Remembering MaryLee Allen

MaryLee Allen, the longtime director of child welfare policy at the Children’s Defense Fund, passed away this month at the age of 74.

Last week, the world lost MaryLee Allen, the longtime leader on child welfare policy for the Children’s Defense Fund. Allen, who had a hand in most of the federal legislation passed on the issue in the past four decades, died at age 74 from liver cancer.

The Children’s Defense Fund is planning an event to celebrate Allen’s life and career in the coming weeks, and has created the MaryLee Allen Fund for Child Advocacy for those who wish to contribute to the continuation of the work to which MaryLee devoted her life.

The Chronicle of Social Change published a story on the loss of Allen earlier this week, but we wanted to also include more thoughts from Allen’s friends and peers. Below is a collection of comments either shared directly with The Chronicle, posted on social media, or included on a memorial site for Allen.

I wouldn’t say that I knew MaryLee personally – we probably spoke or corresponded around three dozen times. I’ve been covering child welfare and juvenile justice for nearly 20 years now, and it was obvious early on to me that she was both extremely knowledgeable on the history and highly influential when it came to advancing the agenda.

I got the vibe that she never really relished speaking with the media, and becoming, to some extent, part of the story. But she was always helpful to me in my reporting, most recently in a conversation about the legacy and impact of the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act.

Her legacy on the issues is, by itself, worthy of reflection. But what has jumped out to me from the outpouring of love for Allen this week is how much she worked to build the next generation of leaders on child welfare policy.

Mary Bissell, founding partner, ChildFocus

MaryLee was the quintessential child advocate – highly strategic, whip smart, enormous heart. In a city that’s often driven by politics and personalities, she had this amazing way of getting everyone to focus on the only policy question that really matters: is this good for children?

She was remarkable at what she did, but what was even more important to her was that she approached the work with kindness and integrity.

MaryLee was just so deeply and universally loved. Like so many people who she touched, I am heartbroken.

Liz Martin, lecturer at University of Louisville’s Kent School of Social Work

My mentor is gone. I feel blessed that she was my MSSW practicum supervisor while working at CDF in D.C. A true gift. She was one of the more knowledgeable people with respect to policy and children – a staunch advocate. Her drive and intellect is translated in words via federal policy. Mary Lee will be very difficult to replace as a woman, social change agent and friend.

John Sciamanna, vice president of public policy, Child Welfare League of America

I first met MaryLee when I came to work in the United States Senate in 1993.  More than a quarter century ago she was already a key leader on child welfare and so it was a natural connection. Both before that time and since she cast a “bright” shadow over the field of children and families. 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.

Ruth Anne White, executive director, National Center for Housing and Child Welfare

When I arrived in D.C. in the summer of 1999 as a young, unpolished social worker for my entry level job at the Child Welfare League of America, I didn’t know anyone or anything outside the field of housing. My first assignment at CWLA was to attend the Child Welfare Mental Health Coalition chaired by none other than the great MaryLee Allen. I couldn’t believe it – THE MaryLee Allen! Walking into that CDF conference room, I was so nervous and I felt so unworthy of inclusion in that esteemed group of child welfare advocates that I was almost in tears.

And then I met MaryLee and all of that anxiety and trepidation immediately fell away. Everyone – EVERYONE – was welcome at that table. MaryLee set that tone for the child welfare advocacy community, welcoming everyone and their ideas into the CDF family. She was the master negotiator – and knew how to gently move the field along and knit in new and unusual solutions – while maintaining and nurturing relationships along the way.

Her impact upon federal policy was so vast that many people don’t know that the signature housing program in federal law to keep homeless families together, the Family Unification Program, was conceived by a team led by MaryLee Allen in the late 80s. Because of her masterful ability to work across systems, the departments of Housing and Urban Development and Health and Human Services agreed to share resources in order to reunify hundreds of thousands of children with their families and provide them with safe, decent and affordable homes.

I had occasion to remind her of this in the spring and express my gratitude, even before she fell ill. But I never got a chance to thank her properly for the impact she had upon my career.  Because she welcomed me so fully into the federal advocacy community and gave me every reason to believe that I belonged at the table – I have had the courage to push federal policy in ways I never thought I could.

Sue Mangold, CEO, Juvenile Law Center

When I first returned to Juvenile Law Center as executive director, I attended an education coalition meeting with Kate and saw Mary Lee for the first time in many years. When we went around with introductions, maybe there were 40 of us in the room, I asked everyone to raise their hands if Mary Lee 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.

Carol Spigner, professor emerita at University of Pennsylvania School of Policy and Practice

I am missing MaryLee so much already. Her leadership, constancy and focus has made the world so much better for children. She will be missed but the work continues among us and the generations to follow. She is our model and our guide as we move forward.

Zach Laris, director of federal advocacy and child welfare policy, American Academy of Pediatrics

Like countless others, MaryLee mentored and taught me so much about the world of child welfare policy. She was never too busy to teach or help others, and had such a beautifully clear moral compass that animated her work and life. Her passion for continually making the world better for children will live on in all of those who were lucky enough to know her, and will continue to create positive change to better the world.

Sandra Gasca-Gonzalez, vice president, Center for Systems Innovation at the Annie E. Casey Foundation

The child welfare field and the children’s advocacy community more broadly have lost a true champion for kids. Every piece of federal legislation enacted over the past 40 years to improve the lives of children has MaryLee’s fingerprints on it. She understood the importance of collaborating and encouraged me to find unlikely allies and never lose sight of what’s important – better results for children and families.

