Questions for this interview were developed by parents at Rise and at the Child Welfare Organizing Project (CWOP), a New York City parent advocacy organization. The interview was condensed and edited for publication.
Before I interviewed Gladys Carrión, the new commissioner of NYC Children’s Services, I was expecting generic answers to my questions. I expect people in power to not relate to, agree with, or even hear anything I have to say.
But what I found in our new commissioner was a down-to-earth woman of color from my own community who had beaten the odds and has a track record of helping children and families. Commissioner Carrión didn’t seem like she wanted to intimidate me. Instead of sitting at a big, scary conference table, we met in her office while she ate soup for lunch.
Before Commissioner Carrión was appointed to ACS in December, she was the commissioner of the New York State Office of Children and Family Services for seven years. One of her biggest achievements there was reducing the number of children in juvenile justice facilities from 2,000 to 450.
A lot of Commissioner Carrión’s plans for reform at ACS are ideas that parents across New York City share, too. She took the words right out of my mouth as she spoke about focusing more on helping than investigating, and on building parent and youth voice in child welfare system. Here’s what she had to say:
Q: What are your major goals at ACS?
A: ACS does a lot of things really well, and I recognize the progress we’ve made on reducing the number of children in foster care. When I started practicing as an attorney in the South Bronx many years ago—representing parents who were accused of abuse or neglect—we had 45,000 children in foster care. Now there are fewer than 12,000 children in foster care in New York City.
The question is: Are they better off? Are they graduating from high school and college? Are they ready for the workplace? Do they have the social and emotional skills to be successful? That’s the kind of young person we should be helping to create. Creating pathways to success is going to be the major focus of our work.
Another focus will be to recast ACS more as a helping agency. This is really important. We really need to move child welfare to focus on the whole child—on child wellbeing: How are you doing? How can we help you do better?
My own experiences really shaped who I am and my vision. I grew up in the South Bronx. My parents came from Puerto Rico looking for a better life. My brother and I were both born here. My parents learned English—that was a struggle—and they always worked very hard to provide for us. But they lived very much at the margins.
In my neighborhood, there were a lot of drugs in the street. I went to Morris High School. Girls had to go to the bathroom in groups of four for safety. Still, I was an honors student. My parents made sure that we went to school every day and did well. They felt very strongly that education was the pathway to success. Now my brother is a doctor. I was the first in my family to graduate from college—at Fordham—and the first to go to law school—at NYU.
When I began representing parents in the South Bronx, I was the only lawyer living in the zip code that she served. I understood first hand what my neighbors’ challenges were. I understood their frustrations, their inability to make themselves heard. The system, in many instances, totally disregarded them. It imposed solutions that families weren’t partners to. If systems are going to be helpful, we need to work together.
Q: You and our new mayor, Bill DeBlasio, have said that you want ACS to be a “helping agency.” What’s your vision for prevention?
A: ACS has started to improve prevention by bringing in “evidence-based” programs—approaches that have been shown to work in other places. I’m going to be assessing how those programs are doing: Are they the right programs? Are they working in communities? The challenge will be to take some of the promising initiatives to scale.
We’ll also be looking to work collaboratively with other agencies. Child wellbeing is not just the responsibility of ACS. It has to be the responsibility of every agency and of the greater community. We need to be working in schools and afterschool programs and investing in communities. We’re going to look for lots of ways to partner with communities. I’m going to need a lot of help to do this job.
Q: The mayor announced a public awareness campaign to encourage outsiders to get more involved in supporting families. Will ACS launch a campaign to let struggling parents themselves know where they can find help?
A: It’s important to really remind people how they need to get involved in helping to raise children—as mentors, starting Little Leagues, or helping your neighbor. Everyone needs to do even small things to embrace the children in our communities. At the same time, we do need to be reminding parents where they can go for support. If you’re in trouble: Where can you go? Where can you take your child? What are the settlement houses and organizations in your communities?
It’s important that we saturate communities with this information—in local beauty parlors, barbershops, bodegas, doctors’ offices, community organizations, NYCHA buildings. Those barbershops and those clinics are really important sources for people to get information.
Q: Many parents are afraid of ACS. What plans do you have for turning things around with parents and communities most impacted by ACS?
A: One way to better engage families is through “differential response.” That’s a different way of approaching families when a report is called in to the state central registry. Now we have a law enforcement-style investigation. Differential response is about focusing on a less prosecutorial approach to families that are stressed. It’s about helping families solve problems and find support. Hopefully, families that are approached differently will look at us differently.
This is already happening upstate in 25-30 counties. When we started this new approach, we needed 5 counties to try it. People were really concerned. I had to literally get on the phone and ask people to participate. But the feedback we’ve received is that it’s helped families. Parents appreciate it. Very few cases come back into the regular child protective track. And workers feel that they’re doing something meaningful—they’re helping families—and that is what they went into this work to do.
We’ve seen “differential response” work in small counties, and last year we started it in Queens, where it’s called “Family Assessment Response,” or “FAR.” We’re very excited about what we’ve seen in Queens so far. Anecdotally, families feel much better about their interaction with ACS, and we’ve seen very few children come back into the regular track. We don’t have data yet, though. When we do, we can share some information on how we’re doing.
Q: How do you plan to ensure that frontline workers, in particular, have the skills to truly understand what families need? Do you envision that parents themselves could be involved in worker training?
