MaryLee Allen, Long Time Policy Director at Children’s Defense Fund, Has Passed Away at 74

MaryLee Allen, director of policy for the Children’s Defense Fund, has passed away.

MaryLee Allen, who for decades led on the issue of child welfare for the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF), died of liver cancer at the age of 74 last week.

Allen, who is among the foremost experts on federal policy on child welfare, joined CDF shortly after its founding in 1973. She remained with the organization until recently entering hospice care.

“There are people who light the way in this world with their kindness, generosity and good works,” said Stefanie Sprow, CDF deputy director of child welfare and mental health, in an e-mail to colleagues and friends that was also signed by JooYuen Chang of Casey Family Programs and Mary Bissel of Child Focus. “MaryLee was this beacon for so many, and our hearts are broken.”

That message was also posted on a CaringBridge website created to celebrate Allen’s life.

In joining CDF and remaining with it over the decades, Allen hitched her wagon to one of the largest personalities in child advocacy: Marian Wright Edelman, the organization’s founder, who stepped aside as executive director last year. Allen, by contrast, was a force behind the scenes, working to coordinate advocates to advance improvements in the federal commitment to America’s most vulnerable children.

“MaryLee’s views are incorporated into every piece of federal legislation over the past thirty years,” said Cassie Statuo-Bevan, a former Capitol Hill senior staffer on child welfare and current fellow at the University of Pennsylvania. “MaryLee never confused different points of view with not caring about children. That made her so effective and that makes her loss all the more devastating.”

Among the major shifts in federal policy that Allen had a hand in include the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980, the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008, and the Family First Prevention Services Act of 2018.

“I first met MaryLee when I came to work in the United States Senate in 1993,” said John Sciamanna, vice president of public policy for the Child Welfare League of America, in an e-mail to The Chronicle. “… She was already a key leader on child welfare. In her dedication and work she sent forth, in the words of Robert Kennedy, ‘a ripple of hope’ that did make a difference. She will be missed by us all.”

In 2017, Allen received the Child Welfare Leadership Prize from the Juvenile Law Center.

“Through the combination of legislative recommendations, smart strategy, and coalition building, she has powerfully influenced the development and passage of all the major child welfare reforms,” said Ann Rosewater, a child welfare consultant and former federal official, introducing Allen at the 2017 ceremony. “And she has worked consistently to ensure that these laws and policies are faithfully and successfully implemented in states and communities. She always keeps her eye on the long run.”

The Juvenile Law Center’s current CEO, Susan Mangold, credited Allen as an early mentor who initially helped her land a job at the organization she now leads.

“When I first returned to Juvenile Law Center as Executive Director, I attended an education coalition meeting with Kate and saw MaryLee for the first time in many years,” Mangold wrote, in a message posted on Allen’s CaringBridge website this week. “When we went around with introductions, maybe there were 40 of us in the room, I asked everyone to raise their hands if MaryLee had helped launch their careers. About 30 of the 40 advocates in the room smiled and raised their hands. Her child welfare advocacy in Washington is a model of foresight, intelligence, bipartisan negotiation and dogged persistence. Everyone who knew her had genuine affection and deep respect for her. Hers was a life well-lived.”

CORRECTION: This story was updated to correct Susan Mangold’s title to CEO, rather than executive director. 
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John Kelly
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John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.