How the Child Welfare Organizing Project Helped Bring Parent Advocacy to NYC’s Child Welfare System

By Mike Arsham

In 1995, 6-year-old Elisa Izquierdo was murdered in New York City by her mentally ill / chemically dependent mother. Her story became a national scandal, featured on the covers of both Time and Newsweek, and a national embarrassment to New York City’s mayor, Rudolph Giuliani. The mayor formed the New York City Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) in 1996 with a Mission Statement that read: “Any ambiguity regarding the safety of the child will be resolved in favor of removing the child.” Involuntary removal of children from their parents increased by 50% over the next two years. 

This was the crucible in which the Child Welfare Organizing Project (CWOP) was forged. 

The Struggle to Prevent Foster Care Placement in NYC Before Elisa

Starting decades before Elisa’s death, New York City and state led the nation in efforts to keep children out of foster care by initiating a public system of preventive services with the Child Welfare Reform Act of 1979. This act created and incentivized a dedicated public funding stream for community services intended to help parents work in partnership with professionals to avert involuntary placement of their children. 

The American system of foster care has roots in mid-19th century New York City. It was a system framed as “child-saving,” yet built on a foundation of white supremacy and marginalization of parents who do not conform to dominant society norms. The Orphan Train movement targeted the children of impoverished Catholic immigrants for re-homing with heartland Protestant families. A significant percentage of these children were not actually orphans. Using this word to describe them deliberately relegated their parents to non-entity status. Similarly, the Native American “boarding school” system, which removed what is estimated to be hundreds of thousands of Native American children from their families, was grounded in the premise of “kill the Indian to save the man.”  Forced assimilation was seen as a means to prevent minority children from growing up to be a threat or a liability to the dominant culture. In the early 19th Century, African American children were seen as incapable of full assimilation and therefore largely outside the child-savers’ range of interest. They were relegated to segregated institutions such as the New York Colored Orphan Asylum, which was destroyed during the Draft Riots.

Dr. James Dumpson served as Commissioner of the NYC Department of Welfare from 1959 – 1965. He was the first African American welfare Commissioner in US history, and he defined his agency’s role not as regulating the poor, but as using public resources to lift constituents out of poverty. The first preventive demonstration projects began in the Bronx in the 1960s, and were conceived of as voluntary services, based on parent / professional partnership, designed to resemble the types of resources that are readily accessible to affluent families, but less available to impoverished families of color: counseling and care management, advocacy, and concrete housing, educational, legal, and income support services. The hope was that a robust network of neighborhood-based family services would transform and supplant a public child welfare system still largely grounded in foster care at that time, and in which Black children were likely to be placed in inferior institutions.

While some nationally acclaimed models of community-driven service grew from these roots, the ideals of the 1960s also ran aground on the New York City budget crisis of the 1970s and the trauma of the 1980s Reagan era: supply-side economics and concurrent dramatic increases in child poverty, crack cocaine and its attendant nightmarish street violence, the AIDS epidemic, widespread family homelessness and “welfare hotels.”  Under this extreme stress, while the preventive system grew, so did the New York City foster care census.

Nonetheless, a deeply held ideological commitment to family partnership and preservation persisted during the tenure of David Dinkins, New York City’s first African American Mayor, and Robert Little, Commissioner of the Child Welfare Administration from 1989 – 1993. Little, a younger brother of Malcolm X, had experienced foster care and was fiercely dedicated to continuing to develop both the city agency’s direct preventive services capacity, and to prioritize the use of kinship placement as a culturally appropriate option for children of color who might otherwise have been placed in non-relative foster homes. 

Under Commissioner Little’s leadership, the Family Rehabilitation Programs (FRP) offered co-located drug treatment and intensive preventive services to mothers who had given birth to crack-exposed babies. FRP was also of particular significance because – emulating the example of peer-counselors in substance abuse treatment programs – it was the first preventive services model to explicitly call for the employment of program graduates as parent advocates.

Despite the documented efficacy of the Family Rehabilitation Programs (4) and other Preventive models, a national backlash against the family preservation movement was growing, culminating in the federal Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997, intended to limit the duration of public support for struggling families, and to prioritize and expedite adoption as a preferred form of “permanency” for youth who entered foster care.  Some of the language with which ASFA was framed was actually redolent of child-saving / Orphan Train language, with an emphasis on permanently removing poor ethnic minority children from parents who were stigmatized as beneath notice or beyond redemption, and placing them with “good” families. (5)

It was in this climate—and with NYC’s foster care rolls peaking at close to 50,000 in the early 1990s (3)—that Elisa’s death brought dramatic attention to New York City’s child welfare system. 

