Good evening everyone! And congratulations Rise! Thank you for having me.
I want to take a moment to acknowledge my fellow parents in the audience. Tonight it is about you! Your strength. Your courage. And your importance.
If you are an affected parent in this audience tonight, it means that you have overcome or are overcoming the most traumatic time of your life. And I see you. I feel your presence and I applaud you for arriving.
Today I’m here to tell you that you are enough! That you are as important to your children as all other parents. No matter your struggle, you have strengths. No matter the barriers in your life, you will do more than survive. You will thrive.
Most importantly, your voice is needed. Not just to stand up for other parents or other families. But for change.
I still remember getting that infamous knock on the door in the middle of the night. Standing on the other side were two strangers asking to come into my home. Demanding to speak to my children and look through my house.
That started an almost decade long ordeal of meetings, court dates, home inspections, referrals and rotating caseworkers. I lived with fear, anxiety and uncertainty for years.
I was completely alone.
That was 18 years ago, and my family still carries the trauma of being taken apart by the child welfare system.
It wasn’t until I was able to understand what happened to my children and me through a social justice lens that I began to heal.
In 2010, I interned with the National Advocates for Pregnant Women. I met three women there that introduced me to other affected parents across the country. Through these connections, I learned how the child welfare system, much like the criminal justice system, reflects poverty and racism in our society. I recognized how parents in white, wealthy neighborhoods almost never experience the dreaded knock at the door, so familiar to families in my community.
I began to reflect on my own experience with child welfare—how it tore me apart, tore my family apart and continues to tear apart communities of color.
I learned that my story was not unique. It was shared.
The question then became: what could I do and what was I willing to do to shift the narrative?
I became a parent advocate at The Bronx Defenders in 2011.
When I first started doing this work almost 7 years ago, I represented a mother who lost three children in a fire. Her two remaining children were in the hospital from smoke inhalation. Just 3 days later, she was told she had to attend a meeting about their safety.
I went to this meeting with her, and it lasted for 9 hours. In the beginning it seemed clear that the agency was planning to remove her living children. But in the small amount of time that I had come to know my client, I got to know her strengths as a parent and was able to share them while she was at a loss for words.
I stood by her side throughout the entire process and when it came time for the funeral, I was there.
She later shared with me that she would not have gotten through these trying times without my support and guidance. I was able to connect with this mother because I saw her humanity, which often times goes unseen by the caseworkers in the child welfare system.
That’s something that has always remained with me. There’s a palpable difference between being a parent advocate and a caseworker. Parents feel supported and heard by us because we truly get it. We understand that we are not the sum of the allegations against us. While a caseworker may only see the surface, a parent advocate will take the necessary time to understand what lies beneath, to discover the diamond in the rough.
Today, I train and supervise seven parent advocates. There are several guiding principles in our work that I believe apply to everyone in this room.
First, we must uplift and center parents’ voices. We must really listen to them. As we work to transform this system, parents’ stories and solutions must drive this effort.
We must recognize the structural forces at work in the child welfare system. We must not forget the historical context of child welfare and the long-lasting impact it has had on poor communities of color. We must see the institutional racism in this system, and work to undo it every day.
We must remember that no parent, in any community, is perfect. And that parents have intrinsic value to their children. Those bonds must be respected in communities like mine, just as they are in more privileged communities. We must look to parents as the experts on their children.
I’m calling on all parents who have been impacted by the child welfare system to step up, speak up and speak out. You are the bravest of all. I want to remind you that those closest to the problem are also closest to the solution. I encourage each of you to use your voice to advocate for others, to speak truth to power.
As Sojourner Truth said, “I will not allow my life’s light to be determined by the darkness around me.”
I know that it is only from our experiences—the experiences of parents and families—no matter how painful—that we can move forward.
To everyone else in the room, I am calling on you to take action as well.
To the child welfare agencies and leaders, work to unify families. Always remember when you meet them, it is only a snapshot in time of their lives. Make sure you are contributing positively for the betterment of the family as a whole.
To the judges and attorneys, think about how you want that family to remember the impact you had on their lives. Be an advocate for that family first and foremost.
To the larger community: There was a time when we would say, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Let’s be that village again and look out for one another, because today it’s my child but tomorrow it could very well be yours