Q&A: Pat O’Brien on Leaving a Place He Founded, Suing The State, and What Comes Next for New York Foster Parents

Pat O'Brien foster adoptive parent new york affcny
Pat O’Brien, the new executive director of the Adoptive and Foster Family Coalition of New York, and the founder of the nonprofit You Gotta Believe.

An innovator in the field of adoption has taken the reins at one of the largest advocacy groups for foster and adoptive parents in New York. The Adoptive and Foster Family Coalition of New York (AFFCNY) announced Pat O’Brien as executive director in December.

O’Brien is best known for founding You Gotta Believe, a New York City group supporting older foster youth, in the early 1990s in Coney Island. The nonprofit, which celebrated its 25th anniversary last week, is credited with popularizing the idea that every teen has someone in their lives — a teacher, neighbor, coach, nurse, grandparent — who can step in as caretaker if there are severe problems at home.

More recently, O’Brien worked for Wendy’s Wonderful Kids, helping find those family members and friends for youth in Connecticut. He’s also a board member for the North American Council on Adoptable Children.

O’Brien takes the helm in the wake of two recent advocacy victories for AFFCNY. In December, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) vetoed a bill that would have given judges the option to mandate contact between children and parents who had their rights terminated due to abuse or neglect charges. AFFCNY mounted a letter-writing campaign in opposition to the bill and publicly spoke out against it.

The group also just won an incremental victory in a long-running lawsuit against the state of New York. The United States Supreme Court in late January decided to let stand a lower court ruling that AFFCNY has standing to sue the state over the benefits paid to foster parents. With the standing question out of the way, the lawsuit can now move forward on the underlying legal arguments over the meaning of the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980, which set rules for states receiving federal funds for foster care payments.

O’Brien sat down with The Chronicle of Social Change to discuss these issues, his background, and his goals for AFFCNY this year. What follows is lightly edited for clarity and length.

How did you get started in this field?

I went from high school to Columbia University to a law firm, The Legal Aid Society, where I worked for four years advocating for juvenile delinquents as a social worker. That’s where I learned the legal stuff. Then, I became an adoptive parent and wanted a different job.

How did becoming an adoptive parent change your path?

My wife and I were very young when we adopted; it was the mid-1980s. I looked in the newspaper and saw an opening for an adoption supervisor at a local agency. So I started working there, then after about 11 months, I joined an agency that placed older kids for adoption.

That’s when I started getting involved in the idea that every kid has someone in their life that could come forward to become a foster or adoptive parent whether they are biologically related or not. It’s this idea of “fictive kin:” family friends, neighbors, a teacher or coach.

We had babies in the hospital, for example, whom these nurses loved to death so why don’t we get them licensed to take the babies home? It was the first time I started emphasizing that.

And what was your experience working directly with foster, adoptive and at-risk families?

In those days, we had families ready to adopt, but we didn’t have the kids in our care until they needed a placement, after they’d been living at an agency or hospital or group home.

We were essentially placing kids with total strangers. I had a couple experiences thank God it wasn’t many where the kid didn’t like the first family I placed them with. One kid didn’t like the second family I placed with them. I absolutely refused to send them back to a congregate care facility. So I’d simply go to the kid and I’d go, “Alright. You don’t like who I’m finding for ya who do you want?”

Sometimes they would say a relative. Other times they’d say somebody they knew, whether it was on their block or on their foster parent’s block, or their school. Every kid had somebody. That’s when I started flipping the switch: Even though we continued to recruit from the general public because that’s what we got our funding for I also really tried hard to get access to the kids so we could recruit people that knew the kids as well.

I wanted to get to know the people who knew the kids. To get names from them.

And what are AFFCNY’s top priorities this year?

We will advocate for as many families throughout New York State to attend our 31st annual conference. This year, adults who were adopted, adults who spent pieces of their childhood in foster care, and adults raised by relatives will be featured keynote speakers and workshop presenters at our conference.

We’re also advocating for a settlement in our 10-year lawsuit, wanting New York State to reimburse foster parents at the rate mandated by federal law. We also plan on expanding our programming by creating an Adoption & Foster Care Therapist Network and enhancing our 24-hour helpline for families throughout New York State.

On that conference theme of speakers who spent time in foster care, do you think foster parents get to interact with a lot of adults who grew up with that experience? 

I don’t think so! I know when foster parents and educators with lived experience get in the same room, they get a lot out of it.

You obviously have spoken to so many people with that experience — what are the most important lessons you think they can teach, in terms of correcting misperceptions? 

They can bring a practicality to what we’re teaching people these days about raising children with trauma. The last 10 years we’ve been educating foster and kinship parents and adoptive parents on why parenting children with early childhood trauma has to be different from how you were attached to your parents, and how your own kids may have been attached to you. They need to hear how powerful [it is] to have that parent, and we’ll hear the stories about how awful it was when you didn’t have that parenting experience with your foster parent.

They are literally gonna be talking through the eyes of these folks’ children.

Tell me more about your organization’s lawsuit against the state — any comment on the Supreme Court declining to hear the state’s appeal?

We’re pleased that the Supreme Court has rejected New York’s attempt to escape its legal obligations to some of our most vulnerable children. Youth in foster homes deserve the same opportunity for a loving, nurturing childhood as anyone else, and no parent should ever agonize over how they can afford to support those in their care.

Rather than continuing its 10-year, taxpayer-funded legal fight, the Cuomo administration and New York’s progressive leadership should now finally recognize the tremendous burden that these families embrace and reimburse them adequately for basic expenses.

A new law will require social services agencies to provide specific information about grants and kinship programs when they engage relatives to care for an allegedly abused or neglected child. Do you think this will make a difference for families, or does it lack teeth?

Hopefully. If there’s not a consequence for following the rules, for the counties having trouble, I don’t see it making a big difference, but I think it’s better having a law than not having a law. A lawyer can take it to court if it comes up. I think that’s wonderful they got it written into the law.

One bill AFFCNY vocally opposed, the Preserving Family Bonds Act, might have provided an opening for parents who have their parental rights permanently severed by a judge, to maintain some contact with their child. Any thoughts on the governor’s veto of that bill in December?

Though we feel it was a misguided proposal, we understand where the issue and the interest come from. We just have a genuine disagreement there, and we just want an opportunity to go back to the table to talk about the issue in greater detail. 

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Michael Fitzgerald, New York Editor, The Chronicle of Social Change
About Michael Fitzgerald, New York Editor, The Chronicle of Social Change 104 Articles
New York Editor for The Chronicle of Social Change. Reach him at mfitzgerald@chronicleofsocialchange.org or follow on Twitter at @mchlftzgrld.