Leader to Leader: Ron Richter

Ronald Richter, CEO of JCCA.

Ronald Richter, CEO of JCCA. Submitted

Fulton v. The City of Philadelphia is a Supreme Court case that hits on a number of hot-button issues. The plaintiff is a Catholic foster-care agency that argues it should not have to certify same-sex couples as potential foster parents because doing so is in opposition to church teachings about marriage.  

The case is being closely watched for a number of reasons: it is among the first major cases to be heard after the contentious presidential election; it is one of Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s first cases; and, not least, it carries potentially far-reaching implications for those interested in religious freedom and civil rights for LGBTQ Americans.

Among those with a strong opinion on how the case should be decided is Ron Richter, the CEO of JCCA, one of New York’s oldest and largest foster care and family service agencies. 

In an op-ed that appeared in USA Today earlier this month, Richter argued against the Catholic agency’s right to turn away potential LGBTQ foster parents. While his essay drew on his prior experience as a family court judge, Legal Aid attorney, and commissioner of the New York City Administration for Children’s Services, he also wrote about his own experience as an adoptive gay parent: “When I think that my spouse and I could have been barred from becoming our daughter’s parents, I am shaken. It is unfathomable.”  

I spoke to Ron Richter by phone about his op-ed, racism in the child welfare system, and the challenges of taking over a large organization with a long and storied history. The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity. 

Berman: I want to start with your USA Today op-ed. I’m curious to hear you talk about the decision to put yourself and your family out there in such a public way. I feel like people want leaders to talk about their “lived experience” and to communicate with authenticity. At the same time, it can feel risky to expose your family to public scrutiny. Was it a hard decision to write about your daughter in the way that you did?

Richter: Before I sent it in, I asked my spouse to read it to see if he was OK with the decision. It was somewhat of a big deal to me to include my kid because, obviously, it’s always going to be out there in some way. So, yeah, it matters to me. But I think that the notion that families like ours may not be able to be created is pretty shocking. I take it personally. This has a lot of gravity for me. I felt like it was, with my spouse’s agreement, important to drive the point home.

Berman: How’s the response been?

Richter: It’s been pretty overwhelming. I’m not sure if that’s because of the issue or because it was presented with a personal vantage point. If it goes the wrong way, this decision could really send a message to children who identify as LGBTQ that they are somehow less worthy than other children. It certainly sends a message to gay and lesbian couples who want to foster and adopt that they may not stack up. The research on this topic is very clear: being parented by someone who identifies as gay or lesbian nets equal results as being parented by someone who identifies as heterosexual. It’s really just discrimination, plain and simple.

Berman: You have written a number of op-eds over the past year, including one on combating police brutality and one about trauma-informed approaches to school misbehavior. It seems to me, and correct me if I’m wrong, that you are speaking out much more forthrightly about racial disparities. I’m curious whether that’s an intentional decision or not.

Richter: It’s a very intentional decision. It stems from working in the field for 30 years. I started at Bedford-Stuyvesant Community Legal Services in 1990. I was a lawyer for kids and then a family court judge and then a commissioner of a child welfare agency. Now I’m running a big family and child services nonprofit. I’ve worked in family and child services for a long time. There is blatant white supremacy in our country – and child welfare has to have a reckoning with its own history of racism.

At JCCA, it has become clear that we have a lot of work to do as an organization. I felt like it was important for me to speak out about the fact that we probably need to think differently about our approach to child protection and our approach to working with families; much of what brings those families to our attention is a function of longstanding racist institutions. I’m trying to figure out how to communicate about it without saying that there’s no role for child welfare in a just society; I think there is. I just don’t think we've been doing it correctly. We need to rethink our approaches. But I also think that children are entitled to be safe. In order to be a humane society, we need to be concerned about children and figure out how to help their families keep them safe. We’ve done a lot of things that are not consistent with that concept. Many of the things we’ve done are racist. Going forward, we may have to redefine what safety looks like. 

Berman: Do you feel that your identity markers – the fact that you present to the world as a white man – complicates your effort to do that? 

Richter: That’s a hard question. I think that there are probably some who question my authenticity in wanting to address systemic racism. Surely there are people who would look at me and say, “Well, gosh, you’ve had a lot of extraordinary roles professionally in what you’re saying is a racist field.” Therefore, they may question why I’m speaking out in this way. Regardless, I think it’s critical that we address systemic racism. Whether people think my speaking out is positive or negative or curious, to me, the goal is what’s critical.

Berman: You said a moment ago that we may have to redefine what safety looks like. What do you mean by that?

