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From Pariahs to Partners

How Parents and their Allies Changed New York City's Child Welfare System

David Tobis, PhD

Publication Date - 24 May 2013

ISBN: 9780195099881

288 pages
6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches

In Stock

The untold story of how parent advocates helped transform New York City's child welfare system and end its over-reliance on foster care.


At the end of the 20th century, New York City had one of the worst child welfare systems in the United States: 50,000 children were in foster care; they and their families were often neglected or abused by the system; parents had no voice; and the services designed to protect children were more often harming, rather than helping, them.

From Pariahs to Partners tells for the first time the inspiring story of the parents and their allies--child welfare commissioners, social workers, lawyers, and foundation officers--who joined together to change the system. David Tobis situates this remarkable success within the larger history of child services in the U.S., a roller coaster of alternating crisis and reform that failed to produce lasting change. But the major focus of the book is on individual parents-most of them women, many of them black or Latina, and all of them poor-who came back from the "other side" of domestic violence, drug addiction, homelessness, and poverty to fight for their rights and their children. Many of these parents recognized their own role in the wrenching experience of losing custody of their children. They entered drug treatment programs, underwent intensive counseling, left abusive relationships, got jobs, filed lawsuits, and were reunited with their sons and daughters. Some took the next step and trained to become parent organizers. Tobis shows how their efforts increased benefits for families and reduced the number of children in foster care in New York City to 15,000 in 2011.

David Tobis was a central figure in the child welfare reform movement, and From Pariahs to Partners draws on his own personal experience, as well detailed case examples from parent advocates, to tell a rare story of the triumph of individual and collective activism over bureaucratic inertia and ineptitude.


  • Untold story of how parent advocates played a transformative role in changing the New York City child welfare system, relayed by a central figure in that change process: David Tobis.
  • The synthesis of the author's personal experience, the history and analysis of child welfare, and the use of detailed case examples from parent advocates-- often in their own words--make "From Pariahs to Partners" an engaging and informative read.

About the Author(s)

David Tobis, PhD, is currently a principal of Maestral International (MaestralintL.Com), and was the Executive Director of the Fund for Social Change. For more than three decades he has worked to reform child welfare in New York and the United States. Beginning in 1991 he worked as a consultant to UNICEF and the World Bank to prevent children, the disabled and the elderly from being placed in long-term residential institutions in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. His monograph, published by the World Bank, The Transition from Residential Institutions to Community-Based Services in Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union became the basis for the World Bank's strategy in the area. More recently he has worked with UNICEF and various foundations to strengthen child protection systems in countries throughout the world.

He was previously Director of Human Services for New York City Council President Carol Bellamy. He was a Fulbright scholar to Guatemala and a Revson Fellow at Columbia University. He graduated from Williams College and received a Ph.D. in sociology from Yale University.


"... From Pariahs to Partners: How Parents and their Allies Changed New York City's Child Welfare System, Tobis describes the child protection system's many failings. Troubled families are found everywhere, but . . . as Tobis shows, it comes down hard on poor families with much less serious problems." --New York Review of Books, July 12, 2012

"This labor of love draws on the author's decades of commitment to the cause of children and their families in New York. Tobis nails the argument that - unless they are in extreme danger - children do better with their families than they do in care. Yet the New York child welfare system is, as he sees it, geared towards social control and its own processes, rather than the rights and needs of children and their families. This is a book that speaks truth to power, through the voices of parents who have found the courage to take on the system and have emerged victorious." -- Carol Bellamy, Esq, Chair, Global Partnership for Education; former executive director of UNICEF

"Cities across the country are struggling to improve the way our families are treated. Tobis's book, From Pariahs to Partners, presents the powerful and moving story of how parents collaborated with New York City's government to overhaul its child welfare system. The system has improved dramatically as a result. The book presents a lesson for parents and governments everywhere." -- Cory Booker, JD, Mayor of Newark, New Jersey

"The courage and resilience of parents, especially those besieged by poverty and other stresses, are often ignored and misunderstood. From Pariahs to Partners shows parents' potential for promoting real and sustained reform in child welfare and in mental health, juvenile justice, and other child-serving systems. Parents must be engaged in decisions about their children and empowered as advocates for system reforms. I hope we will embrace this book's call to do so." -- Marian Wright Edelman, President, Children's Defense Fund

"David Tobis' book takes a long, hard look at the history of child welfare in New York City. What he describes is not always pretty. But what is most encouraging is his portrait of the progress made in the last ten years, especially through greater involvement of parents in the system and in their children's lives. May the progress continue." -- John Mattingly, Former Commissioner, The NYC Administration for Children's Services

"Part history, part case study, and part passionate argument for parent participation in child welfare, From Pariahs to Partners is the story of the development and activities of parents' rights organizations inNew York City from the 1990s through the 2000s. Tobis should be praised for offering a proposal and strategy, deriving from his work as an advocate, for improvements in parent involvement in the child welfare system. The strength of the book is in its adherence to a parents-centered perspective,which, if this book is read by policy makers and agency managers, may indeed accomplish advocacy purposes." -John Halloran, Social Service Review

Table of Contents

    Chapter 1: The New York
    Chapter 2: Parents
    Chapter 3: Tilling the Soil: The Groundwork for Parent Activism
    Chapter 4: Parents Find Their Voice
    Chapter 5: Other New York City Parent Organizations
    Chapter 6: Parent Participation Across the Country
    Chapter 7: What Improved, What Hasn't and What's Beginning to Slip
    Chapter 8: Conclusions
    Annex I: Vision and Strategy for the Future

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