In the 1980s and ’90s when I was a kid, they used to say the South Bronx was on fire, and growing up here was very hard. There were a lot
of gangs and people robbing people. In high school I used to run from school to the bus so that I wouldn’t get beat up.
Things are still hard in my neighborhood. I live in the Highbridge section of the South Bronx and my community has the largest number of children being placed into foster care in New York City.
I know about the stresses that living in a community like mine can put on a family because I had my own child placed in foster care.
I also know that when we talk about breaking the cycle of children going into foster care, we need to help people deal with stresses due to poverty, lack of education and institutional racism, because those stresses affect how we parent every single day.
For the past three years, I have been a parent organizer for a grass-roots organization called the Child Welfare Organizing Project (CWOP). My job is to help parents like myself navigate the child welfare system, which is a system that may or may not respect your rights as a parent, and may or may not provide you with the information you need to know your rights. My job is to help my whole neighborhood break its cycle of foster care placement.
Stretching Chump Change
Like many kids today, when I was little it was just my moms raising me. She ran away from Puerto Rico when she was 14, and when she arrived here at 15, she had no education, no nothing.
A lot of times our public assistance case didn’t help because if she missed an appointment because she didn’t have money to pay a babysitter, her case would be closed and we’d have to survive on our own.
As soon as I hit 15 I left home and went to live with a friend in Connecticut. There I saw a whole different way of life. I said, “Damn, Tom, you got it good. Your mom supports you in whatever you do.”
I wondered, “Why my moms couldn’t be supportive like that?” But then Tom’s mom didn’t have to stretch only $56 a week to provide for the whole family.
Life Feels Like a Trap
I see a lot of the same stresses on the families I work with as a parent organizer. A lot of people are stuck in Mickey D jobs. People are living so below the poverty line that they can’t afford to go college to improve their situation. They don’t have the money to pay the rent every month, and sometimes they get their lights cut off.
On top of that their kids are surrounded by hip-hop values, 50 Cent and Ferraris, and they develop champagne tastes even though their families are living on beer income.
Parents don’t know what type of discipline would bring their kids back to reality. When kids decide not to go to school, their parents can’t follow them and make sure they’re going because they have to go to work. For a lot of parents, life winds up feeling like a trap.
A lot of families could use some help, but they’re afraid to reach out to child welfare, because child welfare officials might come to the house and see that there’s no food in the fridge and remove the kids. Parents in poverty are afraid that if they call child welfare, they’ll be putting their families in even greater jeopardy.
Reaching Out for Help
That’s where CWOP comes in. We’ve been in this community for five years and parents have learned that they can turn to us.
About half of my cases are about helping parents meet their basic needs. We use flex funds to help parents pay a portion of their rent or their light bill, buy clothes or furniture. Sometimes just that little bit is enough to get a parent back on track.
If the child welfare system wants to break the cycle of foster care, they need to figure out a way to support families that doesn’t leave parents scared to reach out for basic help.
The other part of my job is to help parents navigate the child welfare system once they’re already involved in it. What I consider unique about CWOP is that it takes its time to train parents like me who have overcome the child welfare system and gotten their children returned to them. I think if we want to break the cycle of foster care, we need more people from the community who can bridge the divide between parents and the child welfare system.
Breaking the Cycle
Here in Highbridge, CWOP has a good relationship with the child welfare field office. When we think a parent is being treated unfairly, we can bring the problem up to them and feel that there’s some hope of having the problem resolved. Still, some agencies that the city employs are not so good, and some employees aren’t either.
I am working with a mom and we have shown that her agency made false reports about her. I called the city’s Office of Advocacy and I was told that the city realizes that there is a problem with this agency and that something will be done about it. But in the meantime, the parent is going crazy. She’s in here every day crying, and I say, “It’s great that something is going to be done, but when is it going to happen? When can this parent begin to pick up the pieces?”
In the years that I’ve been doing this job, I’ve called child welfare on a parent three times. I didn’t feel proud of myself but I also felt that the child needed to be elsewhere.
More often, though, I feel pissed off that the child welfare system isn’t doing more to help parents deal with the stresses in their lives so that there can be less violence in our community and so our kids can stay at home.
We need to figure out how to change the face of child welfare so that it’s about the whole community supporting each other. I believe that’s the only way we can stop having our children go into foster care generation after generation. Organizations like CWOP are a good start.