Demise of Parents Group Leaves Empty Seat at the Table

I read the New York Times article about the impending demise of the Child Welfare Organizing Project (CWOP), an advocacy group of and for parents whose children are in foster care in New York City, yesterday.

Given my most recent role at the Adoptive and Foster Family Coalition of New York (AFFCNY), you may assume that I would welcome this news. After all, I am an adoptive parent of a child from foster care and the Coalition is a parent-led organization of and for foster and adoptive parents. You might assume that I am solidly on the other side of the fence.

But if you assumed these things, you would be wrong. The shuttering of CWOP’s doors is not a good thing. While there may be problems with the organization, our system very much needs the role and function of CWOP, AFFCNY and other similar organizations.

In the well-written article by Nikita Stewart, David Tobis, who played a key role in the founding of CWOP, suggested that perhaps the organization has run its course. Adding to this contention was the fact that two former CWOP employees now hold key positions at the New York City Administration for Children’s Services (ACS). Stringing those two things together, one could conclude that with outside advocates now “on the inside,” the works of parents’ advocates is done. This is not so.

I won’t speak to whether or not CWOP should continue to exist as an organization. We live in a world of change, and no organization is meant to exist forever. What I will speak to however, is the need for the function of CWOP to continue to be a part of our child welfare world.

Specifically:

  • In the words of Terry Mizrahi, as quoted in the article, “The group was at its best when it acted as a friendly foe of the city Administration for Children’s Services.” It is good to have allies, people who understand advocates’ point of views, inside the system, but it is not enough. Nor does it replace having strong, autonomous advocacy groups who can work in partnership with child welfare administrators.
  • All too often, our system gets out of balance. Too much focus on birth parents is not good. Focus solely on foster and adoptive parents is also not good. Balance makes it more possible for all voices and perspectives to be heard and considered. Balance helps keep the focus on the best interests of the child and generally yields more appropriate, sustainable policies and practices.
  • Balance takes vigilance. As many of us have seen, it is way too easy for our system to drift or backslide without sustained effort.
  • Advocates with first-person experience need to be at the table. Both ACS and our state Office of Children and Family Services have made great strides in bringing advocates to the table. We cannot lose this momentum. There is more to do.
  • Advocates best know how to engage and mobilize other parents. Given our personal experience, we can best support other parents, ensuring that their advocacy comes from a place of integration and strength and does not re-traumatize them.

So, for all these reasons, I will not celebrate that CWOP may well be on its last legs. Instead, I’m going to acutely feel the void that the absence of a strong advocacy organization for parents will leave in our system.

I’ll hope another similar group or movement comes to the fore very soon. The days of CWOP may be over, but the need for the role and purpose they served is not. There is a seat at the table waiting to be filled.

Richard Heyl de Ortiz is an adoptive parent and the former executive director of the Adoptive and Foster Family Coalition of New York.

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