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May 19, 2003

Cuts May Hurt Deaf Mothers

From: Newsday - May 19, 2003

By Glenn Thrush STAFF WRITER

May 19, 2003

Ramona Marrero can't stop using sign language, even when she's not working with the two dozen deaf mothers who depend on her efforts to keep their homes, their sanity and their children.

Marrero, 44, is a case aide for a New York Foundling Hospital program that provides help to hearing-impaired mothers, some with such severe problems that the city has threatened to place their children in foster care. It's the only program of its kind in New York, but that hasn't spared it from the ubiquitous city budget ax: Marrero is one of two workers scheduled to be laid off in July.

"I love this job, I love my ladies; it's all I want to do," said Marrero, who taught herself to sign after her daughter was born deaf 11 years ago. "I don't know what I'm going to do if I get laid off, and I don't know what they're going to do when I'm gone."

Preventive service units run by nonprofit agencies are bracing for an 18.5 percent cut - even though Mayor Michael Bloomberg and many child welfare experts credit such programs with keeping thousands of children out of foster care.

"There's no question the programs have played a critical role in our continuing reductions in the foster care population and that these cuts hurt," said William Bell, commissioner for the Administration for Children's Services, who will testify at a City Council budget hearing today.

Bloomberg has proposed slashing the ACS preventive budget by $7.8 million, effective July 1. That reduction is really closer to $22 million, factoring in the loss of $14 million in matching state and federal funds.

The cuts could force 3,135 children, virtually all of them black, Hispanic or poor, into foster care during the next year, according to an analysis of child welfare trends to be released today by Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum. That would reverse an eight-year decline in the foster care population, which has fallen from 41,000 to 26,000 since 1995.

Gotbaum estimates the cut could actually cost the city $14.6 million because each foster care placement costs the city a minimum of $17,000 a year, compared with $6,900 for preventive services.

"These are fairly stupid cuts. I don't get why they're doing it," Gotbaum said. "I don't know why the light bulb hasn't gone on in City Hall as to why you'd cut preventive services."

ACS spokeswoman Kathleen Carlson said Gotbaum's numbers were "implausible," adding that "it's too early to say" what impact the reductions will have.

Preventive services are intended to solve family problems before they warrant the forced removal of children. The programs, which became widely used in the mid-1990s, can be tailored to fit a family's specific needs. Services include therapy, parenting classes, tutoring and housekeeping, all under the intense supervision of caseworkers.

Youshelle Williams-Allen, 33, credits family therapy and the close attention she received from caseworkers in winning back two children who spent three years in foster care.

"Without the counseling, I'd probably still be without my kids," said Williams-Allen, who is enrolled in a program run by the Brooklyn Bureau of Community Service in Bedford-Stuyvesant.

Private, nonprofit agencies that administer most of the programs are planning layoffs. The bureau plans to dismiss four of 12 social workers, forcing them to rebuff people who walk into its office for help.

"We're in the unfortunate position of having to turn people away or having to increase caseloads - either way, it's disastrous," said Irwin Lubell, the program's director.

Bell said his staff is searching for cost-cutting options, including consolidating services in high-density areas such as Harlem, central Brooklyn and Jamaica. Some offices in lower-density areas, including parts of Staten Island, may have to close, he said.

"This year, there's no money," he said. "The problem for us is that there is no fat to cut."

The future is so uncertain that Safe Horizons, one of the city's largest and most respected nonprofits, plans to get out of preventive services altogether.

The agency will close three offices serving 300 families in Washington Heights, Brooklyn and the South Bronx if another organization isn't willing to take over its operations.

"We've had the threat of cuts before, but the feeling is that these are going to really happen," said Safe Horizons executive director Gordon Campbell, a former city homeless services commissioner.

Marrero's clients say they will miss her patience and her ability to cut through a city bureaucracy that is tough enough on the hearing and nearly impossible for the hearing-impaired.

Until Marrero came into the picture, Jillian McNichol, 41, was paying her 14-month-old son's medical bills from her $841 monthly disability check, robbing her of rent and food money.

Marrero's solution - applying for Medicaid - seems obvious, but McNichol, who has been deaf since birth, was too intimidated to go down to the welfare office alone.

"I would get lost without her," McNichol signed, using a slightly embarrassed Marrero as her interpreter.

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