Speaking Truth to Power: Meet Joyce McMillan, One of My New Heroes

Meet Joyce McMillan: Making Connections at the Intersections of Child Welfare and Criminal Justice Reform Advocacy for Families

There is no one happier to be working as an advocate for families than Joyce McMillan. For her, heading up advocacy for the Child Welfare Organizing Project (CWOP) in New York City is a dream come true, and Joyce is making the most of her position every day. Joyce is as connected a parent advocate as I have met.  She’s also a master at seizing opportunities to build even more relationships and strengthen her community-building alliances.  Beneath her extreme modesty and constant desire to learn from others—as she navigates challenging systems and complex relationships—I’ve noticed a powerful mind and an open heart. Don’t let Joyce fool you: she knows what she’s doing and she’s in the family advocacy world for the long haul.  


Unlike some of the advocates I’ve previously profiled and will continue to feature here, Joyce hasn’t been associated with her organization, CWOP, or with child welfare advocacy for families for years on end. She’s been affiliated with CWOP for just four years and in its leadership for just two years.  But in this short time, she has quickly made her mark, raising the profile of CWOP’s work at the local, state and national level. Thanks to Joyce’s tireless work, she has elevated interest in the plight of families caught in the child protection system’s clutches, and often in intersecting systems involving police, prison, poverty and the child welfare system. 

I have gotten the chance to know Joyce and work with her closely through United Family Advocates’ steering committee, which she joined in a few months ago.  My first extended conversation with her happened in April 2016 at the CUNY Law School “Other Defenders’ Conference”—the first-ever law school conference on family defense, though I had been introduced to her at a previous conference. She presents herself immediately as someone ready to listen, but pretty soon into the conversation, she starts to share her wisdom. After meeting her at the CUNY conference, I wanted to get to know her better and over the past few months, I have been fortunate to have had that chance.

Even though she works closely with other parents at CWOP who have told their stories at public events or in writing for Rise Magazine, and even though she does extensive public speaking these days, Joyce hasn’t told her own story in print or in any extended speaking or personal profile. When I suggested that this profile/interview could serve as a way to build even more connections between the issues of mass incarceration and child welfare, she welcomed that idea. It is my hope, therefore, that this profile/interview can serve such a purpose, for child welfare reform needs more Joyce McMillan’s to shine a light on the mistreatment of families in the terrible systems that she is seeking to change. If Joyce McMillan became a more public face for child welfare reform, that would be all to the good, in my opinion,  for she is a most articulate, thoughtful and exemplary spokesperson.

Diane: Joyce, thank you for agreeing to let me profile you. But I know so little about what you experienced with the child welfare system and your own family life that I’m almost embarrassed to ask.

Joyce:  Please don’t be shy! I’m happy to tell my own story. In fact, unlike a lot of the families I have worked with and advocate for, I didn’t come from a family that had any history of child welfare involvement. My own story involved with child protection started before the birth of my second child, and she’s already 19 years old—so it’s a long and involved personal story.  My journey into advocacy comes from my growing awareness as to how this system was operating in my community. I hadn’t studied that—I worked at a bank at the time child protection came into my life. And since my own family had never had child welfare involvement, I really didn’t know how the system operated until I experienced it first-hand. 

Diane: It sounds like the intervention of the child welfare system affected your younger child more directly than your older child.  You’ve mentioned that you are still coping with that separation. Can you tell me what that separation and reunification process was like with her?

Joyce:  My younger child Kaylah was removed when she was three months old. She was returned to me when she was two and a half years old.  After she returned home, she was very defiant. I was afraid to share the difficulties I was experiencing because I was afraid she would be removed from me again. It took many years of counseling for reconciliation—in fact, we really had a breakthrough just eighteen months ago. Many years after she returned home, I learned that she thought I had “stolen” her from her family, which was the foster family.  That’s how she saw it. That’s why she was so angry at me and why we had such a hard time bonding, why her behavior was so challenging for me, and so hurtful to her own development too. After returning home, she was diagnosed with oppositional-defiant disorder—a disorder that fits her experience of being traumatized by the foster care system--and I struggled for years with her behaviors. It was very hard for me. Now that we began our process of bonding, she is leaving for college in August.

Once Kaylah was removed, it was impossible to create a real mother-daughter bond with her.  Effectively, my two hours of visits, once a week, added up to seeing her four days out of a year.  That’s not a meaningful amount of time to have a relationship with a baby, an infant, or a toddler—or any child for that matter.

I’m not suggesting that children like my daughter should stay in foster families.  I am advocating for meaningful preventive services to keep the family intact with proper supports to help them thrive. Two hours of contact once a week is not enough time to create a bond.

Diane:  What about your older child? Where was she while you were going through the separation and reunification with your younger daughter?

Joyce:   My older daughter Courtnie is 27 now. She was nine at the time Kaylah was removed. Courtnie had gone to live with her dad and he returned her home to me about six months before the court ordered Kaylah to come home. Since Courtnie never was in foster care with non-family members, and because she was older, we had a strong bond, so the reunification process with her was not as difficult.

Diane:  How did child protective services get involved in the first place?  Do you know who called the hotline?

Joyce:  I don’t know who made that call, which had something to do with an unsubstantiated allegation that I wasn’t properly caring for the kids. Then I was asked to submit to a urine screen and I didn’t know I had a right to refuse, so then the case became all about my use of cocaine. That use was a recreational thing for me at the time. There was no immediate danger to my child from my use right then. There had been one call before Kaylah was born but nothing much came of it.  Still, my life was pretty together at the time of the hotline call that led to her removal. I had my own place to live; I had a car; I had a job at a bank. I also had a stable family—as I mentioned, none of my cousins, uncles or aunts had child protective services in their lives.

Unfortunately, I truly believe that the intervention of child protective services caused the worsening of the problem the system was trying to prevent. My use went from recreational to a needed medication, a dependency. After my child was taken from me, with the second Hotline call coming around the time of her birth, I went into a real fog, unable to think clearly.

