Photo courtesy of Carol Rushin

JCCA Parent Advocate Carol Rushin took time out of her busy schedule to speak with the JCCA Communications Department about her role, what inspires her, and why she became a Parent Advocate, assisting parents whose children are in foster care. Parent advocates begin working at the Initial Child Safety Conferences with ACS, immediately after removal. JCCA understands that parents caught in this stressful situation may not always know what to say or who to turn to for help. The Parent Advocate Program seeks to give parents a strong voice in these conferences by providing them with the information they need, so that more children can remain in their homes with their parents, where they belong, when it is safe to do so.

This interview incorporates two separate conversations held in May and June 2020. It has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

JCCA: Tell me about your role as a Parent Advocate.

I started as part of the Initial Child Safety Conference rollout in 2013. It was a pilot program, and it grew out of that to what it is today. At the beginning, I would meet with the parents to help them navigate the conferences, make sure they understood the process, make sure they understood all the possibilities of what could happen. It was just a one-hour meeting. Now, in this position I am able to follow the children through foster care.

JCCA: What is your daily work like?

It shifts. Nobody saw COVID coming. I am still effective in what I do, because I am able to participate in the FTCs [Family Team Conferences].  I have been holding groups with parents as often as I can. But it’s hard because their phones may not have Wi-Fi.

Sometimes I am just a sounding board —letting them vent. Since the pandemic, I’m making sure their needs are met. Usually as a go-between for case planner and a supervisor, especially when a parent has a concern. I make sure parents are OK. I escort them to court, to support them. I stay with them through the process.

JCCA: What has work been like since COVID-19?

My teams have been so helpful! JCCA has been doing everything possible to accommodate foster parents, preventive services, parents, and the children in care.

They [JCCA staff] are doing an excellent job; it’s unbelievable. I’ve never seen an organization work that close. The team players work collectively. When somebody needs help, somebody will reach out and try to accommodate.

JCCA: Why is this work important to you?

I know what it is like to have your children removed, even for a month. People say, “I can imagine,” but it’s hard to unless you’ve been there. It feels like your whole world is ripped apart. Putting it back to gather is so hard. There are so many factors: socio-economic, substance abuse, mental health. It’s really hard to put this thing together.

My children were removed 20 years ago. I wasn’t the parent I could have been to my children. I decided to make changes. I got the help that I needed. 20 years later, my son is in college, soon to graduate. My son, he’s thriving. He makes me proud. I could never have imagined I could take care of my child. And I’ve done so with help of family, friends, agencies that I’ve worked work. Like they say, it takes a village.

I am humbled. I don’t take it for granted.

JCCA: What was your experience like when you had your kids removed?

It was really hard, because I didn’t get involved when they were going through this process. I checked out. That guilt kept me away from my children.

My children found me in 2015, and I’ve developed a relationship with 4 of my 5 daughters. They were all adopted together. They found me when they became of age. We’ve begun building relationships.

JCCA: Does your experience impact how you feel about your work and the parents you work with?

It makes me hopeful. People change. These parents want to do better. Sometimes you don’t know how, sometimes it’s not your fault —you’re in crisis —but people do change, people get better. I see parents become parents that they wanted to be. Change is something tangible you can touch.

There are other advocates who’ve been doing this for 10-15 years, I’ve been doing this for 7 years, but I realized I was an advocate long before then and didn’t even know it. When my son was young, it was just called being his mother.

JCCA: What’s the best thing that’s happened recently at work?

[Referring to the Town Hall with Parents in May] Parents were involved! We did one in April and four parents participated. After, I kept stressing that it’s not about me, it’s about you and your children. Mr. Richter is giving you the opportunity to ask him questions. They came out, and they asked questions, and they got answered.  [Laughs] And now staff are following up!

Another good thing was a child was reunited with their family the day after Memorial Day. The week before, the child was removed from the family.

JCCA: Do you have any events coming up you’re looking forward to?

This month, we are celebrating Reunification Day. It’s going to be virtual event on June 27th held by ACS. They’re going to have a DJ…they’re going to recognize Parent Advocates, and they’re going to give gift cards to parents that have been reunified with their children in the last two years. I’m reaching out with some of the parents that I’ve been working with closely and submitting their names.

JCCA: What’s one thing you wish more people understood about the parents that you work with?

I want people to know parents are feeling like they are lost. They just need an opportunity, and the parents do make changes.

I wish people understood that we have those who don’t understand that JCCA and ACS are different. We have some where language is a barrier, not having life-skills is a barrier. So, with them, it’s not enough to say I’m just doing my job, sometimes I have to go the extra mile. Even if it’s a late-night text, I can’t wait until Monday morning to reply. I have to be there for them right then.

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Carol Rushin has received several awards and honors for her work, including from ACS for her work bringing ACS staff and parents together. She works with families and parents across JCCA offices in Brooklyn and the Bronx, as well as the those with children on our Pleasantville Campus.