Alongside NYC’s Administration for Children’s Services’ official policy of removing children in cases involving any ambiguity, Preventive Services were also cut by 18%, with the mayor expressing his belief that the city had been trying too hard to keep families together. Much deeper cuts were proposed for subsequent years.  

The Rise of the Child Welfare Organizing Project

In 1994, a research team from the Hunter College School of Social Work concluded that parents had insufficient voice in NYC’s public child welfare system. This led to the creation of the Child Welfare Organizing Project (CWOP) with a grant from the Child Welfare Fund. Mabel Paulino, the founding director of CWOP, set a direction of grassroots activism and leadership by parents who had direct experience with the public child welfare system. Parents, including graduates of Family Rehabilitation Programs who had become peer advocates, were spurred to activism by their experiences and with the support of a variety of allies in the field.

In the ensuing years, CWOP engaged in a broad range of constituent-driven activities intended to assert a powerful, countervailing parent voice in ACS policy and practice. CWOP’s activities included:

  • Street demonstrations and public criticism when parents were excluded from decision-making.
  • Parent education and organizing, including peer-led support groups.
  • Facilitating parent dialogue with child welfare policy-makers, legislative and budget advocacy, meaningful parent involvement in professional education, conferences, and participatory research.
  • Helping parents write for publication (which led to the inception of Rise Magazine), and work with the media to counteract sensationalized, reductive coverage of child welfare issues.
  • A variety of collaborative activities with the Administration for Children’s Services. This included the creation of the Highbridge Partnership for Family Supports and Justice (a.k.a. The Bridge Builders), created to reduce foster care placements in a neighborhood with one of the highest rates of placement in NYC, and which was staffed by child welfare-affected parents. Staff of the Highbridge Partnership served as parent advocates at family team conferences, provided support to parents with child welfare cases, and developed consumer feedback instruments for use in evaluating parents’ experiences with child welfare agencies that were contracted with the Administration for Children’s Services.  Working out of a storefront office on the main thoroughfare of the community, they provided one-stop information and referral and advocacy services to their neighbors, grounded in their own experience as educated consumers of social and legal services.
  • Ongoing development of a peer-led parent leadership curriculum orienting parents to their rights and responsibilities within the child welfare system, and preparing them to serve both as peer advocates and as uniquely qualified policy analysts.

The parent leadership curriculum, in particular, evolved into one of CWOP’s signature initiatives, through which hundreds of life-experienced parents impacted the lives of other parents, transformed their own lives, and gained economic self-sufficiency through careers in community service and system reform. 

CWOP was part of a larger parent advocacy movement and worked in collaboration with other community- and peer-led organizations, including People United for Children and Voices of Women, sharing common members and engaging in joint events and strategies. CWOP’s mission statement included a commitment to working for change both within and outside the system. In CWOP’s early years, its relationship with ACS was contentious. But as opportunities for a more collaborative relationship with the public agency grew, alliances with partner organizations allowed CWOP to engage in more “inside” work with little diminution of “outside” pressure for system change.

Parent Advocates Enter NYC’s Child Welfare System

As collaboration grew, graduates of CWOP’s curriculum created a stream of trained advocates that have effected change within many areas of NYC’s child welfare system.

Initially, CWOP emphasized development of staff roles for parents in foster care and preventive services. CWOP graduated its first class of parent leaders in Bushwick Brooklyn in 1999, in collaboration with a consortium of ACS-contracted child welfare agencies, which then employed about half of the graduates.  

In subsequent years, CWOP replicated the curriculum in other New York City neighborhoods with high rates of foster care placement, producing a growing cadre of qualified parent advocates who gained recognition for their ability to authentically engage other parents in services, use first-hand knowledge of community resources to effectuate successful referrals, and strengthen relationships between agencies and communities.   

Parent advocates began to find roles in a wider variety of settings including mental health services, substance abuse treatment, domestic violence intervention, Community Justice Centers, advocacy organizations, and research institutes. The inclusion of parent advocates as members of the interdisciplinary parent legal teams, established in 2007 with the goal of providing parents with child welfare cases in family court stronger legal representation alongside independent social service support and advocacy, was a direct result of CWOP’s advocacy.  And in 2010 the New York State Office of Children and Family Services amended its regulations to allow parent contact with parent advocates working within child welfare agencies to be counted towards fulfillment of foster care providers’ contractual contact requirements.