There was no effort at that time to keep the family intact and my experience is that there are barely any such efforts to this day. Today, the OCFS (the state oversight agency Office of Children and Family Services) website states that 39% of children are removed without any attempt to provide preventive services. 

Diane: You said the problem got worse before it got better. What happened?

Joyce: After I went into full-blown addition, I did go into a treatment program but I didn’t do well there. The program was punitive. They humiliated people there.  So I left the treatment program.

Then I was arrested. It was a setup—an undercover cop gave me some money to buy drugs for him and me. I was in jail for nine months and during that time I didn’t see my baby girl at all. Then the judge said I could be released to a program but I kept going AWOL. Then the judge told me he didn’t care if I was in a program or out of a program, if I had another dirty drop I would have to do five years in prison. When the judge told me that, I was pushed back into treatment.

The foster mother was asked if she would adopt my daughter and she said yes. The agency had told her I wasn’t getting my daughter back. The foster mother would miss visits or bring Kaylah to visits late.  She really wanted to adopt her.

Diane:  How did you get through the addiction?

Joyce.  It was a decision on my part, a commitment I made to myself and my family.  I was self-medicating and numbing my feelings but when I came through the daze I was able to face reality. I felt alienated from family and friends and I wanted their acceptance. I'm lucky to have the family support I had. I know many parents don’t have that as a motivator, unfortunately.

At first and for quite a while into my case, I had some attorneys who did not really help me—they were part of the system that was keeping me in limbo, unable to get the help I really needed to get my baby back. But then suddenly everything changed when Brooklyn Legal Services was appointed to my case.

When I left treatment I got into a nice shelter through Women’s Prison’s Association. It was an excellent organization. I was able to get a two-bedroom apartment in the shelter that set up for family reunification. I was able to have visits there and didn’t feel threatened by staff, but was supported in having my visits with my daughter.

Suddenly I discovered I had amazing legal representation. Lauren Shapiro and Jennifer Light were my attorneys. They were absolutely fantastic! I had a social worker there too; she was also phenomenal. It’s still not clear to me how I got this team.  They were amazing!

Lauren was so innovative. She actually got the caseworker to show up to my visits and documented how she was causing me to missing my visits after I had complained about the foster parent’s misconduct. Soon the caseworker saw for herself that the foster parent was late, sometimes by as much as 45 minutes, and so the foster parent stopped being late. Lauren’s work made the system accountable.

Jennifer Light worked with Lauren and she was terrific too.  She would counsel me about what I should worry about and what I didn’t need to worry about.  Parents can easily get confused—sometimes parents think they need to fight about too much in order to get their children returned, and that hostility gets in the way of the system working with them.  I listened to Jennifer and that helped me focus on what I needed to do.

Diane:  Did you have a private agency caseworker? What was your interaction with the caseworker(s) like?

Joyce:  There was a private agency—St. Vincent’s—assigned.  My particular caseworker was awful: mean and evil.  She did not hold the foster parent accountable for sabotaging my reunification with my daughter—and that’s why it made such a difference when Lauren got involved with my case.  Before then, if the foster parent was late or canceled visits, my visit was never made up.  If I complained, my visits would be suspended. I didn’t miss a visit—I went religiously, once a week each Wednesday from 11 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. My daughter was placed a half an hour away from me and all the visits had to be supervised at the office. My daughter was two years old when I started getting visits at Women’s Prison Association.

Once I took Courtnie with me to visit Kaylah and the case manager from St. Vincent’s said that I wasn’t allowed to have her with me.  They tried to take her from me. They called the police but I wasn’t having it. The police said that since her dad had custody, my being with her was at his discretion.

Diane:  What were the grounds alleged against you in the child protection case—was it neglect due to substance use?

Joyce:  Yes, it was entirely about drug use. But to be honest, I still don’t really know what exactly was alleged against me.

Before my daughter was removed, there were zero reasonable efforts to help me keep her in my care. And really, I had to take the initiative myself to get clean. While things turned around for me after the Brooklyn Defenders got involved, I took the first steps.    

Diane: Were you prepared to have her back? 

Joyce: Not at all. My daughter was traumatized, and since I didn’t understand trauma, I thought she was a terror when she came home. And she stopped talking. She bit, punched, screamed, and cried. She was very slow to potty-train; she had reverted because she had been starting to be potty-trained at the time she returned to me. She was very traumatized and so was I.  But I didn’t talk about it—I kept it a secret because I was so afraid she would be taken again. Courtnie was already back with me. My ex-husband had returned her; she hadn’t been in foster care. She had stayed home with me and then my baby was returned.

Diane:  I’m amazed you managed all of this given the lack of support and the harassment you were getting. How were you supporting yourself and your children?

Joyce: I was fortunate the apartment was provided by the Women’s Prison Association. (By the way, I just gave the keynote address for their 25th Anniversary, which was exciting to be able to do).  While I had worked for banks and brokerage houses before, when I got out of jail, it was hard to find employment and people really discouraged me, telling me I wouldn’t make it, saying that it was “hopeless.” At first, I got hired as an intern in a customer service position at Time-Warner. I interned without pay for a year—though I didn’t tell people it was all unpaid work. Then I got hired eventually. It was hard coming back to the shelter during that time.

The shelter had childcare available but I didn’t want to use it because I would have had to leave Kaylah there at 9:00 a.m. when I didn’t have to be at work until noon. I had missed so much time with her that I didn’t want to miss more. I heard about ACS child-care vouchers from the shelter director. I wanted time with my daughter.  So I was able to get childcare off-site.

Diane:  It sounds like you had a long process of trying to get help to repair your relationship with your daughter.  And you were trying very hard, but not necessarily getting the right help.

Joyce:  Yes, it felt very personal and I was isolated. I didn’t share what I was going through.