She will be remembered as a great mentor and a visionary who would not let us forget what more we owed our nation’s children.

Charles Bruner, director, Child and Family Policy Center

MaryLee and I were colleagues for 40 years, getting together in various coalitions and brainstorming sessions to scheme and connive about how we could get society to do better by children — in child welfare, child health and economic security.

Committed, resolute, expert and persistent, MaryLee also was always kind and generous and engendered an implicit trust. Given that I was far outside the beltway and involved more in state than federal policy, our paths did not cross on any regular basis, but when they did, it was always reaffirming.

Morna Miller, majority staff director, Subcommittee on Human Resources, U.S. House Committee on Ways and Means

I was privileged to watch MaryLee change the world with her wisdom, grace, kindness and persistence. And even more privileged to be one of the many, many people in the child welfare community that she mentored and taught.

It will never be the same without her, but “What Would MaryLee Say?” will continue to be the first question I ask myself when confronted with a tough question or a fork in the road. I am so sorry, and so grateful to her family for sharing her with us all these years.

Cassie Statuto Bevan, fellow, University of Pennsylvania

MaryLee was a fierce and tireless advocate for vulnerable children. She was passionate on the battlefield of Capitol Hill with our ideas often clashing. She never questioned the motives of advocates who had different ideas about solutions to the myriad of obstacles facing poor and at-risk children. MaryLee’s views are incorporated into every piece of federal legislation over the past 30 years.

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.

Rick Barth, dean, University of Maryland School of Social Work

MaryLee was so special to me, and so many, combining her joy, commitment and extraordinary expertise into a powerful force for good. I tried to read everything she wrote and will forever cherish my memories of her and the insights she shared – -always in a positive way and always focused on the nuances of what was needed to make nuanced or transformative change. What a lift I always got when I saw that MaryLee was part of a meeting! I will miss that, and her. In my deep sadness, I am so grateful to have known her and to count her as a friend and inspiration.

Jill Kagan, program director, ARCH National Respite Network

MaryLee was a role model for all things good, for her inspirational and relentless advocacy, for her deep understanding of the work and her brilliance in knowing what to do to build a better world for children and their families. I will also always remember her for her kindness, her support, and the sincere efforts she always made to connect personally.

Joan Alker, co-founder, Center for Children and Families

I first met MaryLee in 1990 and as the years passed, I always sought out reasons to call her and reconnect. She was one of those people that elicited only the most positive feelings, deep respect and for me a feeling of comfort and stability. I just got back from vacation and am so heartbroken to hear that I won’t be able to pick up the phone and call her again. She was a beacon of light.

Sue Badeau, child welfare expert and consultant

My dear, dear friend, mentor, role model and colleague – it is hard to imagine a world without you in it – you have been a guidestar and bright light to so many of us. My heart is broken.

Liz King, program director, Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

MaryLee’s was a life lived for others. Always for the children who were her first concern. Also for those of us who she mentored and guided and put back together when the callousness of Washington tore us apart. MaryLee, we love you and we will remember you and we will do what you taught us to do. Thank you for everything.

Amy Harfeld, Children’s Advocacy Institute

MaryLee was a bastion of the last 40 years of information and progress in this field, lending an unmatched perspective to her critical work over the years. She was always willing to listen to unconventional ideas and provide a reasoned opinion, along with just the right questions to continue asking. MaryLee’s strength flowed not from her forceful imposition of her ideas, but rather from faith that her strategic ground-game for vulnerable children, built thoughtfully over time, would take root and bear fruit. She had great faith in the next generation of child advocates and left gigantic shoes for them to fill.

Jenny Delwood, executive vice president, Liberty Hill Foundation

MaryLee Allen was a key strategist and driving force behind nearly all of the child-focused federal policy wins over the last four decades. She touched millions of lives across the country through her policy work. Meanwhile, she also personally mentored and developed the next generation of child advocates.

I am so fortunate to have been one of those mentees. In 2011, brand new to Capitol Hill as a staffer for newly elected Rep. Karen Bass, I was charged with figuring out how to build a Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth and craft legislation to make a difference for kids and families. I was clueless. I desperately needed guidance from child welfare experts.

MaryLee opened her door and her heart to me. She helped me learn the ropes while modeling fierce tenacity, sharp wit and immense compassion. I am a better advocate and foster parent because of MaryLee. My family and I will be forever grateful for her leadership and love.

Susan Dreyfus, Alliance for Strong Families and Communities

MaryLee taught us all by example that there is no greater obligation we have than to have the courage of values-based advocacy whether for one child, one family or our entire nation! She lives on through us.

Sarah Esposito, advocate, AmeriCorps Legal Advocates of Massachusetts

Four years ago, I had the honor of working with MaryLee. Her zealous advocacy for the America’s most vulnerable children never ceased to amaze me. There was not a day that MaryLee was not the first one in the office and the last one to leave. In that summer she became one of my child welfare idols. I remember getting together with other interns and covering her door with signs saying MaryLee 2016 with her face plastered over election hopefuls. I hope one day to be at least half the advocate that MaryLee was. Her presence will be missed by all of America’s children.

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John Kelly, Editor in Chief, The Chronicle of Social Change
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John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change. Reach him at