They’re back, begging with babies on steaming hot streets and sidewalks. And they want your sympathy and cash.
A group of women first exposed by the I-Team last year has resurfaced in Manhattan, using young children to panhandle, despite promises by Mayor de Blasio to take action to get them off the streets.
In November, the I-Team reported the women were commuting together and splitting up to work shifts with babies on separate corners in what appeared to be an organized effort to tug at New Yorkers' heartstrings and wallets.
“I gave her some money because I felt bad,” said Tyece Smith of Harlem, explaining that she gave one woman $5 after seeing her breastfeeding a newborn on Broadway with a sign about having no job.
In recent weeks, the I-Team and NBC 4 New York viewers have documented at least seven women with young children repeatedly hustling for cash, and in some cases commuting together.
“I hadn’t seen them for a couple months,” said John Friia, who tried last year to report some of the same women to child welfare officials. Friia said several weeks ago he encountered a panhandling pair in Herald Square. “I kind of got really furious, like they were at it again.”
Friia is one of several NBC 4 New York viewers who said they were disappointed to see the women resurface after a few months off the streets. They had hoped the decrease in sightings was a result of a pledged crackdown by city officials.
“I’m not surprised that nothing’s happened, especially the way the city works,” he said, adding, “I feel the city should have a task force where they could walk around the city and confront these mothers.”
In November, de Blasio said he was “very very troubled” by the I-Team report.
“If it’s even possible that parents are using their babies as pawns to get people to give them donations that’s horrendous and deeply unfair to those children,” de Blasio said at the time, saying he would put his inter-agency children’s cabinet and the NYPD on the case.
The mayor said if the city found any evidence of a coordinated effort by these women, which the I-Team reported there was, there would be “enforcement.”
But eight months later, New York City officials say "enforcement" has not been possible, because panhandling is not illegal in the city with or without a child -- unless you're on a subway.
While there is an ancient cultural affairs law on the books barring the use of children to “pick rags” and beg for change, the NYPD says that is not among the laws currently enforced by the NYPD.
Still many New Yorkers believe it’s not appropriate even if it's not illegal.
“I think it’s wrong to be begging on the train with your child. It’s really messed up.” said Kathy Ghanney who tells the I-Team she sees the women during her commute on the A train.
Multiple social service programs that have interacted with these women tell the I-Team they do not believe them to be homeless, adding that they repeatedly refuse offers of shelter, food and welfare, choosing instead to hustle for cash day after day with their children in tow.
During the I-Team's original investigation, the I-Team found some of the women met for lunch during the day. At night, the I-Team spotted groups of them meeting at Grand Central Terminal where they traveled via the C train to the same building in East New York.
Some of the women have told the I-Team they have no choice but to beg for money on the street because of their undocumented immigration status. City officials point out that undocumented parents are able to receive some government help including emergency food and that if truly impoverished, their children who are likely citizens born in this country, are entitled to cash welfare regardless of their parents’ immigration status.
A woman from East New York who has seen these women begging on Broadway downtown said children should not be exposed to it.
“I’m a parent. I would utilize what my city gives me," she said. "There are other opportunities.”
Child welfare officials say while not everyone may agree with the practice, the act of begging with a baby is not in itself neglect. The legal definition of neglect includes harm or imminent risk of harm to a child’s physical mental or emotional state.
The I-Team confirmed there have been several recent calls to 911 placed by concerned New Yorkers. NYPD sources tell the I-Team that upon inspection there did not appear to be a crime in progress and that the children did not present any obvious signs of harm nor did they appear in danger.
City officials say in response to the I-Team reports, the NYPD and Administration for Children’s Services met several times in early 2015 to discuss the practice. They say the Administration for Children’s Services developed guidelines to help retrain police officers on what to look for when they encounter babies begging.
For instance, does the child appear appropriately dressed? Malnourished? Drugged? The I-Team reported concerns that some toddlers remain unusually still, even lethargic while panhandling.
But if concerned citizens choose to call the state’s child abuse hotline as they have in the past, they may find it impossible to initiate an investigation. The state office of Children and Family Services, which runs the hotline, said in a statement this week that they cannot open investigations without adequate identifying information such as names or addresses of the women, which passersby are unable to provide.
Some family law experts have suggested the issue requires a creative solution, such as treating the situation as a child labor violation. Or perhaps pushing for a new law that would bar using children as part of an organized effort to panhandle. So far that hasn’t happened.
In a written statement, Blasio said, “I have said before and will say again no parent, no adult should use children as pawns in panhandling, risking their safety and well-being on the street and in hazardous weather conditions, such as the heat wave we are experiencing now. We have services and shelters to help people who need resources, and we are actively approaching individuals panhandling with children. I have directed NYPD to investigate these situations to determine if any laws are being broken. Officers have been trained to track and refer suspected abuse to (child welfare authorities.). The NYPD encourages anyone with knowledge of abuse to report it immediately.”
New York City Council Member Stephen Levin who chairs the City Council’s General Welfare Committee tells the I-Team, “We have to assess whether the existing laws on the books are adequate to deal with the issues.”
Levin says it’s important that any proposed legislation protects parents’ rights and does not unfairly target law abiding families who have simply fallen on hard times. He also suggests that ACS should be more proactive about engaging the women to assess their needs and offer preventive services.