Wynona’s House: Christie left a mangled mess for abused children and political allies

TRENTON – One of the fallen in this year’s budget battles was the Wynona Lipman Child Advocacy Center in Newark, a budget cut that took everyone off guard – even key players close to Gov. Chris Christie’s administration, according to sources.

“This is the unkindest and meanest cut of them all,” said state Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-20), of Elizabeth, regarding the $537,000 yanked from the one-stop center for sexually abused children in Newark.

Before Christie boarded his plane out West, the Wynona Lipman Center became the Democrats’ foremost symbol of Christie hacking the budget to prove his political point: Don’t mess with executive.

When the governor returned, he bemoaned the “crass politics” at play regarding the Newark program. “It was clear to me and I assured them during my time away, that this was nothing more than a miscommunication and as soon as I would come back we would straighten it out.”

He said, “We certainly weren’t trying to play hide the ball,” yet there are sources within the GOP who said that Republicans were not aware the Newark center was going to have its funding restored. There was miscommunication, GOP sources said, and it stemmed from the front office.

Miscommunication

One Republican lawmaker told PolitickerNJ that, unlike the $139 million cut to Transitional Aid, the funding for Wynona’s House was never explained to the Republican senators in caucus before they withstood a Democratic veto override attempt the week following the budget. Yes, the lawmaker said, they were told there would be no interruption of service, as Christie maintains, but if the federal funding was already in place, why didn’t Christie tell anyone – not the center’s employees, the fragile families who use the center, the press and the public-at-large, or even his Republican allies – about the funding?

“We didn’t spend a lot of time in the press conference going line-item by line-item,” Christie said, “and then I left town.”

In his absence, the center’s leaders feared that the facility would close due to the funding gap. The center’s chairwoman – who claimed the cut was retaliation for her calls earlier this year for Christie’s impeachment – offered to resign to remove any political motivations from the situation.

This Tuesday, Christie owned up to the fact that he kept the exact funding information from the press for two weeks because he wanted to be the one to announce it.

“We waited to announce the specifics of that until I came back because I wanted to announce it,” Christie said on Tuesday. “But I became aware of it (when) we were considering the budget back in June.”

A second GOP legislator also said there was no communication from the front office to the upper house Republicans about funding for Wynona’s House, which led to some passionate speeches during the override vote about the fact that the center is just another liberal heartstring handout that shouldn’t be a cost to taxpayers.

“We’re living in a new era,” said state Sen. Joe Kyrillos, of Middletown, (R-13), who the Republicans are prepping for a run at U.S. Senate. “Life has changed. Let’s stop hoodwinking the people. Let’s start telling them the truth about what we can afford.”

Democratic state Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz, (D-29), of Newark, called the hoodwinking comment “unconscionable” as it related to Wynona’s House. The Essex County center attends to severely traumatized children, such as two siblings of 8-year-old Christiana Glenn, who police found dead in her Irvington home on May 22 due to an untreated broken leg and malnutrition.

Kyrillos called the center’s funding a “noble” Christmas tree item – a giveaway in the budget – but made no assurances that Wynona’s House would continue without interruption or reduction of service.

Christie said. “Unfortunately for the clarity of the subject, I was away for two weeks and (so it) was just those who were either less-informed or ill-motivated who were making statements about what was going to happen at the Wynona Lipman House.”

Federal funding

When PolitickerNJ asked Christie this week about the lack of GOP foreknowledge, he said, “The Republican legislators knew that there would be no interruption and diminution of service. That’s what we told them then and if you go back to the floor debate, they talk about that.”

Only one Republican senator reassured the state that the center would remain open. That was state Sen. Gerry Cardinale, (R-39), of Demarest, who also said he hoped the center would have to do more with less since Christie has “seen fit” to reduce its funding and that he wished his tax dollars did not have to support the center at all.

Also, in his assurance that the center would remain open, Cardinale said it would be from Division of Youth and Family Services funding, which turned out not to be the case. It was the same explanation that the Governor’s Office sent to the press on July 11, citing DYFS grant funding that never materialized.

“The Wynona Lipman Center will continue to be able to provide necessary services because of DYFS grant funding and their operations with DYFS and the county prosecutor’s office,” the email said. “Additionally, similar services have and will continue to be provided throughout the State by DCF and county governments, without additional legislative spending.”

Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak declined to comment on the press release several times this week.

The new federal funding, although Christie called it a grant when he unveiled it this week, is actually Social Security Act Title IV-E reimbursement for foster care and adoptions.

“This is not a traditional or program-specific grant application,” said N.J. Department of Children and Families spokeswoman Lauren Kidd, “rather the funds are available through a continuous claims process and requires DCF to submit supporting documentation of expenditures quarterly throughout each fiscal year.”

Kidd said in an email, “DCF does not need pre-approval to spend the funds. The funds are earned from the foster care and adoption program but may be spent to support other department operations…Once this reimbursement has been approved and received from the federal government the state is allowed to utilize these funds to support the Department’s overall operations as determined by the DCF Commissioner.”

Administration officials said the funding was not being used for anything else in the budget and do not know when it was awarded. They said it became available sometime between March and July.

Micromanaging

Christie gave no indication when he issued the line-item vetoes that this center would be saved, and when asked about particular line-items, he avoided specifics.

“Now let’s not start going down that road. I’m not going to be answering every one of these, because we can’t afford it,” Christie said. “The reason, by the way, that I cut every one of these is we can’t afford it.” He said spending reductions he made – which includes the cut to Wynona’s House – were done because the Democrats were handing out state dollars like “Santa Claus in an election year.”

Upon his return, he lauded the center’s achievements. Christie said he wants to streamline grants and other funding to make sure worthwhile projects get approved, “so we can have the best ones get the funding and not just the one who has the most powerful legislator (lobbying for it)…This is one of the last vestiges of that type of program.” He also called the center an “extraordinarily worthwhile” program.

A Democratic operative close to leadership spoke with one of the top-level officials in the Christie Administration following the vetoes, and when the source asked about Wynona’s House, the official discussed several funding options, none of which were Title IV-E reimbursement funding. Christie said the funding was already in place at that time.

Another Republican legislator also found gaps in the story Christie has told since his return, and said the GOP caucus – or at least a significant portion of the caucus – has had enough of Christie’s “micromanagement to the Nth degree.”

Other GOP aides and operatives confirmed the Republicans’ aggravation at Christie. One said Christie went beyond what was necessary in budget cuts to make political points on the backs of abused children – and then asked the Republicans to cover for him without the complete story.

“Wynona’s House should have never been cut and deserves the restoration, but the children deserved it on July 1,” said Senate Majority spokesman Derek Roseman. “That the governor waited to share his secret for 18 days is horrendous, that is if anyone believes his story.”

The Governor’s Office declined several opportunities to rebut the allegations in this story.

State Sen. Loretta Weinberg, (D-37), of Teaneck, said during the floor debate: “Talk about hoodwinking the people, Senator Kyrillos? This is the governor hoodwinking the people.”

Wynona’s House: Christie left a mangled mess for abused children and political allies