A group of women is using infants and toddlers to panhandle on the streets and subway platforms of Manhattan in what appears to be a coordinated effort, and they consistently refuse city services that could help them, an NBC 4 New York I-Team investigation has found.
Over the past month, the I-Team has documented at least nine women spending long days begging with babies, mostly on midtown sidewalks. The women commute together, splitting up to beg for money. They change their children’s diapers on the pavement and display signs claiming they’re jobless or hungry.
During the day, some of the women meet for lunch. At night, the I-Team has spotted groups of them meeting at Grand Central Terminal where they travel via the C train to the same building in East New York, Brooklyn.
The I-Team tried to interview the panhandling women, but most were not interested in talking. They consistently hurried away when faced with questions about why they choose to beg with babies, whether it's a business and whether it's appropriate for the children. They shoved members of the I-Team when asked questions; one made a lewd gesture.
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On a cool October night, an undercover I-Team producer approached one of the women on Madison Avenue and noted that her daughter was coughing and sounded sick.
"She has a cold," the woman replied. "What can I do? I don’t have a job."
If panhandling with children can be considered a job, it is a lucrative one. At certain times of day, the women collect several handouts per minute from charitable passersby like Gayapri Reddy of North Bergen, New Jersey, who gave one of the women $2 on 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue.
"She was with a child," said Reddy. "She’s hungry."
The sight of children begging prompts emotional reactions, but not all are positive. One man dressed in a suit said panhandling with children was "inappropriate," as he passed by one of the women on Madison Avenue.
"There are plenty of government services they can get," the passerby said.
Social service workers tell the I-Team the women have repeatedly refused shelter and services because they only want cash.
George McDonald, who works with The Doe Fund, a nonprofit that helps the homeless get back on their feet, said the women are endangering the welfare of the children they appear to use as props.
"This is a scam -- a business," McDonald said.
McDonald, a Republican who ran for mayor last year, says he and dozens of his employees at The Doe Fund have witnessed the patterns of these women.
"It’s a group of women who who trade off the same children. They work in shifts," McDonald said. "We have a network of service providers who would help them if they wanted help, which they do not."
A different woman begging with a 2-year-old girl on Fifth Avenue told an undercover I-Team producer she was from Romania and that she was jobless, not homeless.
Panhandling is legal on New York City streets but not in the transit system, according to city law. Though a little known state law makes it a misdemeanor to use children to peddle or "pick rags," according to Karen Freedman, who works with the group Lawyers for Children.
The NYPD doesn't appear to be enforcing this law, despite interacting with the panhandling women on the streets.
The I-Team witnessed two officers warn one woman, "Someone’s gonna call 911. They’re gonna show up. They’re gonna call child services.”
NYPD spokesman Stephen Davis tells the I-Team there have been arrests in cases like these in the past, and the NYPD approaches the women on a case-by-case basis. Davis was not immediately able to comment on police interacting with the women the I-Team tracked down in midtown, nor could he say whether police had contact with NYC Administration for Children’s Services in those cases.
According to ACS Commissioner Gladys Carrion, police have not filed any complaints this year about child neglect related to the women begging on the streets with babies.
"It really is disturbing that no one would think of calling that in," Carrion said, adding that she would reach out to the police department to determine how to handle the issue.
Freedman says that simply enforcing the law by issuing summonses to the women is insufficient.
"This is some sort of exploitation at some level," Freedman said. "The question is: Is there actual harm to the child?”
Carrion says that if a complaint were called into the child abuse hotline, an investigation would be launched to determine why the women are begging and whether the kids' basic needs are being met.
"I would venture to say it’s not right to have children in the street serving as props to be able to get money, right?” Carrion said.
While many people may frown on the practice of begging with babies and even if it’s a misdemeanor, the practice in and of itself does not amount to child neglect, however. Experts in child welfare law say the women might be able to demonstrate that their children are receiving proper food, clothing and care.
NYU Law professor Marty Guggenheim says the more organized the panhandling operation is, the more like a business it is -- and the more likely a creative prosecutor would be to make a case that it amounts to child labor.