My daughter started running away at around age nine, then she became a habitual runaway when she was ten or so.  But she was not a street kid, just an angry kid.   She made friends at school with white kids in an affluent neighborhood and that’s where she would go—to their homes. Some white people want to be saviors, but on their own terms. And Kaylah would tell these parents stories—claiming she had my permission to stay the night.  As a result, I wouldn’t know where she was.  And these parents just believed her and didn’t check, making assumptions about me as a parent when in fact I would be frantic and trying to find her. Kaylah would tell whatever she thought they wanted to hear.


As a result of her running away, I kept having threats of child welfare coming back into my life.  Kaylah would tell stories and I’d be asked by child protection investigators, “What are you doing to her?” They would assume the worst of me. I had them asking me for drug drops, which I refused. That was humiliating. Plus, every issue she had I believed was caused by the child welfare system’s intervention.

I found child welfare investigators kept coming back into life.  Some of it was just straight racism. I wasn’t asked, “Why did you think child running away?” If she had been a white child running away, I think some help and understanding would have been offered. I got no help with afterschool care for her either. I did get my daughter into some counseling but I didn’t realize I needed counseling for myself as well. Finally, though, we got into therapy together.

I understand now how we were set up to fail. But it has taken until my daughter is almost ready for college for us to understand all of this.  (She’ll be enrolled at Fulton Montgomery Syracuse this fall).  Both she and I are starting to understand it all too, and how it relates to issues of how black families are treated, and how it relates to mass incarceration too.

Diane:  How did you end up connecting to CWOP?

Joyce: By 2014, I had gotten a better job—I was making a pretty good income. But Kaylah was being difficult.  I tried to get her into the school district where I was working but she wasn’t wanted there.

In the course of trying to get help for Kaylah, I met with the then-Borough Commissioner at the Administration for Child and Family for Manhattan, named William Fletcher.  I had another hotline call against me because of Kaylah’s behavior and I decided I needed to speak the Borough Commissioner to understand the purpose of the ACS agency. So I got to meet with the Borough Commissioner and as I was preparing for that meeting, I had the discovery that the harassment I was experiencing with ACS only affected my community—only families who looked like mine. I printed the data I had found.  I was completely disturbed and upset by it.  I had found out that the kids who were in the child welfare systems just came from certain zip codes. They were black families, not white ones. I asked him “Why are you targeting us?” and “Why are you coming after black parents when white ones have the same issues?” He already knew that data. I said to him, “You are a black guy so why are you doing that, why are letting them do this to our community?”

And so he was the one who suggested CWOP to me. I hadn’t heard of it. He was the one who said I’d make a great advocate.   guess not that many parents who had hotline calls against them come to him armed with data and asking pointed questions as I had done.

So I called about the CWOP program and I learned about CWOP’s parent leadership curriculum.

I had already decided to do an alcohol counseling program for my CASAC-T (counseling certification). That was something I decided to pursue after went to a weekend with Oprah on a full Saturday-Sunday program about “living as your best self.” I’ve been with CWOP since 2014.  

The leadership curriculum of CWOP focused on what parents are up against in the child welfare system. It was three to four months of training.  Then I was asked to be on the board and Sandra Killet, the Executive Director, asked me not to join the board because she said she wanted to hire me. I volunteered for two years. Then the board hired me as the office manager/parent advocate and quickly promoted me to Program Director.

Diane: What directions have you been pursuing in your role as the head of advocacy/program director for CWOP?

Joyce:  I have been focusing on trauma support and restorative practices. This is really my purpose in life. My life just couldn’t get any better. I learned a lot from Sandra about systemic injustices, the differences between punitive systems and restorative systems to remedy injustices. I’m all about working in the community, making connections.  

But my days are filled to the top with meetings, presentations, advocacy, networking, and training and strategizing. And I’m realizing that I have to practice self-care in order to keep going at this pace.  I know how important that is.

One big focus of mine is on the parallels between child welfare and mass incarceration.  The foster care system is a horrible incubator for incarceration. The links are there. We’re trying to expand awareness of this.  We’re getting more calls.

I started the speaker series at CWOP in February 2016. We had a program at the office for parents to speak and to talk about these parallels. Our office space got too small to hold the many people who wanted to attend. I received a visiting fellowship from the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School. And so I decided to move the series downtown. People told me it wouldn’t work—parents wouldn’t come downtown.  But each speaker series has sold out and ten parents from CWOP come each month.

There was so much excitement about the discussion.

Diane:  That’s something you can speak to so directly—how the War on Drugs has been a war against black people and their families. Your own story and the families you work with, along with the data, show the targeting is both through the child welfare system and the criminal justice system.

Joyce: I'm especially excited to be working now at the local, state and national policy level making these connections. This is what I love doing, and I’m just going to keep doing it.  I’m doing it for children like my own children who didn’t deserve to lose me as their parent. 

I’m grateful for the opportunities I now have and I want to keep fighting for families.

Diane: Joyce, its parent leaders like you who really inspire the rest of us in advocacy. I admire your commitment to justice for others and the wisdom you bring to this. I hope we can continue to work together for years to come. Thank you for doing this interview. Thank you for sharing your own story of your road from being a victim of the child welfare system to a very powerful advocate for change.


Joyce McMillan and Marty Guggenheim at the first Family Defender Conference at a law school (CUNY, April 2016). 

Joyce McMillan and Marty Guggenheim at the first Family Defender Conference at a law school (CUNY, April 2016). 

The Indomitable Richard Wexler: Taking on Child Savers on their Home Turf

An Interview with Richard Wexler, Executive Director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform: Hard Hitting Child and Family Advocacy That (Rarely) Pulls Its Punches

No one knows more about what’s wrong with the child welfare system than Richard Wexler, long-time Executive Director and a founder of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform (NCCPR).  One explanation for Richard’s encyclopedic knowledge jumped out when I was preparing this profile.  Though his impressive resume includes many interesting and powerful positions in newsrooms, classrooms and social justice organizations and many accomplishments, including testifying before Congressional committees, one reason he is such a powerhouse is that, as his resume recites, he “built the nation’s most comprehensive database of child welfare news coverage, with more than 50,000 stories since 1997.”  Wow!  Those stories were culled one at a time, dutifully and thanklessly, over twenty years. Through sheer doggedness, Richard has kept up with every major development, trend, and bad idea (along with a few good ones) in child welfare for over 30 years and counting.  At the same time, he has kept his many audiences focused on the human stories that are at the heart of the terrible system that he has so vocally and effectively criticized.

