This is the story of what happened when I tried to help a New York City mother with no money to get a crib. On the afternoon of July 17th, this mother came to my office in a city hospital with her year old baby, Ursula. The baby has been sharing an adult bed with her sister. Last night Ursula fell out, hurt her arm and had to see the doctor. Babies who sleep unsafe, including in adult beds, are at 40 times greater risk of dying.
I called the Community Service Society (CSS), a well known agency. A few rings, and a receptionist answered. “I need to help a mother get a crib new or used or some money to buy one. She can’t afford it herself.”
The young woman on the line hesitated. “We don’t do that. We provide referrals to services,” she answered. She connects me to the director of another department within CSS that “might have more information.” When she transferred me, no one picked up, so I left a message. Then I called the receptionist back.
I told her no one answered, but could I get the referrals to other agencies. She gave me one number for City Wide Task Force on Housing. When I called they said, “I don’t know why CSS referred you to us. We do eviction preventions.”
The task force suggested I call the Citizens’Advice Bureau. I left a message. A woman called back, said “we don’t do that. Why don’t you call Furnish the Future in Brooklyn, or the Coalition for the Homeless?” “Do they do that?” I pressed her. “I really don’t know,” she answered. “I’m just hoping. If they don’t, try Catholic Charities.”
I called CSS back. Another person answered. I told her that the other receptionist had given me a referral that didn’t result in a crib. Wondering if I’d get the same answer, I repeated Ursula’s problem and asked if CSS could help. “I don’t think we do that,” she waffled. “I have no idea”. This is a good place to say that the annual budget of CSS is $20 million.
I hung up, and rang Catholic Charities as Citizens Advice Bureau said to. “We don’t provide that,” a woman said. I call the Administration of Children’s Services, known as ACS to most poor people and social workers. Their mission is to prevent child abuse and neglect. I called the two main numbers listed on nyc.gov for ACS. One rang with no way to leave a message. The other picked up. It said, “If you have a mailbox on this system, please enter it now.”
Since the number wasn’t working, I called back a while later. This time a person picked up. I told them about Ursula and how she falls out of the bed at night. I was transferred twice, left a message. A man called me back. He said he would have someone call me. He said “unfortunately, ACS doesn’t do this sort of thing (give away cribs). As an agency, we don’t deal with poverty.”
“We might be able to do something if you open a preventive case for this family first,” the man said. This would mean calling in a report for suspected neglect. I put this option off.
Up the road a few calls, ACS did call back. They gave me the number for “Cribs for Kids,” which they said gets cribs for mothers who can’t afford one.
An answering machine came on, asking mothers to leave a name and phone number. I left a message at 4:45, July 17th. I called back on Monday, July 20th and left another. And on Wednesday July 22nd. And on Thursday July 23rd.
On July 23, I got a call back from an agency called St. Mary’s. Their staff person says they have a crib, but it has no hardware (a crib without hardware is useless, because its safety can’t be guaranteed. I say no thanks and keep calling).
Cribs for Kids eventually called back a few days later. She said to call the New York City Department of Health (DOH), a Cribs for Kids partner agency. I did and left a message. A woman calls me back, but says she can only get a crib for newborns—Ursula is too old. But she tells me to call “Bridge for Life” another agency that “might help”. So I call Bridge for Life. “We are not available right now, our hours are Tuesday and Thursday only 9:30 to 1:30.” I’m about to leave a message when I hear, “MEMORY FULL” and am disconnected.
On July 28, 2009 I called back ACS, who said the parent should go to the Bronx field office and open a prevention case. I tell them that their suggestion, Cribs for Kids, referred me to DOH and that DOH can only get cribs for newborns. ACS has no other suggestions. I call Ursula’s mom and tell her to go open the case, it’s the one way to get help through this agency. She agrees to call me afterward and tell me how it went.
On July 29, this affair continues. I email Prevent Child Abuse New York in Albany about Ursula and the crib. They send me five possible places to get one: 1) Child Center of NY 2) Women in Need 3) Graham Windham Family and Community Support 4) Met Council on Poverty. 5) Furnish the Future (again) I call all five.
