Why Rise Matters to Me: Michele Cortese, Center for Family Representation

I’m the deputy director at the Center for Family Representation, which represents parents who are charged in Family Court in Manhattan or Queens with allegations of neglect or abuse. We use Rise stories in three ways.

First, we use Rise in initial training and orientation for new staff. We have teams that work with parents—lawyers, social workers and parent advocates. Our parent advocates are parents who  themselves had child welfare cases and some have even written for Rise. But for many of our staff, this is their first job ever or their first job working with parents. They come to the job very committed but without an understanding of just how scary, confusing, demeaning and heartbreaking the child welfare and family court systems are for parents. The Rise stories literally give voice, texture and detail to the experiences of parents and help staff orient themselves and remain empathic. Rise is a very good reminder of what it’s like to be sitting on the other side of the table speaking to us.

One story I use often is “A Knock on the Door,” by Philneia Timmons. I send it out to staff when they’ve just accepted an offer but haven’t started yet. The writer shows how scary child welfare can be, how much power the system has that the parent doesn’t have, and how your world as a parent can unravel so quickly.

Second, we have copies of Rise magazine in our waiting area. When parents are there waiting to meet with their team, they can pick up the issues and hopefully find solace, empathy and guidance to make their journey a little easier.

Third, we use Rise in the training and technical assistance we do around New York state and across the country, reaching 500 lawyers, caseworkers and judges each year. In our trainings, other staff and I use quotes from Rise to try to ground people in just how difficult and overwhelming the system can be for a parent—and to continue to try to change people’s views of parents.

Parents are easily demonized once charged with abuse or neglect and it’s very hard for judges and child welfare professionals to look past the allegations and see the complete stories of who parents are. Child welfare systems can treat parents as if they have nothing to bring to the table for their children. Yet the stories in Rise remind us of how much parents love and care for their children. They show how hard it is to say goodbye at every visit, how deep a parent’s regret at addiction is, or how motivated a parent is to do whatever it takes to be the kind of parent she wants to be. They show all the ways that parents in child welfare continue to be parents.

When I present, one of the small practice adjustments I ask people to make is to get Rise and talk about the stories—even have a monthly discussion, like a book group, with your staff. The stories can help all of us get reinvigorated. When you see a parent as unique, you’re more likely to see the parent’s strengths and to want to get creative in your advocacy.

There’s no question that the stories make an impact. When I present in another city or state, I always bring copies of Rise so people can see what an issue looks like. Almost every single time, at least one person comes up afterwards and asks me for information on how to subscribe. People are already thinking of how to use the stories, even if just to educate themselves.

I don’t have my own clients anymore. My job is really about administration and quality of practice. But Rise is an inspiration. It keeps me feeling dedicated to improving things. I also read Rise to remind myself that we have a long way to go.

I’m grateful that Rise is as powerful as it is. When I’m training people to work with parents differently, I can say, “You don’t have to believe me—you can listen to the parents themselves.”

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