The Chronicle of Social Change recently hosted its first event in New York City, soliciting live “letters to the editor” to spark conversation about what’s missing from media coverage of child welfare. Family defense lawyers, reporters, adoptive parents, caseworkers and former foster youth shared their insights during the June 27 panel, which was moderated by The Chronicle’s northeast editor Michael Fitzgerald and held at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.
Niquana Clark, artistic director of the Possibility Project Foster Care Program and a former foster youth, opened the discussion by addressing the “superstar” problem in foster youth representation. Noting that journalists tend to “cherry pick” successful former foster youth as the face of the system, Clark urged them to devote more attention to the everyday life of youth in care and accomplishments such as finding a job or graduating from high school. She also encouraged policymakers to incorporate youth perspectives when reforming the foster care system.
Former New York Daily News reporter Ellen Tumposky recounted her experiences covering child welfare in the 1980s, when the beat was “far more crowded.” Like Clark, she suggested focusing on more quotidian aspects of the system, for example by shadowing a caseworker for a day.
Chris Gottlieb, co-director of the Family Defense Clinic at the New York University School of Law followed, alluding to a “long list” of issues in child welfare coverage that she wanted to share with The Chronicle. Gottlieb pointed out that while pediatricians have been speaking out against the trauma of separating migrant parents and children at the border, the same division of families occurs regularly as the result of dependency cases.
Abigail Kramer, a writer and editor for the New School’s Child Welfare Watch, argued that child welfare is the intersection, not the origin, of many inequalities in the United States, such as racism, poverty and homelessness. She also called for more transparent data from the New York City Administration for Children’s Services (ACS), particularly on the number of children in foster care.
Yolanda Pumarejo, executive vice president of the Local 371 Social Service Employees’ Union, offered her thoughts as a former caseworker. Pumarejo referenced previous union slogans such as “When In Doubt, Take Them Out” and alleged that she and her peers were often scapegoated for systemic failures. Recalling the “boarder babies” abandoned at hospitals during the crack cocaine epidemic, she said that caseworkers were the ones to leak the news to the press.
Richard Heyl de Ortiz, executive director of the Adoptive and Foster Family Coalition of New York, commented on the challenging relationship between a child’s birth parents and foster parents, which Ortiz said is exacerbated by the “adversarial” nature of family court. Additionally, Ortiz touched on foster care in pop culture, explaining that hit show This Is Us captures “the feels” of fostering while Law & Order SVU’s portrayal has been “cringe-inducing.”
Lastly, Dinah Adames-Ortiz, parent advocate supervisor for the Bronx Defenders expressed her frustration with ACS’s inability to help parents without opening an investigation, saying that the agency penalizes families who seek assistance. She also reminded reporters to be careful with their word choice, recommending that they replace reductive phrases such as “homeless parent” with “a parent experiencing homelessness.”
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