There is also no one who is more passionate or tireless, nor is anyone a more tenacious crusader for justice for children and families than Richard.   A fearsome debater when it comes to the importance of protecting children from the foster care system, Richard goes head-to-head with many of the proponents of so-called “child saving” policies that are intended to protect children but end up hurting them instead by taking them.  He focuses on what it actually means to take children from their families and communities, causing wounds far deeper than their own families may have inflicted on them at the time of their removal.  Richard literally wrote the book against misguided child saving practices–his highly relevant and well-researched book Wounded Innocents: The Real War Victims of the War on Child Abuse, Prometheus Books (1990, 1995).  Wounded Innocents remains a Bible for family advocates in the child welfare system. 

Richard has been at the forefront, for decades, of the efforts to stop the terrible phenomenon of “foster care panics.”  Foster care panics  are common, often-times media-induced public reactions of child welfare systems to celebrated child deaths attributed to child welfare system failure. As Richard has catalogued in unprecedented detail, the predictable response to media frenzy over child deaths that the child welfare system failed to prevent is that more children are swept into foster care and fewer are returned to their parents, no matter how different their own circumstances may be from the case that caused the panic in the first place.

Journalism is Richard’s training and his trade, but he does not claim it as his profession any longer. He calls himself a “reformed journalist.” 

Richard is well known for not pulling his punches. He’s better at skewering bureaucrats than anyone I know.  Richard knows he can ruffle feathers.  But if the goal is stimulating debate and learning what is actually happening to children in foster care, there is no one who does a better job than Richard.

Richard got his own start down his child welfare reform advocacy path road around the same time as I did, which makes us contemporaries, literally. My own interaction with Richard and his pioneering work on behalf of children and families whose lives are torn apart by the child welfare system, traces back to the Norman case (as it also does in my connection to Ruth White, see interview profile here).  

Richard’s book Wounded Innocents includes a powerful segment about James Norman, a former steelworker who was struggling to raise his two daughters after his wife died and he was laid off from his job.   I will always remember James Norman, but Richard’s book is the one that helped build James Norman’s legacy too.  The Norman class action challenged the horrific Catch-22 policies of the Illinois child welfare agency (DCFS) of removing children from their parents because of poverty, which would cause the parents to lose their public aid benefits and housing after the children were taken. Then the child welfare agency would demand, as a condition of getting their children back, that the parents get a 2- or 3-bedroom apartment and income to support their family—a condition the agency’s removal practices made all but impossible.   The Norman case led to a sweeping revision of the policies involving poverty and child welfare, and instituted new programs to support families instead of tearing them parent. (Not all of these programs work as well as envisioned of course and NCHCW continues to work to implement programs like the Norman programs throughout the country.)

In the Norman case, as with every other piece of litigation that Richard has written about, Richard clearly understood the legal claims we were making and had an uncanny way of making the story more powerful and comprehensible to any reader.

How did Richard get his start?  And what keeps him going?  How can and should the family defense movement make sure that the stories Richard tells continue to be told as effectively as Richard does it?  Don’t we need a dozen more Richard Wexlers?  

My interview with Richard concludes with some thoughts of my own as to the importance of the work Richard does and how his legacy needs to be supported, enhanced and extended.

Diane:  What’s the goal of all of your advocacy, Richard?  When will you be able to say “I’ve succeeded in what I’ve set out to do”?

Richard:  The goal is fewer children needlessly removed from their families.  So while there have been some important successes, the current rise in the number of children in foster care certainly means our work has not succeeded to the extent it can and should.  We’re still removing far too many children for reasons of poverty. Removals still often have little to do with safety and far too much to do with race and class, and the persistent confusion of poverty with neglect.

Diane:  Was ending needless removals always your goal?  How did you get hooked on writing about children who were needlessly taken from their families and put into foster care, only to be terribly damaged in the process?

Richard:  I’ve actually written about how I came to focus on children needlessly removed in a column I wrote two years ago: https://chronicleofsocialchange.org/blogger-co-op/cant-child-protection-without-family-preservation/16502].   There was a radio documentary I produced  while I was still a journalism student at Columbia University in 1976.  I interviewed a college student who had been in nine different foster homes by the time she was nine years old. She told me she survived by keeping her rage bottled up inside her, unlike her five brothers who, she said had been in, as she put it, “every jail in New York State.”  

I drew three conclusions from this experience: (1) I was glad I had chosen journalism as a career; (2) I knew I would keep coming back to the story; and (3) we could fix this if we just got all those rotten birth parents out of the way and got all these children adopted.

As I say in the piece I wrote, “Two out of three isn’t bad.”   I did keep coming back to the story, and I kept finding that the facts on the ground differed from what the most widely-quoted experts kept saying. They would say “child abuse crosses class lines.” So why was it that the only people I saw in the system were poor people?  I was confronted with that reality over and over and it changed my perspective.  That became a core issue for me in my writing about what was wrong with the system. But it wasn’t just a matter of personal stories. The personal stories led me to look more closely and find that there is a much wider range of experience out there than had made it into most news stories. And it led me to look more closely at the research on the harm of foster care and the extent to which poverty is confused with neglect.  

Diane:  How did you get the chance to keep returning to that story when your day jobs were with newspapers or public television?

Richard:  I would seek out every opportunity to cover child welfare.  And sometimes the story would find me.  For a story for the public television station in Springfield Massachusetts that had nothing to do with child welfare I interviewed a social worker who talked about how neighbors used child protective services to harass each other with false reports.  At the public television station in Rochester, I covered the story of am 11-year-old boy who used running to cope with dyslexia and aphasia. He became a hero in upstate New York when he ran across the entire continent. When he had to miss some school to finish the run, his parents tutored him along the way. But the school district reported the parents for “educational neglect.” (The parents believe it was retaliation for their efforts to get a better special education plan for the child.) The CPS agency “substantiated” the allegation.

