In 2022, The Council of Family and Child Caring Agencies, or COFCCA, called on Gov. Kathy Hochul and the state legislature to make a more significant investment than what was put forth in the executive budget proposal. Once again this year, COFCCA is asking for more money to be directed to staff in their workforce.
This year, though, COFCCA says the situation is even more dire.
Today, New York’s foster care programs do not know what their rates will be come April 1. According to COFCCA, that’s because the state set aside its long-standing rate-setting system, meaning agencies are at risk of a funding reduction. And in partnership with other child welfare groups, COFCCA has filed a lawsuit against the governor and other state officials for this action.
At Albany’s LaSalle School, front-line child welfare workers providing critical, trauma-informed care are struggling to make ends meet. Executive Director David Wallace has assembled a team of staff dedicated to saving children’s lives – a job he says takes a uniquely special person.
“Residential foster care providers throughout New York State work with some of the most vulnerable, most damaged children in our care,” Wallace said. “What we know about children who have experienced great harm, great hardship, extreme trauma is that really what is required is to have a meaningful and genuine relationships with adult caregivers who are there for them no matter what.”
LaSalle’s campus has both residential housing and a school for boys and young men. Children get here through child welfare cases, the juvenile justice pipeline, or through special education, when a school district determines a higher level of care is needed.
“We have kids that are referred to as cross-system kids. That requires a cross-system approach; that requires cross-trained staff. And it's that level of training and skill that is really required to be effective in this space,” said Wallace.
The staff at LaSalle knows intimately how challenging it can be to help the children take meaningful steps toward healing.
“A lot of these kids are in a fight or flight or freeze. And, you know, nine times out of 10, it's freeze or flight. So when we try to bridge that gap as far as trying to be like a fatherly figure, a brotherly figure, sometimes we don't actually get that response that we're searching for,” said Youth Development Specialist Phil Sellers.
“What we're teaching them is not something they could learn overnight,” said School Safety Staff Aloysius McClinton.
Spectrum News 1 interviewed three employees for this story – each work at least 24 hours of overtime every week to make ends meet. One employee works two jobs outside of LaSalle on top of that overtime.
For some employees, they understand exactly what these kids are going through, and it’s that understanding that pushes them forward.
“I was actually in a place like this when I was 13 … This place doesn't shut down. So, I mean, they need somebody for them. 24/7. And if it's not me, it's going to be somebody else. And if it's not somebody else, it's going to have to be me. Because there has to be somebody here,” said Overnight Youth Development Specialist Christopher Kittle.
They know they are a vital resource and are passionate about creating the best possible outcome for a child.
“People don't get into social work to make millions. You know, they get into social work to make a change,” said Sellers.
Even so, Wallace says the current wages that child welfare and foster care workers make across New York state is inadequate to maintain and sustain dedication to the kids.
“I think what we're finding now is that the pace of inflation and what it takes to make ends meet outside of here has just gotten tougher and tougher and tougher and so critically important right now to be closing that gap and making sure that this workforce, who cares for the neediest and most complex group of children in New York state is cared for,” said Wallace.
COFCCA is calling for a few changes to the finalized state budget. First, they’re calling for current foster care rates to be fully funded through the end of June, as well as returning to that former rate-setting system so these programs have predictable funding again. Next, is the cost of living adjustment, or COLA. In her budget proposal, Gov. Hochul outlined a 2.5% COLA for the human services sector, which includes foster care. COFCCA says that is inadequate given the collective ask from that sector for an 8.5 percent increase, in line with this year’s consumer price index.
Hochul's office released a statement Monday saying, "Governor Hochul's Executive Budget makes transformative investments to make New York more affordable, more livable and safer, and she looks forward to working with the legislature on a final budget that meets the needs of all New Yorkers."