State officials are taking action on two fronts to stop a group of women from using babies to panhandle throughout Manhattan, following a series of I-Team reports that found they may be involved in a coordinated scheme to exploit their children.
To this point, the NYPD has insisted its hands are tied because panhandling with children on city streets is not illegal.
State Senate co-leader Jeffrey Klein, a Democrat, has drafted a bill that would dust off some archaic language in New York State Cultural Affairs Law banning begging with babies and move it into the NY State Penal Law so that the NYPD can take action in these cases.
“I believe we need legislation to end this nefarious practice,” Klein told the I-Team, which he thanked for exposing "this outrageous situation, parents using their kids as human placards to panhandle to get money."
Under Klein’s bill, repeat offenders would face felony charges, as would anyone who attempts to recruit or convince another person beg with a child.
“If you’re turning this into a racket, and that’s what it is, then you have to be punished and I think punished to the fullest,” Klein said.
The I-Team first exposed the women working together last November -- commuting in groups with their young children, then splitting up to work long shifts on separate corners. Sometimes they were seen taking lunch breaks together.
Social service groups say they do not believe these women are homeless. They tell the I-Team they repeatedly refuse government help like shelter, food and welfare because they would rather collect cash on the street.
While the NYPD is sometimes approached by concerned New Yorkers, generally the most officers do is move the women. They just end up on different corners.
Richard Aborn of the Citizens Crime Commission said he disagrees with efforts to criminalize the panhandling practice exposed by the I-Team. He said he would prefer to see the NYPD and Administration for Children’s Services create a task force to treat it like a social issue, the same way they address the homeless.
“For me, the first concern is whether or not these women are being coerced into doing this with their kids," Aborn said. "If they are not, and they are doing it voluntarily, we then need to approach them, and see if we can get them the kind of resources and help that will stop this.”
The New York State Assembly has not yet weighed in on Klein’s proposal.
The I-Team asked Gov. Cuomo Monday what he thought about the practice.
“If a parent is not acting in the best interest of the child, that certainly would violate the law,” Cuomo said.
If the governor is suggesting professional panhandling amounts to neglect, the question becomes how his own child abuse hotline has been handling complaints about these women.
Since last year, the I-Team has been reporting that the child abuse hotline, the New York State Central Register, has been telling concerned callers they are unable to initiate a neglect investigation unless the callers can provide names and/or addresses of these women and children.
As recently as last Wednesday, Steve Zhu, a patent attorney who works in midtown told the I-Team he called the hotline to report a woman with a newborn he had seen on the hot sidewalk earlier in the day near Bryant Park.
Zhu recounted his conversation with the call taker.
“He said he had a problem in registering this case within the system because first, I don’t have a name, second I don’t have an address for this mother and child, third I don’t have the child’s gender," Zhu said. " We founded this hotline to solve a problem and they’re not solving the problem.”
The same day the I-Team asked the governor about the ongoing practice of panhandling with children, the I-Team learned the hotline changed its procedure.
"Since your last report two weeks ago, we have received about a half a dozen calls," State Spokeswoman Monica Mahaffey said. "On Monday, we instructed our hotline call takers to gather and report as much information as possible to ACS in the hopes of developing a pattern that will enable investigators to locate and investigate the individuals panhandling with children.”