New York has lost a tenacious advocate for relative caregivers, a woman who tirelessly raised four generations of her family. Gloria Woods — a talented songstress who performed as “The Lady with the Champagne Voice” — died in late January at 87.
Woods is remembered for her own battle with child welfare authorities, her publicized 1990s court triumph, and her turn to public campaigns in support of others struggling to keep their families intact.
“She was a mother to our community, and particularly one to me,” state Sen. Kevin Parker (D) said at her wake last month. Parker met Woods two decades ago, when she volunteered for his campaign and became a surrogate parent after his mother’s passing.
“Gloria was always looking out for her brothers and sisters — who could be anybody she came across,” Parker said.
Woods died Jan. 28 after battling chronic heart problems.
A mid-1990s confrontation with the child welfare system — her young grandson was twice taken from her care on unfounded allegations — changed the course of Woods’ life and led to her advocacy role. Over decades, she participated in countless events to strengthen the ranks of relative caregivers who keep kids out of foster care. She rallied outside the child welfare commissioner’s office in New York City and the U.S. Capitol, and told Albany lawmakers her story to garner their support for legislation.
In the late 1990s, Woods launched a group called Parents United for Justice to help parents, grandparents and foster families prevent “the unjust and wrongful removal of children from their homes,” according to her LinkedIn profile. She took her message to the airwaves through Brooklyn’s public access cable channel. For 15 years, Woods hosted the monthly public affairs show “Get Connected,” discussing caregiver issues with advocates and lawmakers, alerting parents of their rights, and offering help to affected families.
In 2019, she lobbied for a bill by then-state Sen. Velmanette Montgomery that expanded the definition of kinship caregivers to include more distant relations and non-relatives. The same year, the KinCare Coalition named Woods a “Kinship Caregiver Champion,” and granted her a Lifetime Achievement Award.
The Imprint interviewed Woods in the spring of 2020. During that conversation, she described the importance of recognizing the millions of largely overlooked older Americans who step up to give their grandchildren a loving home.
“I’m always amazed by how long they’ve had Grandparents Day, and so many people don’t know it,” Woods said. “They talk about Groundhog Day, and a whole lot of other days — why don’t they talk about Grandparents Day?”
A family woman
Woods was born in 1935 in Harlem to Bahamian immigrants, but moved to Brooklyn as a child and remained there. Her mother, who had little formal education, had the foresight to purchase four brownstones. Woods grew up playing hopscotch, double Dutch and handball on the sidewalks and playgrounds of her Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood.
By her 20s, she was raising two daughters and a son as a single mother, while her oldest son grew up on Long Island with a paternal grandmother. To support her family, she often worked two or three jobs, including as a court transcriptionist in the Brooklyn Supreme Court and as a receptionist at the local police precinct. In 1969, a fire destroyed the family’s home, and for a time they lived in a shelter in Brooklyn Heights.
Once Woods landed a new apartment in the Glenwood public housing complex, she welcomed the newest members of her family. She cared for her grandchildren for extended periods of time in the late 1970s and 1980s when her oldest daughter, Leonora “Cookie” Woods, struggled with substance abuse. Around the same time, Woods began working as an administrative assistant at the public hospital in central Brooklyn supporting young, Black doctors.
At that time, there was no formal support for people caring for their relatives, or even a name for what’s now known in the child welfare system as “kinship care” — it was simply what families and neighbors did for their own.
Woods was also devoted to her Christian faith and community, where she forged lifelong friendships and was an integral part of a gospel choir.
Facing off with the authorities
Woods never imagined the city child welfare agency would come between her and her kin. By her own accounting, the ordeal began in 1994, when Lenora Woods’ infant son Diquan was placed with a foster family, with no notice to his relatives. Then 59, Woods fought to become his caregiver within the foster care system, and raised him while working full time at SUNY Downstate Medical Center.
But when Diquan was 18 months old, a woman who ran his day care center noticed marks on his feet, which she reported to the newly created Administration for Children’s Services as burns resulting from child abuse or neglect at home.
In 1995, amid a media-fueled, now-debunked panic about so-called “crack babies,” the city’s child welfare agency removed more than 9,000 children from their parents, building toward a peak of nearly 12,800 removals in 1997. Diquan was among the children swept up. By contrast, about 3,500 children were admitted to foster care in 2019.
Woods was shocked to learn her chubby-cheeked grandson had been taken from the daycare by strangers, and placed with unknown foster parents in the Bronx, she recounted.
“If my chair wasn’t right where I was standing, I would have been on the floor,” she said in an interview with The Imprint, recalling the moment she found out he was gone. “They lost him in the system. It was horrible for me and my family.”
But she refused to allow her grandchild to become yet another Black child lost to the foster care system.
Woods made her case in court and proved that she had a history of safely caring for her own children and grandchildren. She presented evidence from two doctors who concluded the marks on Diquan’s feet were impressions from his pajamas, according to news reports at the time.
Overcoming the long odds of the era, she won her case — a rare victory that was highlighted in local Black newspapers but went unmentioned in mainstream news outlets. Diquan returned home within a year, only to be removed again briefly at age 4 when his uncle was accused of robbing a nearby grocery store with the boy in tow. Woods fought again to get her grandson back; her son said the charges were eventually dropped and the store provided him with a settlement.
A voice for the community
For Woods, bringing home her own grandchild wasn’t enough: She knew too many other families, friends and neighbors who had found it impossible to reunite with a child or grandchild taken by child protective workers.
“It’s such a sad thing, the things that happen that many people don’t know about,” she told a fellow grandparent during an episode of her public affairs show. “Until it happens to someone, they really don’t know what’s going on in the city. Grandparents have no rights.”
Not long after launching Parents United for Justice, Woods later got another call to duty: her 5-year-old great-grandson Daviaan needed a stable home. So she took him in to raise as well — still active enough in her 70s to join one of her granddaughters for the occasional workout at the high school track. This time, however, Woods stayed as far from the formal foster care system that had separated her from Diquan as possible, opting instead to receive support from the Kinship Guardianship Assistance Program.
Daviaan was Woods’ regular companion in all of her favorite activities: swaying to live music at Brooklyn’s annual DanceAfrica Festival, worshiping at church on Sundays and sharing family celebrations at restaurants like Applebee’s and BBQ’s.
And she remained civic-minded. Following a 2012 spike in gang violence at the Glenwood Houses where she lived, Woods encouraged her neighbors to send their kids to mentorship and activity programs offered by the nearby East Flatbush Village.
“She got people out that would normally not be engaged, or that were purposely disengaged, and families who distrusted the systems in place,” said Eric Waterman, executive director of East Flatbush Village, where Daviaan, now a high school sophomore, also works. “She could tell them, ‘Believe me, I trust this organization, and you need to make sure you bring your child or grandson or nephew.’”
All across Brooklyn, Daviaan has found his great-grandmother’s network lives on, and true to family tradition, relatives have moved into his apartment to care for him. In addition to her children Benjamin Woods, 62, Gloria Louise Walker, 67 and Joseph Nesbitt, 70; Woods is survived by her brother Robert Humes, 90; five grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
Looking back on his great-grandmother’s impact on her community, Daviaan attributed her success to her dedication to everything — and everyone — she set out to support.
“She’s a ‘get it done’ kind of person, and whenever she helped out, it always went well,” he said. “I guess when you can depend on a person, you know you can call on them for anything.”