The stories I was seeing were not like Joseph Wallace.  [Joseph Wallace was the 3-year-old Illinois child who was returned home to his mentally unstable mother in 1993 and was found dead from hanging—a case that provoked a sustained foster care panic in Illinois that cause the system to mushroom from 15,000 children in care to over 50,000].   They were everyday families struggling with raising children and doing the best they could. Parents like James Norman were losing their children to foster care, but those stories were largely ignored, obscured by the very rare cases of horrific abuse.

Diane: The case Rene Heybach and I tried in the juvenile court of Cook County right before we decided to file the Norman case--the case that precipitated our decision to file a class action suit--was a classic example of what you are talking about.  Our clients were dirt poor, living in the unheated basement of a house that had no running water.  The grandmother and mother had conflicts and the grandmother didn’t care much for her son-in-law either, who was unable to keep steady employment.  But this was a nice looking couple, and they had rather adorable white children.  The grandmother called the Hotline, possibly seeking help for her daughter but possibly in retaliation or in an effort to take the children from her.   (These different motives can blur at times.).   One by one,  each of their five children was removed from the parents.  We faced one juvenile court petition after another, and the whole basis for the State's allegations was that the family didn't have decent housing. We had a terrible time, however,  convincing the juvenile court to return the children to them given their lack of stable housing.  We decided to file the class action suit because unless and until the child welfare system took responsibility for assisting with housing needs of families like that family, all other “reasonable efforts” to reunite families would fail.  I think we must have met (by phone) shortly after this, after the Norman case was already pending.

How did you find out about the work we were doing on the Norman case?

Richard: I read about it in Youth Law News, a publication of the National Center for Youth Law.

Diane: How were you able to write Wounded Innocents?  How long did it take you? Weren’t you working full time at the time?

Richard: Yes, I was a reporter for  the Albany Times Union at the time, and our own child was a toddler. As my wife (author and journalist Celia Viggo Wexler) aptly puts it: I wrote the book in her spare time. 

Diane:  How did you come to be a founder of NCCPR?

Richard:  That was interesting.  I had sent the galleys for Wounded Innocents to Betty Vorenberg to comment on.  She was with the Massachusetts Advocacy Center when I was a reporter in Massachusetts.   She wrote to me and asked if I wanted to form an organization around the principles in the book.   I said “sure.” Betty organized an initial conference in 1991 at Harvard Law School, where her husband, James Vorenberg, had been Dean.

Diane:  I should have gone to that meeting (I had been invited to attend).  I wanted to be a part of NCCPR from the beginning.  But I had just been appointed to a task force to address the structure of the Office of Public Guardian—after I had brought a right to counsel suit that led to the creation of the Juvenile Division of the Cook County Public Guardian’s Office.  Just as you were trying to maintain objectivity as a journalist, I was trying to do the same as a litigator. I didn't want to be seen as too vocal a critic of the entire child welfare system just at that moment.  I’m glad Carolyn Kubitschek (who was Vice President of NCCPR at the time, and still is), reached out to me again in 1998 to get me to join NCCPR’s board then.  By then I was ready and I was in private practice so some limitations on me,  by virtue of being legal services lawyer, did not affect me any longer.

Richard:  Yes, you were on the board when we finally raised enough money to hire me as Executive Director.  It had taken eight years before we raised enough grant money to be able to actually pay me a salary that would enable me to leave my other paid employment. In the meantime, between 1991 and 1999 I moved to the Pittsburgh area and taught journalism.  Then my wife got a job in DC and it was my turn to move.

Diane:  There came a time when you had to go back to work for another organization, right?  When was that?

Richard: Yes, in 2012 NCCPR ran out of money.  But now I’m retired and between savings and Social Security I have the ability to do this work, albeit on a reduced scale  without major funding from foundations.  The one thing that’s really lacking is a travel budget that would allow me to meet with journalists across the country and issue reports on state child welfare systems, as we did before.  So if any foundations would like to surprise me and fund that, I’d be glad to discuss it.

Diane: Where do you think you’ve had the biggest impact?

Richard:  In Maine, working closely with local advocates, our reports had a big impact—a dramatic reduction in child removals, less use of  group homes and institutions and more use of kinship care.  In fact, Maine was a finalist for an award for innovations due to its foster care reforms.  We also had a big impact in Florida, particularly when two reformers, Bob Butterworth and then George Sheldon were running the state child welfare agency.. We also had a big impact in Minneapolis, your home town (DLR correction: I’m from St. Paul, the lower-key Twin City). 

Mary Jo Copeland, known as the  “Mother Theresa of Minneapolis” decided she wanted to warehouse children in her very own orphanage.

Working with the North American Council on Adoptable Children, we persuaded the editorial page of the Minneapolis Star Tribune to oppose the plan and that contributed significantly to its ultimate defeat.

There have been many other cases across the country where NCCPR has influenced editorial boards and gotten the case for family preservation included in news coverage.

Our voice has been looked to for balance against the incendiary rhetoric that fuels foster care panics and our advocacy has helped change laws and improve policies.

Generally speaking, our greatest impact has come when we’ve been able to partner with local advocates and/or leaders within the child welfare system who were willing to listen and knew how to lead change.  That combination doesn’t happen all the time—in fact, real leaders on the inside of child welfare systems are pretty rare.

Diane:  Still, no one demands of foster care systems that they prove their safety track record, right?  Foster care is still presumed to be a “solution” to child abuse and parents are blamed, so that removal from those “bad parents” is considered the child welfare solution of choice.  Have we really made inroads in that thinking?

Richard:  The Big Lie of American child welfare is the claim that child safety and family preservation are opposites that need to be “balanced.”   In fact, you can’t have child safety without family preservation.  Family preservation is not only the more humane option, it is also the safer option for the overwhelming majority of children the overwhelming majority of the time.  A key part of NCCPR’s message is that  we are the real advocates of child protection.  We are the real advocates of child safety.   We need to own the child safety issue, not let the other side claim they speak for child safety while advocating policies that often destroy children in order to “save” them.

