Why Rise Matters to Me: Ron Richter, Judge

I’m a family court judge who decides domestic violence and custody cases in Queens Family Court. I was also the commissioner of the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) in New York City for two-and-a-half years, until last December.

While I was at ACS, I invited Rise writers to read their stories and speak on a panel in front of about 300 managers at an ACS Leadership Forum. Rise writers also spoke at an ACS Convening on Pregnant and Parenting Teens in Foster Care. Of course, ACS also subscribes to Rise—about 3,000 copies.

It is very important to me that parents never become homogenized. Any bureaucracy can turn people into numbers because the bureaucracy has so many people to try to help. Having parents who write for Rise come and talk was an opportunity to have the leaders at ACS hear directly from a cross-section of parents. During the Q&A, the parents really came to life. They had an opportunity to demonstrate how smart and thoughtful they are about the child welfare system.

When you’re a judge, you do see people’s faces and hear their stories. They’re right there in front of you. As a leader of an agency, though, it’s easy to separate yourself from the lives of clients. I don’t think that the leadership at any bureaucracy stops and thinks enough about how every single person that the bureaucracy is working with is entirely different and has his or her own unique story.

One Rise writer, Pia, had the courage to talk about her experience at the Leadership Forum while she had an open investigation. There was an honesty about her that made her presentation so compelling. She was transparent about issues that could potentially subject someone like her to so much criticism, but she was focused on working through her issues and persevering. That was what she was about. And you could really see that the process of writing her story and pulling it together was therapeutic for her.

The essays in Rise are the culmination of a lot of processing and work on the part of the writers. Through the writing process, the parents do a lot of the thinking that they don’t often get to do before meeting with a caseworker or presenting themselves in court. So we don’t often get to see that part of people. It’s great to see the capacity of the folks that we’re working with. In their stories, we can recognize how thoughtful and reflective they can be.

I hope what people take from Rise is that every individual is a unique person. As simple as it sounds, you really have to take a step back and think about that when you’re a caseworker, a judge, or a lawyer. We have to resist the temptation to see cases as cases and not as people. Rise is unusual in offering that opportunity.

In addition to professionals in child welfare, I’d like to see academics and journalists who cover child welfare reading Rise. I also think there are a lot of assumptions made about parents in the world of mental health and in the providers of parenting skills and other services to our community. They can benefit from learning about and questioning their own assumptions about the families that we work with. We all suffer from implicit bias. Rise is a wonderful opportunity for us to question our biases.