst.
"There's no guarantee they'll get a penny of funding," says Gerard Wallace, director of the state's Kinship Navigator Program, which provides information and referrals to the state's kinship sites.
A Kinship Navigator survey found that close to two-thirds of children in kinship families had been at risk of entering foster care. Currently, the state keeps many children out of foster care by placing them with relatives. But if kinship services are reduced, fewer relatives may be able take on the costs of parenting – and more children may end up in foster care.
Wallace estimates that if only 475 new children – around 10 percent of those who rely on OCFS kinship services – entered foster care, this could cost the state between $7 million and $23 million, depending on the type of foster care they receive. Even the smaller amount would be a major increase over the current cost of kinship services.
On the other hand, kinship programs could end up with more funding if the commissioner decides they're worth bolstering. Wallace says that the Navigator program, for one, has been guaranteed continued funding, which he takes as a good sign.
An official at OCFS deferred questions about funding to the state's Division of the Budget. Jeffrey Gordon, a budget spokesman, says the state will continue to fund foster care prevention services – in one form or another – albeit at half the funding level of this year.
Money just one concern
For most kin caregivers, money woes aren't their only concern. Trips to doctors' offices and parent-teacher meetings, visits from case workers and absentee parents all can prove thorny for caregivers with limited resources and legal rights.
Deciding whether or not to apply for custody of the children can be especially daunting. The process is often lengthy and upsetting for both the children and the caregivers. Even if the relatives are awarded some rights, biological parents often retain others. And in court battles, caregivers are often pitted against their own adult children.
"The relationship is already strained because you're raising your grandchildren," said Giovana Montalvo-Baer, director of the city's Grandparent Resource Center. "So imagine having to go to court to formalize everything."
Patricia Bell, who raises her grandson Rasheen, won custody of him several years ago. The court fight against the boy's mother – who was her son's girlfriend – was agonizing for Bell. But she persisted, she said, because Rasheen told her time and again, "Grandma, don't give up."
Hard to keep up
One person who's likely to feel the sting of any cuts to kinship services is Barbara Ensley, who raises her great-nephew Malik by herself in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.
Ensley, 69, has cared for Malik, 14, since his mother abandoned him when he was still an infant, and his father – Ensley's nephew – was doing drugs and living in and out of homeless shelters.
Soon after taking him in, Ensley realized she couldn't work full time in Manhattan and raise Malik by herself in Brooklyn. So she quit her well-paying job at a financial firm and began to live off of her savings.
"Doing it alone is painful," Ensley says at a weekly meeting for grandparent caregivers at the Institute for Community Living, a city-contracted non-profit. Because the organization doesn't receive state funds, it isn't expecting budget cuts this year.
Her savings spent, Ensley now relies on Social Security checks – about $1,000 a month – along with food stamps and a modest federal grant for needy children. The current state kinship programs can refer caregivers like Ensley to other entitlement programs, as well as to services like daycare and housing help.
In their small apartment, Malik bunks in the single bedroom. Ensley sleeps on a cot in the living room. "The cost of living goes up," Ensley says, "yet the income doesn't."
Some days, Ensley can be seen rattling down the uneven streets of Crown Heights on a kick scooter, while Malik speeds ahead on his skateboard. Depending on the outcome of budget negotiations over the next few months, it could become even harder for caregivers like Ensley to keep up.