And of course there are many other harms of needless foster care —such as the inherent trauma of removal, just as that  former foster child told me about more than 40 years Yes, I think we have made progress in countering the Big Lie.  But it’s been around for more than 150 years, so it’s going to take a while longer.

Diane:  It was your suggestion to include Ruth White in United Family Advocates when we first convened in February 2017.  I have to thank you for that.  I didn’t know Ruth well before you made that suggestion but I obviously knew she had picked up on the Norman case advocacy and created a national organization. I had gone to Ruth’s workshop at the ABA conference in 2013.  But if you hadn’t suggested Ruth for the group, I might not have reached out to her.  And obviously, my own career path has been highly influenced by the work I’ve started doing through United Family Advocates and now with NCHCW.  How did you get to know Ruthie?

Richard:  I went to meetings of the Child Welfare-Mental Health Coalition, the group that includes most of the liberal leaning-child advocacy groups with a  Washington, D.C. presence.  Ruthie introduced herself to me because I said some things she told me she agreed with,  but hadn’t spoken up about in the particular audience we had there at the time. Then we went to lunch a few times, and I asked her to join NCCPR,  because not only did she have a strong grasp of federal child welfare policy and politics but she’d also bring a social work perspective to the board. 

Ruthie deserves enormous credit for keeping tens of thousands of children in their own homes thanks to her advocacy for Family Unification Program vouchers.   Ruthie almost single-handedly revived that program – and she has continued to lead the fight to recognize the vital role that housing plays in child welfare. Ruthie is someone who not only shares a critical perspective on the child welfare system but she is an extremely effective advocate for programs that really make a positive difference. She’s also someone who the liberal child welfare advocates listen to—in part because she has been a leader within the child welfare establishment (at Child Welfare League of America) as well as outside of it.   

Diane: Your judgment in bringing her into United Family Advocates was spot on.  Ruthie is one of the people who can best straddle the politics of child welfare. Not all of us can do it so easily— retaining our core principles and advocating for those ideas in a group that might be hostile to the reforms we are seeking. You have done a remarkable job in finding other advocates who are leaders in their respective areas who have contributed to NCCPR over the years.

And it’s wonderful that you are able to return to full-time work at NCCPR for the foreseeable future.  But don’t we need more (reformed) journalists like you—people who can analyze these policies and practices and systems and write compelling stories that keep telling truth to power about what is really happening in this deeply flawed, racially, gender and class biased system?  What would it take for someone to do what you do?  It doesn’t look easy to me!

Richard:   First, someone needs a passion for the issue.  They have to understand this niche.  And it is hard, because this is a field in which there is so much secrecy and the secrecy ends up benefiting the system. They also have to be willing to take that hard-hitting approach to advocacy I mentioned earlier. There’s a very specific reason for that.  The family preservation movement nearly “niced” itself to death.  Faced with demagogic attacks from media and politicians all through the 1990's, the movement didn’t really fight back.  So that Big Lie I mentioned earlier spread largely unrebutted.

Fighting back means getting tough with foster care.  Too many people who support family preservation are reluctant to speak bluntly about the extent of the harm done by foster care.  But if there’s really nothing wrong with foster care – it it really doesn’t hurt children – then there’s no reason to avoid it.

Saying family preservation is safe, for example, is not enough. We also need to talk about all the studies showing tha foster care often is unsafe.

Diane: Do you ever pull your punches?  The rap on you is that you don’t!

Richard:  Those people never see my first drafts!  More seriously,  I do hold back sometimes. When a local advocate I respect in a given community tells me that it’s the wrong time for my style of advocacy,  I respect that. I try to work closely with parents’ attorneys and advocacy groups in each state. They generally have the best sense of what to say and when to say it in order to advance the goal of  stopping children from being taken into foster care,  except when the children are truly unsafe at home and there is no safe alternative. There are, of course, cases in which child genuinely are unsafe with their parents—cases of heinous abuse.  But over and over, still, children are being taken for reasons of poverty and race and lack of resources for their family.  And that is the tragedy that continues to bring me back to what I’ve learned in the years since I interviewed that former foster child 41 years ago


Diane’s Commentary:  The family advocacy world has needed Richard Wexler more than just about anyone else I can think of.  Only now that I’ve left the world of direct legal services have I come to appreciate the vast worlds he straddles seemingly effortlessly, but actually with great and consistent, methodical attention.  He is unfailingly on top of the latest trends in child welfare policy—and has already written about these trends.  He has a grasp of data, of finance, of social science research, and yes, of legal precedents and arguments, that is singular.   And I have come to appreciate that, while he definitely doesn’t pull punches, Richard really is a team player—someone who works tirelessly with other advocates toward the same goals.  

I don’t agree with Richard on everything he says or does, or on the emphasis he puts on some of the issues he highlights, but I’m with him on about 95% of the positions he takes.  That’s a pretty good percentage. And what is best about Richard is how clearly he argues for the positions he takes, with terrific power.

For these reasons, I wish we had more Richard Wexlers in the family defense/family advocacy work we do. But I’m grateful he is back to working full time for NCCPR for the foreseeable future.



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An Interview With the Very Inspiring Ruth White, Executive Director of NCHCW, My New Advocacy Home

Ruthie (left) and Diane (right), now a dynamic duo of advocates.  

Ruthie (left) and Diane (right), now a dynamic duo of advocates.  

In this first “Biography Blog,” I interview Ruth White, the Co-Founder and Executive Director of the National Center for Housing and Child Welfare.  I'm not the only one who has recently interviewed Ruth: here is her recent  interview by Rise Magazine. NCHCW is my new professional home, the Center from which I will lead the organization's legal advocacy and continue the work we have done together to help to develop United Family Advocates’ policy agenda.  In this Blog, I hope to convey the energy, thoughtfulness, and  inspiration that Ruth brings to her work on behalf of families and youth—work that has led to a national expansion of resources that families and youth urgently need. 

