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A Desire to Make a Difference: Gladys Carrión
ACS Commissioner focuses on child well-being
Jazmine Gibbs
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Gladys Carrión was appointed Commissioner of New York’s child welfare system, the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) in January 2014. She grew up in the Bronx and has worked to help children for most of her career since graduating from New York University School of Law. She started as an attorney for Bronx Legal Services representing, for example, tenants fighting their landlords, and poor people fighting for their benefits. Then she became the executive director of Inwood House, an organization that helps pregnant and parenting foster teens. Most recently, she ran New York State’s Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS), where she made policies to protect transgender youth in juvenile detention centers and moved youthful offenders from violent lock-ups to more therapeutic settings. She spoke with Represent in her downtown office, which is decorated with posters of Puerto Rico and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Q: Did any personal experiences lead you to advocate for children?

A: No. I wasn’t abused, my kid wasn’t abused. It was an overarching desire to make a difference. I wanted to be a lawyer because I saw injustice. Wanting to do this work comes from a perspective of growing up poor and feeling marginalized and thinking that I needed to be a voice in my community.

Q: How does ACS plan to incorporate youth voice into policy?

A: It surprised me when I got to ACS that there wasn’t a youth group or advisory board [editor’s note: There were some of these before she joined ACS, including the ACS Speakers Bureau, which was cut in 2012], no mechanism for incorporating youth voice. At OCFS we had Youth in Progress, a group of youth in foster care and juvenile justice who made videos and pamphlets for other youth. I’d meet with them every quarter. I asked the state why there wasn’t an NYC chapter of Youth in Progress, and they did create one. They just had their first meeting.

I’ve convened two focus groups to hear from young people and I’m having more. I hired the Director for Parent Engagement and Youth Advocacy; it’s the first time ACS has had that position.

Q: You’ve made “well-being” a priority for ACS. What is that and why is it important?

A: Well-being is a framework that overarches our work and is built on the pillars of safety and permanency. Safety and permanency are important, but they’re not enough. We need to focus on how kids are doing. How’s their social-emotional development? The state is these children’s parents.

My focus with my own children isn’t just on their safety and do they have a place to live. I make sure they have exposure to culture and music and help them find out what they’re good at and what they like, that they’re doing well in school, that they’re learning how to swim, how to drive. I want to know you have friends, that you can make good relationships, and that you focus on school and if you have issues there, helping you resolve those issues. Is that happening in foster care now?

Q: No it’s not. The agencies aren’t doing those things. So how would ACS promote well-being? Is it about therapy for foster youth?

A: We’re still developing a platform for promoting well-being. Therapy is a component but it’s not the whole thing. Will mental health services be available? Yes, but some children complain that therapy and psychotropic drugs are the whole thing. There are other, maybe better ways to deal with problems—yoga, meditation. Maybe it’s a mentor, somebody they can talk to. Maybe it’s a job.

We had a big conference on child well-being in October and focus groups with providers, parents, and young people. We’re trying to figure out how you measure well-being and what specifically promotes it. After we gather all this information, we’re going to decide, working with OCFS, what does a frame of well-being look like? Then we’ll decide where to focus our efforts.

It might be education; California is tackling the achievement gap between foster kids and other students. Maybe that will be our entry point. Maybe it’s requiring that every agency has a mentor program.

Q: What do you see as the biggest challenge facing youth aging out?

A: Housing. And then how do young people support themselves? So I think we need to do a better job of making sure that young people are ready to age out, that they have a place to live, that they’re in school, that they have a job.

image by YC-Art Dept

This notion that everybody can get their own apartment in the city isn’t realistic; you need a roommate. So we should be helping you do that.

One of the ideas we’re exploring now is to create a pathway to civil service jobs. We should be preparing youth in care to take city exams to work at ACS or other city agencies. Say you work at McDonald’s or Duane Reade, you can take the test and wait for a better job to open up. City jobs pay a livable wage, they have health benefits, and they offer a career path.

My neighbor’s kid has worked in the sanitation department for some years; he has a high school diploma and makes $120,000 a year. Every time it snows, he gets all the overtime he wants.

Q: How is ACS trying to attract and support good staff?

A: In this budget the mayor has given us $15 million to create a new training institute. If you talk to workers, they complain about the training they get or lack of training. So we’ll change how we train ACS workers and the agency workers. We’ve also cut caseloads to 10 active cases plus two trial discharge cases.

We’re launching a well-being campaign around secondary trauma to help staff process their trauma. How can we better support our staff? Simple things like having a spa day, having a massage, or having people come in and talk to them about how to process this work.

Q: How Is ACS preparing birth parents for reunification?

A: We do a lot of trial discharges. We have to make sure that we do a better job of engaging parents, of listening to them, of responding to their needs. We need to create better trust so they actually access our services.

We’re good at identifying what the service plan should be but not as good as communicating to families that these services are valuable and they should participate. We’re looking at the number of children who come back into care, at repeat maltreatment, and at trial discharges. It’s a work in process.

Q: Is there a system incorporating the feedback of foster youth about foster parents?

A: Yes. There was supposed to be a requirement at the state level that every time a foster parent is up for recertification, once a year, there has to be a survey or interview to get the input of the young person before that person is recertified. That’s the best place to get that feedback: Who better than the young person in that home? Some of the pushback is that “young people will lie” or “foster kids will try to get back at the foster parent.” But I think we’re all smart enough to know that when a child is angry, you have to take a second look at why.

There are issues of confidentiality and risk. Obviously we’re not going to have that conversation in front of the foster parent. Maybe it’s a survey you can mail in. We should provide specific questions. We don’t want it to be anonymous; we want to know what you think about this specific foster parent. This came from youth input: When I worked at the state, young people always told me they wanted to give feedback about foster parents.

Q: Why do you think you can make change from the inside?

A: I’ve done advocacy from outside the system where I say, “You need to change this, you need to do that,” but I’ve realized that government has a lot of power to fix those things I was complaining about. Government and advocates have to work together to make change. First you have to understand what change looks like. Then it’s important to have a leader who understands that.

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(FCYU-2015-04-19)

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