Richter: I think that much of how we define safety and risk in child welfare is based upon human decisions. We go out, we look at a particular set of circumstances in whatever amount of time we have, and then we decide whether a child is safe where they are. Most of that analysis is done with the human eye. There’s not a lot of science involved in that evaluation. Therefore, there is an enormous amount of room for bias to creep in. Child protective investigators have about the hardest job anyone could imagine. They have high caseloads and have to make very challenging decisions, very quickly. It adds up to a recipe for having bias inform the decisions that they make. We’re learning more and more about how to leverage data to help check a human’s decision-making in order to better assess safety and risk in child welfare.

Berman: I read your recent City Council testimony where you argued in favor of using risk-assessment instruments to help make decisions. In the criminal justice context, there’s an enormous amount of controversy about the use of risk-assessment instruments, which were originally introduced for the reason that you articulate – to reduce individual bias – but are now seen by many as hard-wiring racial bias into the system. I’m curious to hear how much pushback there is along those lines in child welfare.

Richter: There’s significant pushback. I think that many child welfare professionals, including myself, are concerned that the data that we use to predict safety and risk will necessarily be biased. I don’t think that’s an argument for abandoning the tool. I think it means we need to perfect the tool so that we correct for the bias. My hope is that we will learn from the criminal justice area. And that we will work harder to figure out how to eliminate as much as possible the bias in the data so that we have better modeling. I don’t think the fact that there are critics of what’s going on in criminal justice, and there are fair criticisms, should mean that we jettison the effort. For heaven’s sake, in child welfare, we have been lamenting our poor outcomes for decades. In 1990, you had 50,000 children in foster care in New York City, and you had disproportionate representation of Black children at every step in the process. It is now 2020 and we have 8,500 kids in care, maybe fewer, and you have the exact same disproportionate representation of Black children at every step in the process.

Berman: I just want to make sure I got that number right. We’ve gone from 50,000 kids in care to 8,500?

Richter: Correct.

Berman: Isn’t that a measure of success?  If that’s true, why is your narrative about the child welfare system so doom-and-gloom?

Richter: It is absolutely a success story, yes. I agree with you. There’s a reduction in the use of foster care and in the use of residential care. That’s a success. But the fact that you continue to disproportionately see Black children and families impacted by the child welfare system raises concerns about how the system functions. Believe me, I’m very happy that we in New York have been focused for 30 years on how to reduce the use of out-of-home care. The question is: Are children safe while we’re doing that? I think part of what we are trying to do is ensure that we are reducing foster care because foster care has somehow been determined to be bad. But foster care is not bad when a kid isn’t safe at home.

Berman: Right. But I think the argument is that we were defaulting to foster care when we didn’t have to for generations. 

Richter: We were. I agree with that 100%. The question is the old pendulum swing. 

Getting back to the concern about race and child welfare, there is a concern for many of us that many of the families we see in child welfare end up in situations where we could be supporting them in very concrete ways that would avoid the need for child welfare involvement. We spend gobs of money processing cases and doing investigations. Why are we approaching it that way?

Berman: And your answer to that question is racism?

Richter: It’s not conscious racism. It’s a function of a systemic response that is outdated and doesn’t look at the specific circumstances that led to a family’s situation to understand how we can ameliorate the situation in a more permanent way. The issue is, how do you actually get underneath the problems that are causing the neglect?

Berman: Do you worry at all that labeling the system racist has the potential to even further undermine public trust and confidence in the system?

Richter: I think it’s very significant to say that the child welfare system is a racist institution. I think that it is also necessary to ensure that this is a starting point from which we have work to do. We have to identify in what ways the child welfare system has racist tendencies and how we go about correcting those. I think that it’s difficult to have a system that’s grown up through government in the United States for decades and decades that doesn’t have some racist tendencies. I don’t think that means, as I’ve said, that we shouldn’t have a child welfare system. I think it means that we have to figure out how to move forward far more thoughtfully about how we approach children and families at risk.

Berman: You’ve mentioned that you’ve been in this field for 30 years. What was the original spark that got you interested in working with children and families?

Richter: I think the initial spark was probably that I grew up in the ’70s with a working mother. The fact that both of my parents were frequently not home, I thought that was somehow unusual. I felt the need to sort of be heard as a kid around that particular issue. As I have evolved, I have come to realize that being a gay kid probably informed my interest in advocacy.  