A: We’ll have to explore that. I have to find out how we do that training now. I know there’s a lot of training provided to our workers around parent engagement, but I don’t think we have families participating in the training at the academy.
One thing we shouldn’t forget is that most of our caseworkers come from the same communities that we serve, are people of color, and have had people in their families involved with child welfare. I’m hopeful that our workers understand the needs of the families we serve. I also think it’s not enough. We have to train them, and it’s not a bad idea to hear directly how families experience involvement in our system. That is the most authentic way.
Q: At Rise, a central focus has been on trauma, which is so much at the heart of child welfare. How important do you see the goal of expanding trauma-informed services for both parents and children?
A: Given all the research, we know that trauma has to be at the core of the work that we do. We’re going to be looking at trauma and how it impacts young people—at home, when they’re removed, and compounded in our systems. We also need to expand our understanding of the impact of trauma on families. We’ve started this conversation, but we haven’t started working deeply with parents to understand the impact trauma is having on them and how it’s impacting their relationship with their child.
Trauma isn’t something that can ever be “cured,” but there are interventions that can help us understand what’s happened to us and give us the skills to cope and manage. While I was at OCFS, I went to Missouri to look at models for juvenile justice. It struck me that the kids I spoke with were able to say: “I understand my challenges. I can’t go back to living with my mother—she toxic.” Or, “I need to move out of my community, because it’s too big a risk.”
When I learned about an approach called Sanctuary, I heard a young woman who was able to describe what her triggers were, what soothed her, and what her safety plan was. She said, “I’m going to go home and train my mother in Sanctuary. She needs this to deal with me when I go home.”
We need more of these interventions that can give parents and youth insight into themselves so that they can access what they need. There are approaches that work. Part of the problem in child welfare—and one of the reasons that we have a high rate of children re-entering foster care after they return home—is that we’re not giving parents and youth those tools.
The reality is that poor people are always being scrutinized but they’re not being supported. Affluent people go to private doctors who get to know their families. I went to the same pediatrician from the time my children were born until they were 19. If my children were bruised up, she wouldn’t just call in a report. She’d talk to me. That doesn’t happen with poor people.
Many affluent people are also in therapy forever. They go to therapy for 30 years and get the support they need to cope. When I was the director at Inwood House, a New York City agency that works with pregnant and parenting teens in foster care, we had an aftercare program funded by private dollars and the mothers could come back whenever they wanted to come back. These young women would drop in until they were 30, asking for assistance like, “Can you help me get my child into a really good school?” It’s not about dependency, it’s about support. And they were great mentors to the younger women in the residence.
Q: Many parents feel that parenting classes are less effective thanapproaches where parents and children are helped together. Do you have any plans to strengthen supports for families that bring parents and children together, both in prevention and when there’s been a removal?
A: That’s a good question. At ACS we’ve been examining the parenting programs and we’re testing an evidence-based program, Parenting Through Change, as part of ChildSuccessNYC. We don’t have data in yet but the evaluation is being done by Chapin Hall and it will be made public. Transparency is very important to me. We’ll be more transparent in getting information and sharing information.
We do have a responsibility to stop doing what doesn’t work and to help the public—agencies, judges, parents, lawyers—understand what does work. That doesn’t just mean using approaches that are already evidence-based. We also need to really start looking at the promising practices, and build the evidence. I think we have a responsibility to do that.
Q: In March, the Feerick Center at Fordham Law School held aconvening on developing tools to gather meaningful parent feedbackabout services. What are your thoughts on creating such a system?
A: I think that’s really critical. Anything that helps us capture parent input is really important. I have a copy of the report and I’m going to read it.
Q: How do you plan to bring parents and youth into policymaking and practice at ACS?
A: With parents, we have some formal mechanisms in place. We have parent advocates at most foster care agencies. We have an office here—the Office of Advocacy—where the staff’s responsibility is to help us engage better with parents. We also have a Parent Advisory Workgroup—a group of parent advocates from around the city that meets regularly with the commissioner. I’m looking forward to meeting with parent advocates to strengthen the voice of parents through our work together.
A new initiative is that parent advocates now attend every initial child safety conference where the decision is made whether to remove a child from home. Parent advocates have already demonstrated how they can be helpful in the system. They can better understand the fears that families have and explore the options, and allay the fears. We’ll be monitoring this work closely to make sure it’s the right people—that parents feel that they’re represented in these conference and have a voice.
With young people, we don’t have a system in place so they have the ability to get to me. When I was at OCFS, every quarter I’d meet with young people from every part of the system—those in foster care, aged out, or in juvenile justice—to get their candid assessments. It would be about 12 young people, and I was the only adult in the room. I’d ask: “If you were commissioner, what would you do?” And I would get some really interesting responses and ideas that informed my perspectives and ideas.
For instance, we want young people in foster care to lead normal lives, but we have all these rules—they can’t sleep at a friend’s house without a background check on that family, they couldn’t go to Great Adventures because it was out of state, or play on traveling basketball teams. As a result of that feedback, we set up a workgroup to look, county by county, at all of these requirements to find out if we need them or if we can be more flexible, and young people are part of that workgroup.
Another thing is that, when we re-certify foster parents, we never formally ask the young person in that home if the foster parent should be re-certified. Who better to ask? That’s going to become part of the re-certification process.