Recently, I read David Tobis’ book on child welfare entitled: From Pariahs To Partners: How Parents And Their Allies Changed New York City’s Child Welfare System. Tobis was the Executive Director of the Child Welfare Fund and has worked to reform child welfare in the United States for more than three decades.
In his book, Tobis tackles the issue of parents rights when it comes to dealing with child welfare agencies. In the first chapter he writes,
“Compounding the problems of separation, parents until recently had been excluded from participating in most decisions about their children while the kids are in foster care. They were not allowed to decide simple matters, such as whether their adolescent daughter should continue to see her pediatrician or should switch to a doctor nearer her foster home or what school their first grade son should attend.” (pg. 13)
At the core of this exclusion of parents by “the system” is misguided or incomplete perceptions. “Most child welfare workers, the press, and the public, whose views were shaped by the press, saw these parents as the primary cause of their own problems and failed to focus on the role played by poverty, unemployment, degraded communities, and racism.” (pg. 56)
In contrast, many parents actually overcome extreme obstacles out of love for their children:
“We hear how parents, all for the love of their children, actually beat long-term drug addiction, debilitating mental illness and life cycles of violence. Listening to these parents’ trials and ultimate victory restores one’s faith in today’s parents.
In that room, on that day, hearing their stories, seeing these parents with their children, witnessing their hugging, kissing and tears of joy as they celebrate their family’s being together evokes spontaneous cheers of support and admiration.” – Esmeralda Simmons, director of the Center for Law and Social Justice (pg. 58)
The book shines the most when it shares the painful but ultimately victorious journeys of parents being reunited with their children. One such story was the story of Sharwline Nicholson.
Sharwline’s children were taken from her after her boyfriend beat her. A judge ordered the state to return her children. Fearing for the well being of her children as social workers continued to make unannounced visits to her apartment, she sent her kids to live with family in Jamaica, at which point a warrant was issued for her arrest. After a lengthy court battle, judge Weinstein issued a landmark ruling in her favor, setting the statue that children can’t be removed from victims of domestic violence solely because they are victims. Today Sharwline’s two kids are doing well and preparing for college. Sarwline is a few credits away from a bachelor’s degree, is considering pursuing a masters, and is hoping to become a social worker.
The book cites a national bill of rights that, while not legally binding as of yet, is a manifesto for inspiring change. From Rights to Reality (pg. 147):
- I have the right to not lose my child because I’m poor.
- I have the right to services that will support me in raising my child at home.
- I have the right to speak for myself and be heard at every step of the child protective services process.
- I have the right to be informed of my rights.
- I have the right to a meaningful and fair hearing before my parental rights are limited in any way.
- I have the right to quality legal representation.
- I have the right to support from someone who has been in my shoes.
- I have the right to have my child quickly placed with someone I trust.
- I have the right to frequent, meaningful contact with my child.
- I have the right to make decisions about my child’s life in care.
- I have the right to privacy.
- I have the right to fair treatment regardless of my race, culture, gender, or religion.
- I have the right to services that will support me in reunifying me with my child.
- I have the right to offer my child a lifelong relationship.
- I have the right to meaningful participation in developing the child welfare policies and practices that affect my family and community.
Ultimately, through Tobis’ efforts in New York City, some important changes took place. These important changes include: reduction in the number of children in foster care, improved legal representation for parents, and the participation of child welfare-affected parents in child welfare programs, in shaping policies, and in their own cases. (pg. 169)
For me, the takeaway from the book is that parents need to be empowered in their parenting and even more so when they require help and support. We should always start with the premise that parents want the best for their kids and are willing and capable of being the best parents they can be. Let’s #TrustParents and help them be the best parents they can be.