Jay Berlin, who in 1978 founded the Northern California nonprofit Alternative Family Services, was named Public Citizen of the Year by the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), the largest membership organization of professional social workers in the country.
The award is NASW’s top honorific for non-social workers, and goes to a person who has made “a significant contribution to an area or population of concern to the social work profession such as at-risk or vulnerable populations; quality of life in communities; social issues.”
“This award truly does not belong to me alone,” Berlin said, in a statement announcing the award. “Over the years hundreds of devoted foster parents, social workers, therapists, office staff and dedicated volunteers have joined together to create a community where kids can thrive and succeed.”
Berlin joined the staff of Huckleberry House, the renowned youth homeless shelter in San Francisco, in 1974. He wanted to build a network of foster homes and community supports for the youth coming into the shelter, and Huckleberry leadership told him that he could spin that project off if he could make it financially sustainable.
Berlin established Alternative Family Services five years later, taking a roster of foster families and several staff with him. Today, the Santa Rosa-based organization continues to do foster care along with adoption services and assistance to youth likely to age out of care.
It has also established a therapeutic visitation program for parents and children recently separated due to abuse or neglect, and The Gathering Place, a partnership with Alameda County to establish a quality environment for family visitation.
Berlin continues to lead the organization, now in its 40th year of existence. Previous winners of the Public Citizen of the Year include Harold House, a veteran juvenile justice worker and advocate in Indiana, and Clementine Chéry, founder of the gang violence prevention group Louis D. Brown Peace Institute in Dorchester, Massachusetts.
Winners must be nominated by an NASW member or chapter. NASW, which is based in Washington, D.C., counts 120,000 members among its ranks. It is led by CEO Angelo McLain.