Nicole, 28, New York City transplant from Tampa, FL. Graduated from Columbia with a MSW in 2015 and currently works as a Social Worker for Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem.
Styled and photographed by Andrea Arevalo, text by Nicole Seigel.
The Other Side
What it means to be a public defender fighting for families.
I am a social worker for a public defender agency, Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem. I am on the Family Defense Team, meaning I work on an interdisciplinary team of attorneys, social workers, and advocates to represent and support parents who have been alleged to have neglected or abused their a child under Article 10 of the Family Court Act. All of my clients are being supervised by the Administration for Children Services (ACS) and their children are either living with them, with a family member or reside in foster care, depending on the nature of the case. It is my job to advocate for my clients’ specific goals and needs, support them through navigating the child welfare system, help mitigate conflicts with ACS and foster care employees and provide supportive counseling and motivational interviewing. I also partner with their assigned attorneys to address our clients’ legal and well as personal needs.
When people hear about the child welfare system and ACS, the first thoughts that come to mind are that the system is set up to ‘rescue’ children from abusive and neglectful parents. While perhaps this is why ACS exists in the first place, the reality of the system as I have experienced it, is one in which outsiders often unnecessarily remove children from their parents, shatter families and use judgement, fear tactics and abuse of power to justify this, all in the name of ‘child safety.’ On three separate occasions, in the 8 months that I have been doing this work, I have witnessed ACS attempt (and twice succeed) in removing a newborn child from her mother simply because they (ACS) “did not have enough information about the mothers’ mental health treatment engagement.” On another occasion, I witnessed a client whose child was removed because while she was asleep, he ran out of the shelter where they live and got struck by a car. He was not seriously injured, but his mother was not only deemed not allowed to care for him but she was also arrested in front of him at the hospital. In a suburban (read: white) community, this might have been seen as an accident. But because my client is a Hispanic woman who lives in a shelter, she is a criminal not worthy of her son. Another client I have has been excluded from his home and his children’s’ lives because he suffered a psychotic break and tried to attempt suicide in front of his family. Instead of assisting this man with the help he needed, he became homeless and was hospitalized three more times, all the while his kids are wondering what happened to their father and why he can’t come home.
It is never simple. Our clients, just like everyone, are flawed individuals. They have made mistakes and mistakes have been made unto them. As a social worker, I always try to utilize a trauma lens when working with each client. The woman whose son was hit by the car has spent every day since his removal reliving the worst day of her life and internalizing the impact of that trauma. She also internalizes the way society (and the ACS attorney and the judge) will deem, and have deemed her an unfit parent because she failed to protect her son, something around which she already feels such deep shame. My client who attempted suicide is someone who had been struggling with severe mental illness for many years, with no way to name it and no idea how to seek support. But these people are just people, parents, trying to do their best for themselves and their families. It is my job to bring all of this into every room I am in, and into every conversation I have with clients, service providers, ACS employees, lawyers, and frankly, friends and family. It is my job to wholeheartedly believe, and I do, that every client who comes in the door deserves a voice and a chance, and all I can do is try to bring some dignity and humanity into a space that sorely lacks both.
I have lived in Harlem since I moved to New York in 2013, and I fell in love with the neighborhood. I feel so lucky that I now live and work in the same community; it allows me to feel more connected to my clients and coworkers and really care about the community because I live here too.
New York is definitely home for now, and the more time goes on, the more it feels like home.
Q: What's one word you'd use to describe yourself?