Fifteen years ago, Nora McCarthy launched a unique publishing project to give child welfare-involved parents an opportunity to see their often-overlooked perspectives in print, through a magazine called Rise, which exclusively features their essays and interviews.
Since then, the voices in Rise’s pages have been cited by major media outlets, and widely distributed by government and nonprofit agencies responsible for foster care, parent advocacy, and child maltreatment investigations. More recently, the New York City-based organization has expanded beyond publishing to train child welfare professionals to better inform parents about their rights, and to organize parents for system reform.
This month, McCarthy announced that while she will stay involved as a member of Rise’s board, a new leader will be chosen to lead the nonprofit in its ambitious next iteration. McCarthy plans to step down as director this summer.
“Rise has an amazing staff, a passionate community and an ambitious plan to mobilize parents for radical change in impacted communities,” wrote McCarthy, 45. “We’re strong. As we build on our foundation — on our values, our conviction in our vision, the commitment of our allies and partners, and our strategic plan — I can let go, and let grow.”
Parents under investigation for child abuse or neglect have few other outlets for advocacy or self-expression dedicated to their particular circumstances. The vast majority are working class, some are homeless and grew up in foster care themselves. A disproportionate share are Black or Native American. And they face a system that threatens one of the most unimaginable consequences: family separation, via foster care, typically for child neglect.
In an interview, McCarthy estimates 300 to 400 mothers and fathers have written for Rise over the last 15 years, including 30 to 45 articles each year. She said their budget was around $350,000 in 2016, and is now over $1 million, with philanthropic funding from Casey Family Programs, the Child Welfare Fund, and the JPB Foundation, among other donors, and a recent portfolio of contracts with a university-based training institute for staff of the city’s Administration for Children’s Services.
Parents have written for Rise about the terror and shame of child welfare investigations in vivid detail — many lost their children to foster care – but also celebrate their love for their children, and the community they created with other Rise authors.
One frequent contributor, Piazadora Footman, wrote in 2016 about growing up afraid of child protective services, living in foster care herself and in the projects, where it was normal for girls to lose custody of their children for smoking weed or “hanging out late.” After she turned 23, she lost her own 1-year-old to foster care for three years.
“I felt like a failure. I cried out of fear, knowing that no one would love him like I did,” she wrote six years later, living happily in a nice three-bedroom with her son and daughter. She reflected on remaining afraid to let her 10-year-old play outside by himself with other kids, for fear of attracting renewed scrutiny from child protection investigators.
“I fear that if I don’t give him a little more independence, he’ll turn into someone who can’t survive life ’cause he never lived it,” she wrote.
Rise employs professional editors, and has grown from McCarthy working alone with parents to a staff of 12 — two-thirds of whom have been personally impacted by child welfare — with nine part-time parent contributors leading project teams.
“People who are oppressed are never seen as legitimate witnesses to their own experience. I think there’s a widening understanding of that and that is increasingly being heard,” said McCarthy, paraphrasing the scholar Derrick Bell, and citing a growing national network Rise collaborates with, often called the family defense movement. “I don’t think you can make a system better without opposition to that system, and I don’t think you can make a system better without robust community power on the outside holding that system accountable.”
She said in her goodbye email that the organization is aiming to train 30 parents as advocates by June, which is when she will step down.
“I’m not leaving Rise — I’m stepping back so Rise can step forward and flourish in new ways,” she added.
McCarthy was inspired to start the organization after working as an editor for another New York City outlet that gave voice to the marginalized, called Represent, a magazine by and for foster youth, published by Youth Communication, whose founder Keith Hefner is also on Rise’s board.
“The amount of time that editors at Youth Communication and at Rise have to sit with people and support them in saying what they want to say – is so different than what professionals in the child welfare system have the opportunity to do, because of time constraints and the power they have over people their working with,” McCarthy said in an interview last year about Hefner’s retirement.
But Rise’s mission has increasingly aimed beyond the pages of its magazine. Its current mission statement online reads: “Our mission is to support parents’ leadership to dismantle the current child welfare system, eliminate cycles of harm, surveillance and punishment and create communities that invest in families and offer collective care, healing and support.”
One of Rise’s parent leaders and McCarthy’s close collaborator, Jeanette Vega, is a frequent voice testifying before city and state government committees, along with other Rise writers, and has trained scores of professionals who work in child welfare.
As for what comes next, McCarthy said she’s considering longer-term research and advocacy projects, perhaps in the form of a new think tank, which would investigate how to better fund communities to help each other without reliance on child welfare systems.
“The things that need to happen are not just economic, which is how a lot of people think about, but also have to do with community connection and stability,” she said. “We have over invested in child protective services and under invested in community institutions and networks that help families thrive. That work doesn’t belong to child welfare, but it relates to it and helps us dismantle child welfare.”