Can parents accused of neglect redeem one another?

Parent peer advocacy gains institutional footing in New York City's child welfare system

NEW YORK — Diane Wick's daughter, Jill, was still missing. Her bed was where it should be, made neatly in a pink floral comforter. Her toys and stuffed animals and school supplies were there, too.

In late September, Wick sat on her daughter's side of the room they're supposed to share, in a family shelter in the Bronx. She's a striking woman, petite and tattooed, with a shorn head and doorknocker earrings.

When she narrates old pictures or cell-phone video clips of 10-year-old Jill step-dancing or singing or shoveling Milwaukee snow, her voice is like soft wool. But when Wick feels attacked, backed against a wall, her voice rises and breaks in hot, rough bursts. Since July 1, she has seen her daughter just twice and has talked to her a handful of times on the phone. To her knowledge, Jill is still in foster care on Long Island — with a "caregiver," Wick said; she refused to say "foster mom."

The petition brought against Wick by New York City's Administration for Children’s Services (ACS), among the largest child welfare systems in the country, alleged medical neglect and lack of proper supervision: that Wick failed to give Jill her medication for ADHD and other diagnoses; that Wick punched a social worker in the face; and that Wick said she no longer wished to care for her daughter. (Their names have been changed due to ongoing litigation.) These were the allegations read to her on July 2, at her first appearance in family court.

The aging Bronx courthouse is overcrowded with parents and kids, caseworkers and lawyers, the elevators always held up. Hallways and waiting areas are thin on comforts: no food or drink, though hearings (or the wait for them) can last hours. When Wick came before the judge, an assigned attorney by her side, she could only shake her head in disbelief as ACS argued that foster care was necessary "to avoid imminent risk to the child's life or health." The judge agreed but allowed Wick "unsupervised liberal visits" with her daughter.

A parent confronts the system

To have an ACS case is to come eye-to-eye with a sprawling bureaucracy that regulates the most intimate corners of the home. ACS and the borough family courts preside over investigations of alleged neglect and abuse by adult guardians against children ­— conduct ranging from meting out severe corporal punishment and sexually abusing a child to keeping a dirty apartment, doing recreational drugs or even suffering abuse by a partner in front of your kids. Investigations are triggered by calls made to the state central registry by concerned social workers and teachers as well as vindictive exes. Most families embroiled in New York City's child welfare system are poor and non-white.

For Wick, the road to her daughter's placement in foster care began with a routine visit to ACS. She'd been in touch with the agency on account of past domestic violence at the hands of an ex-boyfriend; ACS helped her and Jill with "preventive services" such as counseling, housing and transportation assistance. But on July 1, Wick admitted to her caseworker that she felt helpless and overwhelmed by her daughter's tantrums, never imagining that it might be grounds for Jill's removal.

It wasn't until a week later that she grasped the threatened permanence of their separation. By then, Jill had been sent to a suburban foster home hours away. Half a month passed before Wick attended an out-of-court "child safety conference" to discuss a visitation schedule and her compliance with the parenting and anger-management classes required by family court.

Child safety conferences are critical: In many cases, they're the parent's last chance to convince ACS not to seek court-ordered removal of his or her child. Research has shown that the presence of trained "parent advocates" — who have been through the system themselves — improves the experience for accused parents, encourages their participation in the process and reduces rates of subsequent child removal.

Family court’s like the Catholic church. You have to say a certain number of Hail Marys.

At Wick's child safety conference, she had no parent advocate to lean on. She felt cornered, sitting across from ACS caseworkers and the foster care agency. The facilitator was helpful, though, and referred Wick to a support group for parents affected by the system — the Child Welfare Organizing Project (CWOP).

On the last Wednesday in July, Wick showed up at CWOP, a non-profit group located in an East Harlem housing project. She joined nine parents — eight moms and one dad, all accused of abuse or neglect — in a room lined with flyers and inspirational posters. They stood holding hands for an opening prayer. Among them were volunteers and paid staff of CWOP who had their own histories in the child welfare system but had reunited with their children. These parents, once dismissed as hopeless, were now trained as "parent advocates" to mentor the recently accused. 

New people got to talk first. Wick started slow, struggling to convey months of stress and isolation. They'd moved around, they were in a shelter, there were mental health issues. Jill was "out of control." There'd been trouble with the police.

Wick's frustration reverberated through the room. Someone passed her a crumpled tissue. "You have to work on your temper from now on," said an older, more seasoned parent.  

Parents and parent advocates in the East Harlem office of the Child Welfare Organizing Project.
E. Tammy Kim for Al Jazeera America

The support soon extended beyond group meetings. Tracey Carter, a longtime CWOP employee and mother of 11 who beat drug addiction to reunite with her kids, followed up with Wick in the Bronx. Carter comforted her on the phone and accompanied her to meet with her lawyer. "I was able to speak to her, tell her not to be so bitter," she said, in her calm, even way. "As a mom, I can understand it's heartbreaking, but just assuring her and talking to her as a mom who's been there [can be helpful]."