Here’s what happens. I leave a message for Child Center of NY. I reach Women in Need. “We only help women enrolled in our programs,” the person says (She doesn’t offer to enroll Ursula’s mom). “Do you have any idea who can help me?” I say. “Call Baby Buggy,” she says. I call them before continuing down my list. A woman picks up, says, “you have to go to our website and research our program partners. There is no guarantee. Baby Buggy itself doesn’t have cribs, only strollers.”
I call Graham Windham. “We only do our own kids. I can see if I can come up with something and get back to you.” Then “There are no guarantees” (I’m still waiting). I call the Met Council on (Jewish) Poverty’s “crisis intervention line,” but no one is available to take my call. At Furnish the Future, they say Ursula’s mom has to have a referral from the Department of Homeless Services. Since Ursula is not homeless, she can’t get that.
I call back the people at Prevent Child Abuse to tell them that none of their referrals got us a crib. “Did you try going on Craig’s List?” they say, apologetic. I’m apoplectic.
I then call back DOH to let them know that Bridge to Life didn’t lead anywhere. DOH makes some suggestions. “Try Catholic Charities,” they say to me. “Try Baby Buggy.”
It’s July 30th. Morning. I call back Child Center of NY. “We only provide mental health services for children. I don’t know why they’d refer you to us.” This woman tells me to try “Hour Children” so I do. Their receptionist says, “you have to call Catholic Charities to get a referral to us.” (Remember I’ve already called Catholic Charities and they said “we don’t do that.”)
I call back Catholic Charities and am transferred to a “benefits specialist” who doesn’t “make any guarantee” but says I need to talk to the Director. So he transfers me. I leave a message for this director. I have not gotten a return call. Child Center of NY also suggested I call the Jewish Board of Children and Families. I explain what Ursula needs. The receptionist transfers me first to ‘psychiatry”, then “psychiatry” connects me to “volunteers” who say I don’t have the correct area, who transfer me to “development,” who transfer me to “homeless prevention.”
I’m beginning to feel dizzy.
Now it’s August 3rd, nighttime. Ursula’s mom first asked for my help on July 17th. I call back Catholic Charities again, to see about that referral. They don’t call back, so I leave another message in a different voice mail box. Catholic Charities calls me back. “Hour Children says you can refer me and I’ll be able to get a crib,” I tell her. She says “I don’t know why they told you that.” This is a good time to say that the annual budget of Catholic Charities New York is $42 million a year.
Remember ACS? Ursula’s mom calls me on August 4th. Yesterday she took two buses to get to the ACS Bronx field office and talked to a caseworker, as ACS had instructed. It was a hot sunny day, not a good one for trekking with a one year old. The caseworker sent Ursula’s mom to Leake Watts, another agency, to “get assessed.” If it turns out all she needs is the crib, but needs none of the “services” they want her to enroll in, Leake Watts will refer her to another agency.
I’ve never heard back from CSS.
I appreciated talking to the director at Hour Children, a Bronx shelter for women leaving prison, on Friday. She is the only one I’ve talked to whose voice contains outrage and concern. She shared this comment with me. “Catholic Charities has more money than God,” she said, “but they refer women to us when they know we struggle financially to take care of the mothers and children we already have.”
Catholic Charities “helpline” calls me back, but to refer me to Catholic Guardian Society. Luckily, I’ve already called Catholic Guardian and they’ve already said no. I tell the Catholic Charities woman this. She says, “well, the mom can come in, and we’ll assess her to see what she needs. “But” she adds, “there are no guarantees.”
Big charities refer to little neighborhood charities and the little ones refer back to the big ones. Well meaning but underinformed staff fling out the names and numbers of places who can “help” without ever having checked on their usefulness. I’ve even been referred to wrong numbers while trying to find this crib, such as when Catholic Charities referred me to a Bronx social service agency, Highbridge Unity Center, that turned out to be a real estate management (It is listed on the Catholic Charities website, where people in crisis go hoping to find help). It is August 5th, one month since I first started searching for a crib for Ursula.
The energies of social workers are used up, while poor people are bounced about in terror and frustration. The agencies don’t help but continue to exist unimproved. And if poor mothers get angry? That would be so ungrateful of them. Even if we never get them what they need, we care so much about them, don’t we?