Prominent New York Foster and Adoptive Parent Advocate Steps Down

Richard Heyl de Ortiz
Richard Heyl de Ortiz, then the executive director of the Adoptive and Foster Family Coalition of New York, addresses an audience at The Chronicle of Social Change’s “Letters to the Editor, Live” event in June of 2018 at the City University of New York’s School of Journalism in Manhattan. Credit: Rebecca Gibian

The executive director of the largest and most politically engaged foster and adoptive parent organization in New York announced he’s leaving after four and a half years in the role.

“I am writing to share with you that I am winding down my work at the Coalition and will be pursuing my commitment to families and children in another capacity,” wrote Richard Heyl de Ortiz of the Adoptive and Foster Family Coalition of New York (AFFCNY), in a Tuesday e-mail addressed to colleagues and friends.

The Coalition, based outside Poughkeepsie, was launched in 1975 to educate and organize parents, relative caregivers and child welfare professionals. That work included supporting dozens of grassroots parent groups statewide, and under Heyl de Ortiz expanded to include a 24-hour hotline, four new post-adoption support centers created with state funding, and a more active online presence.

Meanwhile, the staff grew from two people with annual revenue that barely cracked six figures to 20 people with more than $1 million in revenue, according to tax records. A four-year, $1.2 million contract with the state’s Office of Children and Family Services, for the support centers, began in March of this year according to state records.

In an interview Wednesday, Heyl de Ortiz declined to share more details on his future plans, but expressed gratitude for the experience.

“I’ve worked really hard, long hours, with focused attention. I’m really committed to this work — I grew up in kinship care, worked in family court, and I’m an adoptive father. Especially as we’re implementing Family First, I’m looking forward to continuing to being a part of this work,” he said, referring to the major federal reform that past early last year, the Family First Prevention Services Act. The state is spending $3 million to help counties adapt to the law, which narrows federal funding availability for different types of foster care group homes and promotes reliance on foster parents, including relative caregivers, among other provisions.

“The Coalition remains in a strong position, because of our board and advisory committee,” he said, adding that there was “no controversy” behind a departure that three people affiliated with the organization described as abrupt.

Recently, the group attracted attention for its advocacy against a piece of legislation approved by the statehouse in June. The bill, now awaiting Governor Andrew Cuomo’s signature, would give judges the option to mandate contact between children and their parents, in cases where the court had severed a parent’s legal rights to the child due to abuse or neglect allegations.

Heyl de Ortiz spoke out against the bill to The Chronicle of Social Change and to lawmakers, warning that it could destabilize adoptive families, and delivered a petition to Cuomo’s office that now has around 4,000 signatures. Cuomo has yet to comment on the legislation, which was promoted especially by New York City advocates for accused parents.

AFFCNY also recently advanced its long-running federal lawsuit on behalf of foster families, convincing the Second Circuit Court of Appeals that the organization had standing to pursue the case. The litigation — filed years before Heyl de Ortiz joined the organization – alleges the state’s monthly childcare reimbursements for foster parents fail to comply with federal law. A final ruling in AFFCNY’s favor could require the state to increase those reimbursements.

“Richard has been very effective at advancing and articulating the importance and value of foster and adoptive parents,” said William Gettman, executive director of Northern Rivers, a large Albany-based foster care agency. “He raised important issues in regard to the level of adequate reimbursement for foster parents. He was a tireless advocate. This is a real loss.”

Few members of the AFFCNY’s 13-member advisory committee or seven-member board of directors could be reached by press time, including board president and former AFFCNY Executive Director Sarah Gerstenzang.

“Richard has taken [AFFCNY] from a mom-and-pop shop that had been doing great work, to providing concrete, comprehensive services to a large part of New York state. I’ll be very disappointed to not have him at the helm,” says Susan Grundberg, a former executive director of the well-known New York City organization serving older foster youth You Gotta Believe!, who sits on the advisory committee. “The organization is in a solid, well-funded place.”

Pat O’Brien, founder of You Gotta Believe! and the current head of AFFCNY’s Long Island office, will be promoted to interim executive director. Via e-mail, he declined to comment to The Chronicle.

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Michael Fitzgerald
About Michael Fitzgerald 63 Articles
Northeast Editor for The Chronicle of Social Change. Follow me on Twitter: @mchlftzgrld