Diane:  What led you to start NCHCW when you did? 

Ruth:  There was an obvious “focusing event” that made forming NCHCW a clear necessity at the time.  But there was also the longer background, of course, and a bigger agenda. The need for a group like NCHCW to exist had been apparent to me through a variety of positions I had held—reasons that also made it logical and necessary for me to be one of the people to step forward to create NCHCW.

The focusing event concerned the  Family Unification Program (FUP)—the Housing and Urban Development’s special Section 8 voucher program for families who had child welfare involvement and who needed housing resources in order to prevent separation or reunify after a family separation through foster care placement for the children.   I had held housing policy advocacy positions at the Child Welfare League of America and with Catholic Charities USA, and in those positions, we had been lobbying Congress for nearly four years to re-establish funding for FUP (after steady annual funding, the Program went dormant under the Bush administration). But then we were notified by the Senate Appropriations committee that FUP had been reauthorized, with $20 million for new vouchers.  My mentor, Bob McKay, and I realized that there was no entity that would be able to take on the task of notifying all the housing authorities about the new vouchers and how to apply for them.  So, together we decided to create the Center for the purpose, initially, of re-igniting interest in this wonderful program.  

Before 2007-2008, while the Family Unification Program had been around since 1990, it had been static for quite a while.  I had been the person who had been taking the lead on working with the housing authorities in whatever position I happened to be in.   But with the new reauthorization, the job I had been doing all along suddenly got much bigger. The work needed someone who could take it on, with a more explicit responsibility to see that the work got done.

The longer background is that we recognized the urgent need for housing supports for families in the child welfare system. That need was much greater than simply to notify housing programs about the expansion of the authorized FUP vouchers.  There was an ongoing need to advocate for further expansion of housing and other economic resources for youth aging out of foster care and for families involved in the child welfare system. There was an ongoing great need for advocacy for more preventive and reunification concrete services with both the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).  Advocacy was needed at the federal, state and local levels.

I was tremendously inspired by Bob McKay and his work over the years in the housing policy and youth and family support arenas.  I was privileged to work with him closely.  He was a real mentor.  We have had a lot of great leaders who have been willing to stand up to help make the case for housing resources for youth and families.  We have had a strong board with real leaders in the field.  That’s part of why I was willing to take this on.

 It was clear to me that the intersection between housing and child welfare was vast and important, but that both housing and child welfare authorities didn’t know very much about how their counterpart systems worked.  Making housing resources available to families in the child welfare system and to youth aging out wouldn’t just magically expand without some consistent advocacy and technical support of the sort NCHCW could do.  Since studies have consistently shown that 30% of children in foster care would not be in care if their families had adequate housing, the need for advocacy for housing resources to support families was huge.  And when one considers the needs of youth aging out of child welfare into homelessness and incarceration at alarming rates, the need was urgent for that population too.  If child welfare agencies were graduating youth into this appalling condition, what did that say about the purpose and practices of child protection and child welfare services agencies?  To me and to many others, this reality for foster youth said we were failing these children and families and we could do better. That was the underlying longer background and longer term vision that supported creation of NCHCW at that time.

Diane:  What was the longer history that led you to recognize that need?

Ruth: Do you mean my personal history or the history of these programs?

Diane:  Let’s start with your personal history as a social worker and get back to how that intersects with the history of these programs and the need you and others saw in 2008.

Ruth:  I got my Master’s Degree in Social Work at Case Western Reserve in Cleveland, Ohio. (I’m an Ohio native, with my undergraduate degree from Ohio State too, so I’m a solid Buckeye!). I was working as a case manager and an administrator in homeless shelters.  I noticed very soon into my work there that some families get motel vouchers, provided by the child welfare authorities, and other families would be turned away from any resources.  I couldn’t tell what distinguished the families who got help from those who didn’t get help at all; the decisions seemed arbitrary. When I tried to get a sense of what the standards were for giving one family one set of resources and denying another family, I was basically told that the county child welfare systems was “not going to announce the resources it had available because it didn’t want people to think they were the ‘“Day’s Inn’" or “Motel 6.”  I took that to mean that,  In other words, there was a built-in arbitrariness and discretion that was all kept very secret for reasons that I couldn’t quite fully understand. This struck me as deeply unfair.  And the child welfare agency’s attitude that families shouldn’t be told about resources seemed very peculiar. 

Diane: How interesting!  When we filed the Norman case (Norman v. McDonald, a class action I filed with Rene Heybach, Joan Matlack and Susan Wishnick in 1989 to seek housing and cash assistance for child-welfare involved families), we were told almost the same thing:  the child welfare agency is not “Century 21.”  In other words, the system didn’t want to be in the business of providing housing for families even though they recognized that lack of housing was a major reason why children were coming to the attention of the child welfare system.

Ruth: I have few theories, too, as to why the child welfare system is so resistant, oftentimes, to give out housing and cash assistance – or unwilling to be too public about it.  In part, there is a legitimate concern about moral hazard—creating a perverse incentive to have child welfare intervention in families in order to get resources that should come from other sources. But the really pervasive problem is that the child welfare system keeps its dollars for providers inside a closed network.  Sharing cash resources with families and providers outside of that closed network has proved to be  extraordinarily difficult, for reasons that seem illegitimate to me.

Diane:   There are many examples of misallocation of child welfare resources and the difficulties of getting the right resources to families in need.  Our colleague Richard Wexler (on whose board we have both sat at different times without realizing it until just recently),  writes about these sorts of “follow the money” stories a lot.   I'm recalling the story of an Illinois attorney who reportedly made $800,000 annually under a control to process DCFS adoptions. That amount of money could have housed 30 or 40 families pretty nicely for a year, right?

Ruth:  Yes, that's why we need to change the narrative and open up access to the resources families genuinely need.   We need to make people aware—including administrators at the top and ordinary people and other advocates—that lackof housing and income security more broadly are root causes of many families coming into child welfare systems, and having their family lives and youth futures destroyed rather than supported.  22,000 children are taken every year because of lack of housing.  Studies consistently show that 30% of the child in foster care could go home immediately if their families had housing.  We are wasting resources on foster care instead of supporting so many families. 

