The new director of New York City’s Center for Family Representation has worked at the agency serving families in Queens, Manhattan and the Bronx for over 10 years as a staff attorney and litigation supervisor.
Tehra Coles, the mother of two children, 8 and 4, said she always knew she would be an attorney. But after interning with the New York State Defenders Association as an undergrad at Hollins University in Virginia, there was no turning back. She knew her specific path would be to work as a public defender.
Coles holds a bachelor’s degree in political science and government and a master’s degree in social sciences from Hollins. She earned her law degree from Albany Law School in 2009.
Before joining the Center for Family Representation (CFR), Coles worked for the nonprofit Civil Rights Corps. At the nonprofit advocacy group fighting systemic injustice, she worked on issues related to qualified immunity, risk assessment tools and pre-trial detention.
Coles describes her first experiences practicing law in Family Court as a kind of “awakening,” where she realized the impact of having a public defender present, and the damage caused without one.
Now, as a manager for a firm serving over 2,400 clients, she is mindful that attorneys in her field are prone to burnout and high turnover. Coles joins other lawyers in New York’s network of defenders for low-income residents who are advocating for higher pay.
“It’s not fair to the families who have to randomly switch attorneys because that attorney couldn’t keep working — because they either weren’t being paid enough, or they weren’t able to have the support that they needed to keep doing the job,” she said.
In a far-reaching interview with The Imprint, Coles discussed some of her top priorities and how she plans to serve some of the most vulnerable families in New York City.
This conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity and length.
Please describe the typical Center For Family Representation client and their circumstances and needs.
All of our clients are unique and they come to us in different ways. The clients we represent, and who are eligible for our services, have been deemed indigent, which means that they most likely are living in poverty. They are parents and they have children of all different ages. And most of our clients are Black or Brown.
They often have come into contact with a mandated reporter of some sort: a teacher, social worker or hospital.
There is a growing movement to call the child welfare system a “family regulation” system. Why do you support such a change in framing?
That narrative is really important, because it more accurately describes what is happening. It’s not that the system is solely focused on improving the livelihood of children or always protecting them. Because if you go and sit in the courtroom and talk with families, you constantly see Black and Brown families.
They are having their families separated, and in many instances, not able to be reunited. You know that that’s not welfare, that’s not protection, that is separation, and in some ways that’s disruption.
It’s on us, as people who are working on it, who have been exposed to it, to really call it what it is as we do that work.
There are high-level policy discussions in the child welfare field, and then the day-to-day work of representing individual parents in Family Court. Given that the central questions in these cases are about child safety — but the larger issues are systemic and have much to do with challenges parents face in their lives with substance use, domestic violence and mental health care — how do you balance these weighty matters when you are fighting for a parent’s rights?
It’s always really important to push back on the idea that somehow the child is separate from the parent, or that we’re not talking about a family unit. A lot of instances are tied to just not having money. Sometimes what’s being talked about is whether someone is getting to school on time, or whether someone was able to pay for their food or what their childcare situation is. If that is what is leading to breaking up so many families, then that’s really what needs to be the focus. How can we remove that barrier?
One thing the system does is talk about children and families as if parents have rights over here and children have the rights over there, and we have to protect the children from their parents — as opposed to talking about, what does the family need? How can we keep this family together? How can we support this family? And how can we support the family in making decisions?
So one of the things that CFR always tries to do and I try to do is just push back on this idea that the government has more of an interest in the safety of this family than the family itself.
Your work has included policymaking on the federal, state and local level. Can you tell me what change has most inspired you?
The most impressive thing, and what has moved me and inspired me so much, has really been the organizing work that parents are doing right now, in New York City and across the country. It has been great to see public defender offices, like Center For Family Representation and others, looking for ways to support that work.
“one of the things I try to do is just push back on this idea that the government has more of an interest in the safety of this family than the family itself.”— Tehra Coles
At the Center for Family Representation, you’ve now moved up from being the litigation supervisor for policy and government affairs to heading the organization. What perspective do you have from your previous role that you’re bringing to this new one?
As a litigation supervisor, I had the opportunity to continue to be in court, and to observe the way the system was working on a daily basis. It was really important to be able to have that experience, and then to be able to take those experiences into policy and advocacy spaces and use those as examples and as a motivation to work with others to keep uplifting the narrative about what is actually happening to families, and why families are really being separated.
It’s really easy to make it seem as though every case is about the worst scenarios — sex abuse cases, the physical abuse cases — when really those are such a small, small, small portion of why allegations get made. What we were seeing time and time again is our families separated because they couldn’t find stable housing in New York, they didn’t have the money to pay for suitable childcare and they were having a hard time getting access to mental health care.
What are some of your main priorities coming into this new position?
To make sure that we continue and are able to provide representation that CFR has always prioritized, which is a holistic model. Making sure that parents we represent have access to social workers and have access to well-trained and supervised attorneys.
CFR was the first organization to really make it a priority to have systemic-impacted parents on staff and have the opportunity to work directly with our clients. That is invaluable and something that is certainly a priority for me to continue.
Other issues are: How can we at least get attorneys to people earlier on in the process? How can we make sure that people know what their rights are as early on in the process as possible?
The Imprint has covered efforts to get a bill passed in New York that would grant parents Miranda-style rights to have a lawyer present at the beginning of an investigation for maltreatment or neglect. These efforts have sparked broad debate, yet bills have failed to pass in the City Council and state Legislature. What do you think are the prospects of such legislation?
It’s something that I completely support, I know that CFR firmly supports. Looking back over history, knowing how the withholding of information, be it the right to read, or something like the ability to vote, has been used against Black people. It’s the kind of thing that whenever we see it, we should push back against it.
This is a very clear instance when there should be no question that if you are the government trying to come into someone’s home, have access to their children, potentially separate their family, you should at least tell them what their rights are, including the fact that there’s a number they can call to speak to an attorney. My belief is that it is necessary and critical.
What keeps you up at night?
I’m a mom, and I’m a Black woman, and I fear the system as well. In many respects, I think that I am able to be in a place where because of my privilege, based on finances, based on my knowledge of the system itself, I know what to look for. But at the same time, I think that what the system has been doing to families that look like mine is really horrific.
As far as what keeps me up at night, the idea that we’re not doing enough is what would keep me up at night. So it would be a constant hope to be able to keep reevaluating that, to keep working harder to make sure that we are doing all we can to support families both inside and outside the courtroom.
This can be uplifting but weighty work. How do you keep yourself healthy and balanced?
It’s a constant struggle, there’s like no answer that applies to everyone. For me, it has been tied to: am I doing all I can do? I try my best covering the bases that need to be covered.
That means not just being the best advocate in the courtroom, it meant also learning about this movement and efforts that parents were making outside of the courtroom— when it came to dismantling the system, or when it came to really pushing back on some of these policies that are in place that make it even harder for parents to avoid the system, or to get out of the system with their families intact.
I found that being able to kind of pair those two things together, having the in-court and out-of-court advocacy made it easier for me to do the work. I needed to feel like I wasn’t only working with parents when they got sucked into this system. I was also working with parents and families as they were working to avoid the system altogether.