The first time the caseworker came to Robin McCutheon's door, shortly after the city took her son into foster care, she refused to open it. For the previous 10 years, McCutheon had been addicted to crack, and she knew that in order to bring her son home, she would have to do what the man at the door required of her: attend a drug treatment program and get clean. She already felt guilty, angry and overwhelmed, and his presence only made her feel worse. So she didn't let him in the next time either. When he arrived the third time, she opened the door only to tell him, “Don't come to my house no more. When I'm ready, I'll call you.”
But that day, the caseworker wasn't alone. He had brought a colleague from his agency, St. Christopher's, Inc., who once had a child in foster care herself. “I'm not a caseworker,” she told McCutheon. “I'm somebody who's been through this whole ordeal.” Then she gave McCutheon her phone number. Soon after, McCutheon called her to say she was ready to enter a drug program. She spent 27 months in treatment before she brought her son home.
That was 1996, two years after St. Christopher's became the first agency to hire birth–parent advocates–women who had experienced the foster care system firsthand, and who could act as mediators between the agency, the city, the courts, and parents, as well as do duty as case aides and role models. Since then, scores of birth parents have been hired by agencies throughout New York. McCutheon herself was hired by St. Christopher's in 2000.
Many of their positions were funded by a special program designed to speed up adoption and family reunification–a program the Administration for Children's Services was forced to eliminate last year due to budget constraints. Now dozens of advocates have been laid off. While both the agencies and the city hope to reinstate the positions in the future, for the time being, they have no funding to do so.
The idea of employing birth parents took hold in the mid-1990s, after the crack epidemic tripled the number of children entering foster care in New York City. Subsequently those numbers fell, but in 1994 there were still about 40,000 children in care, some who had been there for years.
In 1997, Congress passed the Adoption and Safe Families Act, legislation meant to reduce the number of children in foster care by speeding up adoptions. But other people in the field were wrestling with ways to have children return to their biological parents more quickly. A few agency directors, like Luis Medina at St. Christopher's, believed that if birth parents had someone to turn to whom they didn't see as an authority or bureaucrat–someone who had been in their shoes–they might spend less time fighting the system and more time doing what they had to do to get their children back.
The number of advocate positions grew in 2001, when the city established the Safe and Timely Adoptions and Reunifications Initiative, or STAR. The program offered foster care agencies a financial incentive to send children home or have them adopted, by paying them a percentage of the money they would otherwise have received for keeping that child in foster care. For fiscal years 2001 and 2002, the city paid agencies $900,000 and $4.2 million, respectively, to be used for new initiatives to further reduce the time children spent in care. One of the most common ways of spending the money was on birth-parent advocates.
Still, fewer than half of all agencies contracting with the city had advocate positions, and each agency generally had only one or two advocates. Even so, their influence was often profound. In 2001, shortly before Good Shepherd Services hired its first birth parent advocates, clients in a substance abuse group at the agency told their social worker they had never heard of a parent reclaiming a child from foster care. “Their impression was that their children were gone forever, no matter what they did,” explains Susan Kyle, administrative supervisor at Good Shepherd Services. Having parent mentors on staff who had successfully beaten the system proved otherwise.
But then STAR's funding was cut. Of 13 agencies contacted by City Limits that were known to have birth parents on staff, five had laid off all who worked in their foster care units–nine workers in total. Another five agencies had reduced their number of birth parent advocates. This includes St. Christopher's, which cut its staff from 20 to 10.
Ernesteen Sinkler's three young children were living with her mother for two years in kinship foster care before Sinkler grew so tired of missing out on their lives that she asked to be put in an inpatient drug program. Before that, she was wild, she says, walking the streets to support her drug habit, blacking out and waking up in strange places, angry at everyone and everything.
Sinkler's anger started at age 8, after a cousin molested her. As she got older, she used alcohol, marijuana, speed and crack to dull her pain. But her anger simply grew. “I had so much hatred inside me, I couldn't stand nobody. My mother was doing what she could to keep my family together, but I just thought she was controlling. There was a time when I told my worker to get my children out of her house. I was so angry I was ready to take them from the only family setting they knew.”
But in her drug program, Sinkler learned to talk about the problems that led her to start using. After three and a half years, she was allowed to bring her children home. In January 2001, the Catholic Guardian Society hired her as its first birth-parent advocate for $7 an hour. During her year there, Sinkler co-managed a parenting class, made home visits and filled in as a case aide. Most important, she was someone who could intervene when other parents' anger seemed likely to erupt. She was laid off in December 2002.
Parents rights' activists fear that fewer birth-parent advocates will mean fewer successful reunifications of parents and children, but they're hopeful the reform won't be reversed completely. “This is definitely a setback, but I can't believe it's a fatal setback,” says Mike Arsham, who runs the Child Welfare Organizing Project, a parent advocacy group that has trained many birth-parent advocates. Arsham believes the city should require agencies to hire birth parent advocates, or offer the organizations an incentive by establishing a new funding stream. As of now, though, the city has no such plans.
McCutheon, like Arsham, still hopes it will happen. “A caseworker understands the drug mentality logically, from reading from a book,” she says. “But the birth parent had been there. I thought, 'If she could do it, I could do it.' After a while, that's all I wanted.”
Rachel Blustain is a former editor of Foster Care Youth United.