Diane:  That’s the fiscal case we are making, right? And it's the finding of the federal court in the Norman case too:  providing housing and cash assistance to families can actually save states money on foster care, for a net fiscal benefit. But Ruth,  how did you actually start to make child welfare agencies and housing agencies talk to each other?

Ruth:  Well, part of the impetus for this work came through litigation, including the litigation you brought—the Norman case.  In fact, you and Rene Heybach had been my heroes long before I got to work with you so closely.  The Norman case really gave us a shot in the arm to say to both housing authorities and child welfare authorities, “Look, it’s not just a good idea to help families with their housing needs and other supports, but if you don’t have a process and available resources, you too might get sued.” The threat of litigation was potent. There wasn’t just Norman, though that case was very far reaching in setting up a strong program with the backing of the federal court.  There were 4-5 cases in litigation that helped make this case. In the Norman case, Illinois brought in talented people to run the program.  John Cheney Egan in Illinois is a well-regarded advocate nationally who has been making the case for these supports for a long time, thanks to his position as the Norman services coordinator.  I work with him very closely.

Diane:   Which states do you think are models for providing housing supports to families?  What does it take to be effective at this?

Ruth:  The best state in my book is Connecticut. There is a real partnership in Connecticut between the housing authority, the child welfare system and the non-profit sector, with real expertise.  But Illinois is also a state that at least has the infrastructure in place to deliver supportive concrete services. It’s interesting, because Connecticut, like Illinois, had a consent decree that mandated these services.

Diane: It’s good to know that the case we brought nearly 20 years ago has made a real difference.  But I see so many obstacles to getting resources to families, mainly because the child protection investigation system really doesn’t focus on getting help to families—it focuses on “is this family guilty of abuse or neglect?” and “should this child be taken into care?”  Even traditional child welfare services (like counseling, parenting classes) can be hard to access, but concrete services are even harder. A family's housing needs are still often used as a weapon to separate families rather than help them, even in a state where we do have skilled programmatic people like John Cheney Egan who deeply understands the need to help families with these basic concrete supports.

Ruth:  I sometimes think that the model is entirely wrong:  we need to realize that the child welfare system is never going to be the best system to support families in meeting their basic needs.  We need to really pare down the child welfare system and beef up the social safety net because child welfare systems do not have the answers for the basic needs of so many of the families and youth who come to their attention.  Child protection services need to be reserved for the kids who are truly endangered at home.  Not for families who need shelter or whose kids walk home from school alone to a latchkey home.

Diane: How did you get the housing support programs implemented in the beginning? What were the road blocks?

Ruth: Shockingly, in the beginning, there simply wasn’t even a relationship between HUD (the federal housing agency) and HHS (the child welfare human services umbrella).  I helped to convene an initial meeting in August 2008. The Children’s Bureau within HHS hosted the meeting.  The housing folks wanted to understand the role of the Children’s Bureau in cases in which housing vouchers were provided to families involved in child welfare cases.  They wanted to know who gave the services to the children so that they could start to do better coordination at the state and local levels.  But the Children’s Bureau folks had no answers to some really basic questions at that time.

Diane:  Was that because housing simply wasn’t on their radar?

Ruth:   Maybe, but in fairness to the Children’s Bureau and the child welfare system in general, the question of service delivery is a whole lot more complex in the child protection realm than it is for housing officials.  HHS and child welfare systems live with very ambiguous and complex dynamics.  With housing, the authorities have just three options—process an application, put someone on a waiting list, or deny an application.  With child welfare, there are a host of questions that need assessments and the standards for making determinations under those standards are not always clear.  But then again, why are we assessing these things and why have case managers if there are no services that help? You should read Eileen Gambrill’s article on assessment—she makes this point powerfully

[At this point in my interview with Ruth, Ruth handed me her copy of Duncan Lindsay and Aron Shlonsky (eds.), Child Welfare Research, Oxford University Press (2008). And after I read three of the articles, including Gambrill’s, I ordered my own copy.  Working with Ruth is opening up new vistas and intersections between legal advocacy,  social science, social work, and policy advocacy.]

Diane:  So what do you see as the future for NCHCW now that we are joining forces?

Ruth:  That’s a topic to be continued, but obviously, it is enormously helpful to have some legal firepower, legal expertise, and someone with a history of working on these issues from the legal side as well as on the issues of the child abuse register and other misuses of state power to hurt rather than help families.  It’s an exciting time for us to be working together, because now just about everyone agrees that the child welfare system is broken.  And we’re people who can say that forcefully, with long experience in the trenches. We can also explain some steps that will help to make the system more responsive to the actual needs of the child and families.

It’s galling, but I see all the time that there is resistance to actually giving families what they most need, which are the resources to raise their kids.  I sit on lots of committees and task forces and there are loads of advocates out there who are studying problems but when the actual proposal is made to give money and resources to families and youth, they will say that we need to do more studying as to whether money and housing make a difference. 

Diane:  This was what Leroy Pelton says so powerfully in the article in the Lindsay and Shlonsky book you gave me.  We don’t need research to tell us that housing people gives them a roof over their head, right?  But yet so many times, leaders in foundations, non-for-profits and government want to study problems rather than do the hard work of fixing the problems we know exist and just need some meaningful support.  When we filed the Norman case, there was a $25,000 fund already in existence—the Harris Fund (established by philanthropist Irving Harris) to help families with security deposits and first month’s rent. So the child welfare system had already recognized the need and DCFS had accepted the money.  But $25,000?!  That could house 1-2 families, not the 6,000 or more families who needed housing supports to prevent removal of their children or to reunite their families.

Ruth: I’ve sometimes been a lonely voice at these tables so it will be nice to have a partner who comes to the same conclusions through years of complementary experience.

Diane: Thank you Ruth.  This is a conversation to be continued, of course.  Blog readers, stay tuned!