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How New York City’s parents took on the welfare system – and changed it

The Guardian | David Tobis | 24 February 2016

The number of children taken into care in New York City (NYC) has decreased from almost 50,000 in 1994 to 10,295 in 2015. In the UK, by contrast, the number is at record levels. Last month in England alone, Cafcass, the children and family court advisory and support service, received a total of 1,040 care applications – a 16% increase on the previous January, despite recent research showing no real rise in the number of children on child protection registers. Social workers and parents increasingly fear and distrust each other, and social workers are even asking: “Have parents become the enemy?”

I set up a grant-making organisation, the Child Welfare Fund, in the early 1990s. Over the next 18 years, it was instrumental in changing New York’s child welfare system. I have been in the UK this week speaking to audiences of social workers and academics in London and Edinburgh at the invitation of the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) to share some of our lessons.

Abstract | Social movements thrive when participants feel that they are part of something larger than themselves. The Child Welfare Organizing Project in NYC trained parents and provided them with paid jobs that enabled them to help others going through what they had been through.
 
These activities created a shared identity and a sense of “collective efficacy” that sustained the members of the movement. Never before in the history of child welfare in the US had parents organised to be such a force for change, though parents had organised to reform systems affecting mental health, physical disabilities and education.
 
Child welfare reformers can gather more force by making alliances with advocacy organisations in other social service areas such as juvenile justice, child care, homelessness, mental health, and substance abuse. When many of these constituencies joined forces with elected officials in April 2011, with 800 people protesting at City Hall about budget cuts in child care and early education, the city council restored much of the funding.
 
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