In foster care, New York caregivers are filling in the gaps, but many say complaints, cases remain unresolved

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Leona Bench of Baldwinsville, with her 16-month-old grandniece Maleeah ​​Waite in her apartment on September 23, 2021. Bench’s daughter Rachel Hitchcock, who lives with Bench, helps Maleeah, who is nicknamed Emmy. Bench had Emmy when she was one week old. Bench said she had struggled with managing foster families between counties for months and ended up spending thousands of dollars before getting financial assistance. Photo: Democrat & Chronicle / Associated Press.

By Tiffany Cusaac Smith

USA TODAY New York State Team

Leona Bench ended up with discharge papers from a Westchester hospital and a note from her incarcerated niece saying the newborn should be in her care.

Much to his disappointment, Bench would not get much more from the county social workers in the hospital, having made the several-hour commute from his Syracuse home in Onondaga County to pick up the child in White Plains. , she said.

Instead, Bench would leave the hospital with a child born a month earlier over whom she lacked legal authority.

Bench says social workers at the hospital mistakenly told her that Section 10, a section of the Family Court Act that gives her temporary custody, no longer exists, essentially diverting her from the family court system. foster care, its benefits or legal authority over the child.

Instead, Bench said he was asked to take permanent legal custody as part of an Article 6 proceeding that did not help him, despite an agreement between the two counties to obtain temporary custody and a home assessment carried out before the birth of the child.

“I felt betrayed,” Bench said, recalling seeing the child in the hospital. “I felt like I had been lied to.”

Ryan Johnson, associate director of the nonprofit NYS Kinship Navigator which works with and is funded by the state to support family caregivers, said Bench’s case is indicative of the state’s foster care system in which complaints are not promptly heard or negotiated.

At the center are the children who sometimes go through the traumatic experience of being moved to foster homes and live without the necessary financial support, as well as their caregivers who may feel exhausted by the bureaucracy and feel that they don’t. There is no outlet for their concerns, Johnson and other advocates told USA TODAY Network New York.

Thus, foster care advocates are pushing for state law to create an ombudsman’s office to compile complaints and publish reports on their findings in the hope that this will germinate seeds for further reforms.

The ombudsman’s office would also work with foster parents, birth parents and youth to resolve disputes, according to the law.

The push by the state comes as foster care across the country is undergoing major reform.

Passed under the Trump administration in 2018, the Family First Prevention Services Act financially discourages the placement of children in places of assembly, such as group homes. Instead, it encourages states to place children with parents.

In June, 43% of children living in foster care in New York City were living in family homes and 14% of youth in foster care lived in group homes, the Office of Children and Services said on Friday. the state family in a statement. The state’s goal is to have 50% living with a relative and 12% in gathering places.

Even with the nationwide reform, there are still opponents of the statewide effort who say there is due process – and those who feel wronged can use that route. They say foster parents are assigned court-appointed lawyers to help them navigate the system.

But supporters of the ombudsman’s office say the process does little to change the outcome of what happens in foster families.

The Office of Children and Family Services did not make an agency official available for an interview, but said in a statement that it had “a robust complaints response protocol and regularly investigated issues brought to our attention by voters. “

The office did not respond to further questions about the protocol and said it does not comment on state law.

Back in Syracuse, Bench said she couldn’t go far. She did not have a birth certificate or social security number for her great-niece.

When Onondaga Child Protection Services found out that she did not have the papers, she said, they abandoned their case, leaving her without financial support or the ability to make key decisions in the future. name of the child.

In the coming months, Bench would struggle to make doctor’s appointments for the child. During this time, she also maximized her credit cards by purchasing clothes, a playpen, bottles and other necessities.

“I was struggling,” she said. “It was terrible for about three months.”

By the time her credit card bill came due, the child would be placed in a foster care system, but that would not last long.

Westchester County said in court that it did not have jurisdiction to pay the benefits. Rather, he would argue that Oswego County, where the mother resided at the time, should pay the financial support, as court records obtained by the USA TODAY Network have shown.

When an Oswego judge returned the case to Westchester, a Westchester judge dismissed the case, citing jurisdiction, according to a separate court record.

Westchester County did not respond to a request to comment on Bench’s case.

Today Bench is, in many ways, back to square one, but with an older child.

“Again, I have nothing left,” she said, adding, “It’s like the day I got home from the hospital.

Johnson of NYS Kinship Navigator, who has personally defended Bench’s name, said the state told him Westchester had “mismanaged” the case, but the office had limited resources to resolve the issue because it did not. had insufficient surveillance of the counties. .

The Office of Children and Family Services said Monday: “We are bound by confidentiality and cannot confirm or deny the existence of a case of child protection services.”

But Danielle Skelly, a former Suffolk County foster family who now works with the New York Adoptive and Foster Family Coalition, said there was no mechanism to collect these complaints and report back ” punctual and measured “.

She said it was common for her organization’s hotline to handle multiple complaints from the same agency about similar issues. But, Skelly says, there is often little they can do because they’re not an investigative body.

She hopes that the legislation can fill this gap. The state legislature is not expected in Albany until January.

But others question the effectiveness of a possible ombudsman’s office in exercising oversight in an area if they are not aware of all complaints filed by state or local government departments. social services.

“When there are 100,000 complaints and there are only 100,000 children in foster care, well, yes, they will have a picture of what is going on,” Lawyers policy director said. For Children, Betsy Kramer. His organization has not taken a position on state law.

“But somewhat differently, the individual information that comes to them may not be representative of what is going on,” she added.

With the implementation of the Family First Act, she said, states are going to be subject to a closer look at their funding and whether the services they provide are of high quality and sound. on evidence, such as short-term help for caregivers and some mental health services. .

“It’s hard to get these kinds of really good services in a community setting right now – and it shouldn’t be,” she said.

“And so we’re hoping that’s going to be a by-product of that. That some dollars will be reinvested in providing these types of services in the community.”

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