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Commentary: Monroe County erred in turning down grant

Michele Cortese

Michele Cortese

I am the executive director of the Center for Family Representation, or CFR, the New York City agency referenced in Bennett Loudon’s Jan. 22 article, “Monroe County turns down $2.6 million grant.”

CFR was proud to serve as the interdisciplinary model (offering legal, social work and parent advocate support) for the state’s Office of Indigent Legal Services initiative that led to the award. Together with other interdisciplinary agencies, we represent the vast majority of poor parents who face abuse and neglect prosecutions in New York City family courts.

The suggestion by county officials that attorneys and social workers helping parents “early on” would lead to child intimidation and prevent caseworkers from monitoring families is blatantly untrue. Even when a parent has an attorney, caseworkers have the legal authority to take a child at risk, day or night. Attorneys cannot ethically interfere with a lawful investigation by intimidating anyone. In 30 years of representing children, foster care workers and parents, I never met a child who feared her mom or dad’s attorney—though I met far too many forever afraid of the caseworkers that took them away from their homes.

The truth is the program was modeled on CFR because of 15 years of strong results: over half of CFR’s clients’ children never enter foster care, and of those that do, their lengths of stay in care are far shorter than they were before CFR, and they rarely re-enter care. We estimate we’ve saved $37 million in foster care costs, but more important, we’ve saved hundreds of children from the devastating impact of being taken from their families, schools, friends and communities when that was not necessary. County officials appear silent on those harms.

CFR provides parents with a skilled team at what may be the most tumultuous period in their lives, proving you can honor a family’s legal rights and preserve safety. Our teams promote meaningful assessments of the family to help department caseworkers resist cookie-cutter service plans. We make additional referrals and home visits, and trouble-shoot housing, public benefits and educational issues, giving the department an additional resource in supporting a family. We appear in court armed with critical information that helps judges make better safety decisions and often reduces the need for lengthy litigation. Our team model builds trust, so parents hear us when we work with them to engage productively with the department and service providers. And our city protective agency continues to reach out to CFR and other parent providers as trusted partners for numerous activities related to its policy and practice.

CFR once had funding to work with parents prior to a court case. We partnered with our city protective agency to pilot the exact approach which would have been made possible by the grant: City worker referred parents to CFR during a child protective investigation. Staff from both our agencies had to confront philosophical differences over the dual goals of engaging parents while ensuring child safety and the city had to become comfortable with an advocate supporting the parent who often disagreed with it and with whom the parent enjoyed a confidential relationship. But for 38 of the 48 families supported by the project, there was no child protective removal and no filing in family court.

Most parents profoundly mistrust child protective workers. Especially when they fear they will lose custody of their children, they have difficulty accessing an array of services at the point when they need them the most. Skilled advocates like those at CFR provide a needed bridge. Monroe County officials’ statements continue a trend of fear mongering that prevents change in the very systems that most need it.

Monroe County has squandered a chance to promote parent engagement, better judicial decisions and family safety —they left money on the table and children at risk.

Michele Cortese, executive director of the Center for Family Representation in New York City, is a Rochester native.

One comment

  1. Bracing reality check from this articulate, informed writer. So happy that ideas from bureaucrats addicted to the foster system revenue stream are being challenged.
    This terrible decision needs to be rescinded – right now.
    The county is making fools of themselves. For shame