Pioneering Parent Advocate Group Loses Another Director, Future in Flux

Child welfare organization project new york city
A Child Welfare Organizing Project (CWOP) team, pictured on a trip to the state capitol in Albany, with Queens State Senator Tony Avella (Bottom left). The organization’s leader, Joyce McMillan (center, sixth from the front), resigned this week.

Joyce McMillan, driving force of New York City’s Child Welfare Organizing Project, known as CWOP, resigned from the organization this week. McMillan, who began leading the nonprofit as program director in February 2016 and helped author the foster care task force report released earlier this year for New York City Council, told The Chronicle she’ll be opening a for-profit entity called Credible Messenger Consulting.

“I’m grateful for the years I spent with CWOP, because of the wonderful people I met while trying to move the dead weight of CWOP,” said McMillan, who says she hopes to house her new firm out of the New School, where she hosts a speaker series and has a fellowship through the Center for New York City Affairs.

This marks the fourth leadership change in five years for the Harlem-based CWOP, which in 2012 missed out on a six-figure contract with New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS), for advocacy services for birth parents who are under investigation for child abuse or neglect by the public agency. The nonprofit developed those services years before ACS widely adopted them.

“I am simply broke, CWOP is simply broke,” McMillan said with characteristic resolve and candor at a recent speaker event at the New School. “We have very little employees, but we do a lot of work. We do work because we understand the necessity of the work, and I don’t do the work for a dollar. I don’t flip for dollars, I flip for change. And if it’s the last thing I do before I leave this earth, I’m gonna create change within ACS.”

CWOP’s constituents often describe child maltreatment investigations as the most terrifying, perplexing experiences of their lives. A critical component of the organization’s work involved pairing parents who have been investigated by ACS with parents who are currently under investigation. These so-called peer advocates offer support and advice, and sit in on meetings with ACS caseworkers, making sure parents are made aware of their rights. Under McMillan, CWOP shifted toward a more vocal and hostile public advocacy role.

“They destroy lives,” she once said in an interview with The Chronicle, referring to ACS. “I will rip their fucking heads off. You can print that.”

CWOP Board President and acting Executive Director Ayo Haynes and co-founder and board member Terry Mizrahi confirmed that the board accepted McMillan’s resignation yesterday, followed by that of board member Emma Baber-Kessler. Mizrahi and Haynes say they’ve accepted no other resignations, despite rumors circulating among child welfare professionals that Jeremy Kohomban, president and CEO of the foster care agency Children’s Village and a longtime board member, had resigned last week. Kohomban was not available for comment.

“We wish Joyce the best in her new endeavors. Her work at CWOP has been incredible,” said Haynes. “We are in a place of needing to take stock, obviously. Things need to be looked at very carefully to make sure that we’re still serving our parents which is our primary goal and mission. So we are not closing our doors.”

Advocates for parents were unhappy that the city awarded long-term contracts to larger agencies for CWOP’s peer advocacy model in 2012. They perceived it as an attempt to silence the nonprofit, which for decades has publicly and privately cajoled the child welfare system to be more transparent and treat investigated parents — most of whom are low-income and a disproportionate number of which are black — like partners or customers instead of enemies. The winning agencies already had others contracts with New York City for youth services, and their leaders are generally far less critical of the system.* CWOP’s longtime leader Michael Arsham left to join ACS in 2013 and now leads its Office of Advocacy.

McMillan told The Chronicle she is setting up a GoFundMe page to secure funding for Credible Messengers. She also said she plans for the firm to take over programs she developed for CWOP, including its trauma support group through the Ackerman Institute for Parents, its family visiting program for children in foster care and their biological parents, and its speaker series out of the New School.

“This is the first we’re hearing about it and it needs to be brought back to the board for discussion,” said Haynes.

Mizrahi, now a department chair at the School of Social Work at Hunter College; Mabel Paulino, a New York City community organizer; and the child welfare author and speaker David Tobis founded the nonprofit in 1994 with a then-novel mission: defending birth parents’ rights in child welfare proceedings.

Just under 9,000 New York City children were in foster care last year, a steep decline from the mid-1990s, in part thanks to ACS’ shift toward emphasizing family preservation, which CWOP encouraged under Michael Arsham. The numbers are still not nearly low enough for many advocates, who believe the grim outcomes for youth in foster care in terms of education, housing and unemployment, among other issues, far outweigh the risks of keeping struggling families together.

But CWOP is renowned for its singular, early focus on elaborating the concept of due process rights for parents accused of child abuse or neglect.

“This system has fundamentally changed over the last several years … because you have forced us to change,” said a Mayor Michael Bloomberg-appointed ACS Commissioner in 2004.

McMillan first became acquainted with the organization as a parent who had her own family scrutinized by ACS; she drew from and spoke to that experience in her advocacy.

“Joyce has been a powerful voice for communities that far too often are unheard. She called out the injustice of our child welfare system, she named its racism, and she ceaselessly reminded those who claim to be trying to help families that surveillance is not support. I know she made me a better advocate,” said Chris Gottlieb, co-director of New York University’s Family Defense Clinic, which defends mostly low-income parents and children.

CWOP’s annual fundraiser at a restaurant near its Harlem headquarters in the spring was well attended, with former ACS Commissioner Ron Richter, now the Chief Executive Officer of the foster care agency JCCA, and other top nonprofit executives and family court attorneys making appearances.

Still, there were hints of the breakup to come. The organization’s board president, the real estate executive Ayo Haynes, commented to the crowd about McMillan, “Joyce gets excited sometimes, then I have to rein her in!”

*UPDATE, Thursday, August 16: This paragraph has been slightly modified, to clarify the other types of ACS contracts held by the two nonprofits awarded contracts for parent advocate services—JCCA and the Center for Human Development and Family Services. Both provide services to foster youth, only one (JCCA) houses or places youth in foster care. 

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Michael Fitzgerald
About Michael Fitzgerald 76 Articles
Northeast Editor for The Chronicle of Social Change. Follow me on Twitter: @mchlftzgrld