Also, in a pilot project that ran from 2007 to 2013, ACS agreed that any time it was contemplating protective removal of a child from an East Harlem family, other than in an emergency, it would first invite CWOP to send a parent advocate to represent the family at an Initial Child Safety Conference (ICSC). A research team from the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter/CUNY conducted a multi-method evaluation of the pilot. The results of this study documented the value of the model in terms of both improved outcomes and consumer satisfaction. ACS made the decision to take the model to scale citywide, and to offer the services of an independent parent advocate to every family seen in an Initial Child Safety Conference.

Today, parent advocates staff roughly 10,000 Initial Child Safety Conferences per year. Outcome data consistently reveals an association between the presence of a parent advocate in the ICSC and a recommendation other than non-relative foster care placement. In September 2015, ACS was awarded a grant by the US Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families to pilot an enhanced model of Parent Advocate participation in family team conferencing in the Highbridge/ Concourse neighborhood of the South Bronx, which continues to have one of the highest rates of foster care placement in the city. The enhancements included: a joint training curriculum for Parent Advocates and child protective personnel; private family time during the conferences in which families developed their own service plans; and extended (approximately one-month long) relationships between families and the parent advocates during which conference recommendations were effectuated.

Major findings included improved conference attendance, reduced non-relative foster care placement, significant increases in use of kinship placement, reduced re-reporting, and positive qualitative feedback from both parents and child protective personnel, including more meaningful parent engagement in service planning and improved outcomes. (7)

ACS’s 2019 Request for Proposals (RFP) for Preventive Services included budget lines for parent advocates, and an anticipated Foster Care RFP will likely include similar lines. ACS recently finalized contracts valued at $227 Million for evidence-based / informed family support, therapeutic and clinical preventive services serving over 15,000 families throughout the city on any given day; in stark contrast to a foster care census that recently dipped below 8,000.

Currently, over 100 parent advocates currently work in a range of settings in NYC’s child welfare system, including child protective, preventive, foster care, and legal services agencies. A parent advisory council to the ACS Commissioner, comprised of parent advocates, is led by a CWOP graduate, and parent advocates affiliated with Rise also play significant consulting, training, and policy analysis roles in partnership with ACS.    

While much work remains to be accomplished, New York City continues to provide models of parent/ professional partnership that are worthy of study and emulation, and the parent advocate model in particular has sparked widespread interest and replication efforts in other jurisdictions both nationally and abroad.

Disclaimer: This history was written by Mike Arsham, who has worked for both the Child Welfare Organizing Project and the NYC Administration for Children’s Services. This essay does not purport to represent any official position of either of those organizations. It reflects Mike Arsham’s perspective, and was written with editorial support from John Courtney, another New York City social worker who witnessed and participated in some of the 20th Century events described.

Notes:

  1. Charles Loring Brace, The Dangerous Classes of New York and Twenty Years Work Among Them, Nabu Press, 2010
  2. Carten, Alma & Dumpson, James. Removing Risks From Children:  Strengthening Community-Based Services for African American Families, Beckham Publications Group, 1997
  3. Fullilove, Mindy Thompson & Xaviera Watkins, Beverly. “Crack Cocaine and Harlem’s Health,” from Dispatches From the Ebony Tower, Manning Marable, Ed., Columbia University Press, 2000;  Kozol, Jonathan.  Rachel and Her Children:  Homeless Families in America, Crown Publishers, 1988
  4. “Effectiveness of Comprehensive Services for Crack-Dependent Mothers with Newborns and Young Children,” Stephen Magura, Ph.D, C.S.W.; Alexandre Laudet, Ph.D; Sung-Yeon Kang, PhD.; & Shirley A. Whitney, M.S., Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, Volume 31 (4), October – December 1999, National Institute on Drug Abuse Grant # 1 R01 DA08636
  5. Intentions and Results: A Look Back at the Adoption and Safe Families Act. Center for the Study of Social Policy 
  6. “Building Evidence About the Parent Advocacy Initiative in Initial Child Safety Conferences / Program Evaluation Final Report,” January 2019, Dr. Marina Lalayants, Silberman School of Social Work @ Hunter / CUNY
  7. “ENHANCED FAMILY CONFERENCING INITIATIVE (EFCI) FINAL GRANTEE REPORT,” 2015 Family Connection Grant Cluster, December 31, 2019
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