What to Know
The I-Team has watched for years as women worked the streets and subways across the city, panhandling with babies like it's a full-time job
In 2016, the state Senate passed a bill to criminalize begging with babies; the Assembly didn't back it -- and neither did the mayor
Now, ACS Commissioner David Hansell has implemented a new plan to expedite the response to dozens of hotline tips about the issue
New York City has a new plan to track down parents begging with babies on the sidewalks.
The protocol developed by Administration for Children’s Services Commissioner David Hansell, which was implemented in December, comes more than four years after the I-Team first exposed an organized group of women using babies and toddlers to tug at heartstrings and beg for cash on city streets.
Panhandling on NYC streets is not against the law with or without children, though all panhandling is illegal in the subway system. Still, it’s a troubling sight to many who encounter it.
“Frankly, I was concerned with what I saw,” Hansell said, describing the I-Team reporting that began in 2014. “It’s not something we want to see in the city.”
After Hansell took charge at ACS in 2017, he says he decided to study the issue. In several cases last year, when concerned citizens called in tips about parents panhandling with young children, ACS found evidence of neglect and placed the children in foster care.
The new plan aims to expedite the response to dozens of tips called into the NY State Child Abuse Hotline, after a year-long analysis by Hansell found the city was only able to locate the subjects in one out of every nine complaints. According to Hansell, in 40 out of 45 cases called in by good Samaritans last year, the women were no longer at the reported location by the time ACS workers arrived.
The new ACS plan gives tipsters the ability to send in a picture of the reported family and if caseworkers can’t find them, they enlist the NYPD to help. Outreach teams with the Department of Homeless Services are also notified.
The issue goes beyond that agency, though. The group of women the I-Team originally exposed in 2014 were not homeless and regularly refused social services help. The I-Team tracked them over a period of months commuting together with the babies to and from an apartment building in Brooklyn. We observed them working long shifts on corners with toddlers who remained unusually still for hours at a time.
Mayor de Blasio said he was outraged at the time and vowed to stop the practice. De Blasio asked his newly formed Children’s Cabinet to find a creative solution. But years passed without any plan to push for new laws or policy changes. City Hall declined to support a 2016 state Senate bill that would have made it illegal to use children in an organized way to beg for money on the street.
Former Deputy Mayor Lilliam Barrios Paoli, who says she quit the administration in frustration back in 2015, tells the I-Team the issue had been essentially tabled by the Children's Cabinet before she left City Hall.
“There was a fear within the administration that it would be perceived as politically incorrect to criminalize these immigrant women,” Barrios Paoli said. As for the changes now implemented by Hansell, Paoli said, "The new protocol is a start but it's not clear how it will deter this troubling practice more broadly in the future."
In 2017, de Blasio told the I-Team his Children’s Cabinet was unable to find an across-the-board solution, adding that any new approach would have to be on a “case-by-case” basis. But de Blasio’s positions have been somewhat inconsistent. While the mayor refused to support criminalizing the use of children to panhandle, he said he wished he could make regular panhandling (without children) illegal because it made the city’s homeless crisis appear worse.
The Republican-controlled state Senate passed the bill to outlaw panhandling with children in 2016, but it was a nonstarter in the Democratic State Assembly. The refusal of Democrats, including de Blasio, to support a change in the law has been a sore point for George McDonald, who runs the Doe Fund – a nonprofit that helps the homeless get back on their feet.
“Why is a mother laying on the street with a toddler in a city that spends $2 billion a year on homeless services and every person who needs it can get services right now? It should be illegal” McDonald said.
The original group of women featured in the I-Team series disappeared from their midtown corners and their Brooklyn neighborhood without a trace in the fall of 2015 after one of the women, Caselina Margel, was arrested during a heatwave for panhandling too close to an ATM, which is against the law, and for endangering the welfare of her newborn child. The Manhattan district attorney’s office tells us there is still a warrant for Margel’s arrest after she failed to appear for a court date. The I-Team has no knowledge of what happened to her or the other women since 2015.
Last year, the I-Team documented what appeared to be a resurgence of women begging with children in Midtown, though not necessarily in an organized way. We received viewer tips and photos – and documented some of the panhandling ourselves.
Hansell says some of the parents ACS found last year were homeless, living in shelters. He says under his new plan, not all parents found panhandling with a child will necessarily be accused of neglect. In some cases, Hansell says, they might be offered help in the form of social services or preventive services But Hansell is not opposed to the idea of revisiting a broader approach.
“We would be happy to be part of any effort to identify broader solutions,” he said. “Certainly we don’t want to see children exploited in that way."