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.