On Monday, July 25, 2011, the Child Welfare Organizing Project (CWOP) graduated our fourteenth class of Parent Leadership trainees. Twelve mothers involved with the New York City child welfare system completed a six-month curriculum designed to orient them to their rights and responsibilities within the system, and qualify them for employment as Parent Advocates.
Commissioner John Mattingly visited towards the end of the ceremony, and delivered a congratulatory speech to our graduates. He had done this before, at earlier graduations. We had no idea at the time that this would be the Commissioner’s final public appearance prior to his resignation.
The unexpected announcement of the Commissioner’s imminent departure the following day was a poignant moment for us. As the longest serving Commissioner of child welfare in the city’s history, Mattingly reshaped large swaths of the sprawling system. At CWOP, we had an unasked-for insiders’ view of the changes that occurred during Dr. Mattingly’s tenure. Most of our staff, and about half of our board of directors, are parents who have had children placed in foster care, have succeeded in reuniting their own families, and now use this experience to help other families facing similar challenges, and to function as a collective force for system change.
We began this Project in 1994, and soon found ourselves in the Seventh Circle of Child Welfare Hell. In 1995, Elisa Izquierdo was on the covers of Time and Newsweek, a national embarrassment to then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. The NYC Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) was formed 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…” ACS proved true to their word, with involuntary removals of children increasing by 50% over the next two years.
Misdemeanor-level child endangerment arrests of parents increased by 75% during the same time period. Mothers were arrested and prosecuted for “offenses” such as living in substandard (sometimes city-owned) housing, and for leaving children unattended after school while they worked in factories and sweatshops. Perhaps most egregiously, battered women were arrested and vigorously prosecuted in criminal court for “engaging in domestic violence.” Already inadequate family preservation resources were cut by 18%, with the Mayor expressing his belief that the city had been trying too hard to keep families together. These ham-fisted strategies were, in the final analysis, not so much about protecting children as about protecting the Mayor. They fell most heavily on women of color living in poverty, and many children were harmed and traumatized in the process. By 1998, one out of ten children born in Central Harlem could be found in foster care.
While we still have a long way to go in creating a just, effective system that protects children by valuing and supporting family life, the distance we have travelled since 1998 is nothing short of remarkable. The turnaround really began prior to the official tenure of John Mattingly (or William Bell, another superb and under-appreciated ACS Commissioner), when Mattingly chaired the Marisol Panel, experts appointed to advise ACS following a class action lawsuit. Thoughtfully, diplomatically, armed with data as opposed to rhetoric, the Panel began to push ACS in the direction of meaningful reform. Foster care placements began to trend downward in 1998. Restorations were made to Preventive Services, and the numbers of children served by Preventive programs began to out-pace those seen in foster care. Commissioner Bell welcomed parents into policy discussions, viewing us as partners rather than as perpetrators. These trends continued under Mattingly’s leadership. Over the past seven years:
• Despite periodic surges in foster care admissions, the foster care census has continued to shrink, with a larger proportion of foster children found in small, family-like settings, as opposed to institutions.
• Indicators of family engagement in child welfare service planning such as Family Team Conference participation, and parent / child visiting in foster care have improved dramatically (there is room for more improvement).
• Institutional racism, once “the elephant in the living room,” is now confronted and discussed openly in ACS task forces and conferences. It’s about time: 97% of the NYC children in foster care are children of color.
• Parents stand a vastly improved chance of experiencing justice in Family Court due to long-overdue reform of the irreparably broken “18-B” system. Mattingly did not initiate this, but he supported it, and it would probably not have happened had he opposed it.
• The role of parents as both policy advisors to ACS, and as peer advocates for families served by the system, has grown significantly over the past several years. Continued growth is foreseen, and needed.
• Perhaps less tangibly, but just as importantly, a terrifying organizational culture of power without accountability has moved markedly closer to one resembling participatory democracy during Mattingly’s tenure.
Ronald Richter has contributed significantly to this progress. Over the same time period, we have seen him evolve from a Law Guardian into a consummate child welfare professional. Our Parent Advocates report that he has made courageous decisions from the bench in Queens Family Court, and he has insisted that parents’ voices be included in policy discussions. We have every reason to expect continued progress with Commissioner Richter, and we applaud his appointment.
There have been numerous points during the past seven years when we’ve found ourselves in less-than-total agreement with Commissioner Mattingly. The progress, while real, has not always followed a straight, unbroken line. We would like to see ACS invest more resources and operational power in the Community Partnership Project, and work harder with us to replicate successful parent / professional partnerships such as the Bridge Builders and the East Harlem / Community Connections Child Safety Conference project. We believe that our system of Preventive Services has been seriously damaged by a flawed RFP process, deep budget cuts, and questionable policy decisions, and must be purposefully repaired. But in balance, as parents who love the children of this great city, we have an abiding respect for Commissioner Mattingly. And we look forward to continuing our transformational work with Commissioner Richter.
Michael Arsham is the Executive Director of the Child Welfare OrganizationProject.