The CWOP model

This has been CWOP's work since 1994: peer-to-peer guidance by and for parents accused of abuse or neglect. Nationwide, CWOP has led the experiment in parent advocacy, rehabilitating the reviled image of mothers and fathers caught up in the child welfare system, according to David Tobis, author of the new book From Pariahs to Partners. Despite major reductions in funding since the recession, the group continues to run a rigorous, months-long training program for parent advocates and pays graduates to attend child safety conferences and to staff its offices in the Bronx and East Harlem.

In 2007, CWOP began an experiment with ACS to see if parent advocates could improve the outcomes of initial child safety conferences. It convinced ACS to notify the group of every potential removal of a child in East Harlem, giving CWOP the chance to dispatch a parent advocate to the meeting, to console and represent the accused.

Data from January 2010 to February 2012 showed that, as compared to the adjacent district of Central Harlem, where parent advocates were not present, 15.5 percent fewer children were removed from their homes. The study's author, Marina Lalayants, assistant professor at Hunter College, found that parent advocates were effective in "engaging the birthparents," particularly when they disclosed their past experience and explained that they "were not affiliated with the child protective agency." (An analogous, forthcoming study by California-based Foster Youth in Action and the University at Albany finds that youth peer advocates are similarly able to engage adolescents affected by the child welfare system.)

Today, according to ACS, the number of New York City children in foster care is down to about 12,100 from more than 50,000 in the early 1990s.

As CWOP's approach to parent advocacy gained traction and recognition, it spread to unlikely parts of the system, including foster care and legal services. But there are now concerns that the model it launched has lost integrity through expansion — and that CWOP has been cut out of the equation altogether. Last month, New York City's child welfare agency took a historic step to institutionalize parent advocacy. After a long procurement process, ACS finalized contracts with two vendors to provide parent advocates at child safety conferences throughout New York City. The three-year, $1.3 million initiative is the first of its kind in the country.

When the program was publicized, it seemed to vindicate the work of CWOP, a grassroots operation with a budget of less than $300,000. The organization applied for both contracts, but ACS selected larger agencies instead: for the Bronx, Manhattan and Staten Island, the Center for Human Development and Family Services, Inc. (CHDFS), a parent-led group that services families facing mental health and developmental issues, on a budget of $3.5 million; and for Brooklyn and Queens, the Jewish Child Care Association (JCCA), a foster care and preventive services agency with a $95 million budget that previously employed several parent advocates.

ACS, according to Commissioner Ronald Richter, had little to do with the contract decisions, which fall under the Office of the Mayor. A City Hall spokesperson said that ACS was overseeing the process but would not otherwise comment.

"It's not the end of CWOP," said Sandra Killett, the group's executive director and a mother whose son was once removed by ACS. "But it is very disappointing for parents who have been doing this work for 12 to 15 years to not be able to take any ownership and recognition for a model that's going to go citywide."

Anger management

Ideally, parent advocates are professional yet down to earth, culturally indistinct from their "clients." Like Samantha Ruiz, a slight woman with long nails and pink cheeks who has worked at CWOP's East Harlem headquarters since last year. In 2010, she'd been investigated by ACS, accused of excessive corporal punishment based on a fib told by her young son. Although the charge was never substantiated, it marked the end of her 13-year career as a day care worker.

Ruiz's laugh and stentorian voice are constants at the CWOP support group. "Nobody's going to care for your child like you," she told a discouraged parent. She talked another, a defiant, furious mom, off the ledge: "The way you talk, your tone, you gotta slow it down. You gotta humble yourself in front of your kids."

This piece of advice — to remain calm and collected, even contrite, before ACS, the judge and other decision-makers — is offered again and again by parent advocates. "Family court's like the Catholic church," one parent's attorney said. "You have to say a certain number of Hail Marys."

Diane Wick has had trouble controlling her temper, especially since Jill was removed. Before, she said, "I was able to walk away from certain things because my child was here. It took me a lot to go off on someone. Now, it's just automatic. I just jump." The CWOP support group has watched Wick simmer and heard the rage in her voice. Carter has counseled her with sympathy and, when necessary, a sharp tongue. "I understand where they're coming from," Wick said, referring to the other parents' instructions, "but they don't understand I can't control it."

Wick, an only child, was raised in California and Wisconsin by a domineering military mom. When she became a mother herself, she left her daughter's abusive dad, found steady work and lavished Jill with affection. So it came as a shock when her charming, outgoing little girl began acting out — refusing to listen, throwing objects, storming out of classrooms, fighting with students and teachers. Wick tried to get Jill the therapy and special education she needed, which meant a lot of missed time at her secretarial job, but nothing seemed to work. They even tried medication, though she hated giving her young daughter strong psychotropic drugs. A fresh start, she thought, might do the trick: The pair moved from Wisconsin to North Carolina and finally to New York last November, trying to find a place where Jill could thrive.