Another factor was my father’s experience in the Holocaust.  He was separated from his mother for six months and didn’t know whether he would see her again. When I was a lawyer in Bronx family court at the beginning of my career, I used to have a really hard time. Back in the early ’90s, we used to do intake at Legal Aid and we would stand up, and literally, 30 kids would be removed in one afternoon. It was the middle of the crack epidemic. It was horrible. I would almost get panic attacks, I was so uncomfortable with all of these removals. I think what informed that reaction was my father’s experience. He is still alive and still very much traumatized by his removal from his mother at the hands of the government of Europe at the time.

Berman: You have worked in leadership positions in government and now in the not-for-profit sector. Is there a difference between being a public-sector leader and a nonprofit leader?

Richter: Absolutely. When I was a deputy commissioner, when I was at City Hall and then when I was a commissioner, you always had to find money. The administration always required you to have a plan to eliminate budget gaps. But at the end of the day, even in the meanest years, the city can always find some money to do certain things. When you are running a nonprofit, that is simply not the case. You have to manage a nonprofit organization to the dollar. There aren’t any margins. This is, in fact, a business. There simply isn’t extra money lying around that you can pull out of a hat or call OMB to beg for in order to make payroll. That is a very significant difference between government and the nonprofit sector.

Berman: Take me back five years ago to your start at JCCA. You step in the door of this organization that’s been in existence for almost 200 years. The previous executive had been there for decades. What was the hardest part about taking the helm?

Richter: Because of the illustrious history of this organization, I would say the hardest part was managing the transition in a way that respected the history and my predecessor while at the same time addressing immediate concerns that the Board had about the need for some significant belt-tightening and reordering of priorities so that the organization’s revenue matched the organization's expenditures. From my vantage point as a commissioner, a judge, and a Legal Aid lawyer, JCCA had a wonderful reputation because of the quality of service that children and families received. JCCA cares for tremendously challenged children who are remarkable kids. Our staff really care about kids who are not only confronting the racism we’ve talked about, but who also have intellectual, physical and developmental disabilities. To come into that and figure out how to retain the extraordinary compassion that makes JCCA special, while at the same time figuring out how to spend a lot less money doing it … that was really complicated.

Berman: JCCA used to be known as the Jewish Child Care Association; do you not use that name anymore at all?

Richter: It is our name. We’re doing business as JCCA. Our organization was founded in 1822 in order to take care of the orphans of Jewish women. They were children who had been removed from their mothers, who were living in hovels and had no jobs or means of support. The government in New York City asked the German Jews who had come to New York in the 1600s and had developed some wealth to support these Jewish children. The German Jews responded by building orphanages. Over many years, there were lots of Jewish orphanages in Brooklyn and in Manhattan that ultimately joined together and became the Jewish Child Care Association. Until the ’50s and ’60s, we only worked with Jewish children. Obviously, that has changed. We now mostly take care of children who are Black and brown. And we feel that in some ways, it is not as accurate to call ourselves the Jewish Child Care Association because most of the kids we take care of are not Jewish.

Berman: Do you think of JCCA as a Jewish organization or is that not part of your self-concept anymore?

Richter: It’s totally part of our concept because our mission is really tikkun olam (Hebrew for “repairing the world”). Our tagline is “Repair the world, child by child.” And that still includes helping Jewish families. For example, during this horrible COVID nightmare, JCCA was able to deliver an enormous amount of financial relief to hundreds of Jewish families in central Queens. 

Berman: JCCA was very active in the fight for the Fair Futures program, which provides mentors to help young people in foster care transition to adulthood. What’s the status of that initiative and what are your advocacy priorities for the year ahead?

Richter: For Fair Futures, we got a very significant allotment of funding thanks to the city council for FY21. We are advocating that it continue into ’22. Fair Futures has really helped our young people to be supported when they leave foster care until they’re 26 years old. We are going to do everything we can, in what will be a truly difficult financial environment, to advocate for its continued growth. 

In addition to Fair Futures, we are working on developing a series of meetings around the appropriate use of predictive risk modeling in child welfare. We are also working on the education of our young people around self-advocacy and parent advocacy as part of our program model. Figuring out how to elevate youth and family voice – it’s much easier said than done because parents are in this position of being naturally on the defensive. We have to figure out how to change that dynamic somehow.

Berman: Last question: do you have a book that you’d like to recommend that’s been meaningful to you, either on the theme of child welfare or the theme of leadership?

Richter: I just finished Isabel Wilkerson’s “The Warmth of Other Suns.” It was an important contribution to my education on American history. That book was so well-researched. It’s really worth the read. But if you are interested in child welfare in New York, I feel like everyone should read “The Lost Children of Wilder,” by Nina Bernstein. I think it’s a really well-written book and it gives you an enormous amount of our history.