On her way to catch the subway, Wick opens a letter regarding child support.
E. Tammy Kim for Al Jazeera America

But at her Bronx school, Jill did not do well. She "terrorized" kids and school officials, Wick said, and hid out in the girls' bathroom when standardized tests began in March. Wick soon had so many appointments with Jill's teachers and doctors and therapists that she was forced to quit a training program for home health aides that she'd started in February. In their family shelter, Jill threw tantrums, beat on walls and doors and went up and down the elevators. Wick was lonely and under siege, she said, yet everyone seemed to blame her for Jill's behavior. 

One night, after a string of mounting crises, Wick went to pick up Jill from the hospital. At the front desk, the staff refused to release Jill on a bureaucratic technicality, and Wick lost her cool. By the time the police arrived, she'd been in a fistfight with a social worker and blood was on the floor. Wick was arrested and charged with assault, which later showed up on the ACS petition against her.

Though it’s no consolation to Wick, Jill has entered the city's child welfare system at a relatively good moment. The worst appears to be in the past: the racially discriminatory, abusive foster care described in Nina Bernstein's 2001 book The Lost Children of Wilder, and the "crack epidemic" that turned public offices into ersatz orphanages in the 1980s and early '90s. Today, according to ACS, the number of New York City children in foster care is down to about 12,100 from more than 50,000 in the early 1990s. Across the country, child welfare has evolved toward a family-centered view of child well-being — a more holistic "best interests of the child" standard.

Indigent parents like Wick are also finding better representation in family court. In four of the five boroughs since 2007, interdisciplinary "institutional providers," no-charge legal services offices, are now assigned to represent most parents accused of abuse and neglect. These providers — the Center for Family Representation, Brooklyn Family Defense Project and the Bronx Defenders — specialize in this type of litigation and supplement their lawyering with social work and parent advocacy, though not all their advocates have direct experience with the system.

At the same time, the legal framework has put a lot of pressure on accused parents. The federal Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA), passed in 1997, requires the state to move for termination of parental rights — in theory, freeing up kids for adoption — when a child has spent 15 of the preceding 22 months in foster care. However, said professor Martin Guggenheim of NYU School of Law, ASFA has led ACS and other child welfare agencies to subject parents to unrealistic case plans that set them up for failure "and then simply wait ... the requisite amount of time for them not to comply and terminat[e] their parental rights." Consequently, terminations of parental rights have outpaced adoptions, producing "legal" or "unnatural" orphans, "a category virtually unknown in the rest of the world," he said.

Wick's legal documents had warned her about the ASFA timeframe in a boilerplate, bold-faced notice. And last month, in a letter from Jill's foster care agency informing her of an upcoming inspection ("home visit") at the shelter, she was warned again. Two months had passed since her daughter entered foster care, the letter said — two of the 15 months she had to worry about. The clock was ticking. 

At support group, a reprieve

Several weeks into Jill's ACS case, Wick had learned that her visitations would be canceled. The child's therapist had written a letter — to the foster care agency or ACS or the family court, Wick wasn't sure — saying that Jill was "frightened" of Mom.

Wick felt that her daughter was being brainwashed, bought out by a foster parent who wears expensive jewelry and drives a "Mercedes truck." While Wick contorted her budget for subway fare and food, her daughter's caregiver was getting thousands of dollars in state and federal aid to raise Jill.

Wick's lawyer recommended that she send gifts and cards to her daughter as a way of staying in touch. When she resisted having to "buy her love," Carter, the CWOP parent advocate, convinced her to "just do the cards." "It might not be important to me, or it might not be important to Jill, but it'll be important to the court," Wick said.

Toward the end of September, a caseworker from the foster care agency visited Wick at her Bronx shelter. "Basically, the caseworker is scared of me," she wrote in a text message. "She wants me to prove to her I'm not a scary person. She wants me to kiss her butt."

The Wednesday support group had become a regular part of Wick's week, "to be able to tell my side of the story and not be judged, because they're all having some of the same issues." At a recent meeting, after the newcomers' go-around and after Wanda, a longtime volunteer, served barbecue chicken with rice and beans, Wick started with a sigh. Her eyes were downcast, less in despair than aggravation. She wanted a new lawyer. She felt the foster care agency was playing games.

CWOP's Carter listened from across the circle, and paused before responding. "You're comin' out fightin' — it's OK. I was frustrated. I wanted to punch walls. I wanted to throw someone off the roof. But I had to reverse it. I had to prove to myself that I could be a mother to my children."

"My attitude was worse than yours," Carter said, "and I was comin' off drugs. I thought that everybody was against me."

"No matter how mad you might be, don't let them see that."

Wick looked at her and nodded.

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