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When a young bipolar woman in her late teens went into labor with her first child, the hospital doctors mistakenly gave her medications that counteracted with her bipolar medication leading to serious cardiac problems. After a long, complicated, painful, and exhausting birth, this young woman said: “I can’t take care of my son right now.”
Although she meant she could not take care of him at that very moment, exhausted and drugged, the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) interpreted this statement as one of neglect because of this young woman’s mental illness and lack of means.
The young woman’s son was taken away from her. She then went to family court where she was introduced to a team from the Center for Family Representation (CFR). The team included an attorney and a social worker. With their help, she was able to quickly get her son out of foster care and back into her arms. This team was made possible in part by Michele Cortese.
Cortese began her work as a lawyer in the late 80s representing teenagers charged with crimes. As years passed, Cortese decided that she wanted to get more to the core of the issue and work with younger children. She then began representing children in foster care, and, in 2002, her friend Susan Jacobs was given a grant to begin building CFR—an agency that would serve families differently than they had been served in the past—and asked Cortese to join her.
Together, these women raised this company from the ground up. What started with three employees and a $250,000 budget has turned into 96 employees in with a budget of $8 million.
The young woman with bipolar disorder is one of the first of CFR’s many success stories. Even with a caseload of about 1,000 new families a year, CFR still manages to operate with notable efficiency. “We consistently get kids out of foster care much more quickly than the rest of the state and the rest of the city,” Cortese says.
These results benefit taxpayers tremendously, she explains, because, while it typically costs about $29,000 a year to keep one child in foster care, it costs only $6,400 for CFR to work through one case no matter how long it takes.
While building the foundations of CFR, Cortese was also busy raising two children of her own: Madeline, age 23, and David, age 19. How has working in child protection services for 22 years affected her parenting? “This job has made me really put a premium on having dinner with my kids,” Cortese says.
As much as Cortese and her husband, Joe, who also works in child services, loved the city, they ultimately decided to raise their children in the suburbs. “I found that the commute was like this nice bookend where I could really shift gears and let go of whatever I needed to let go of to be focused,” she says, adding that the nature of her work helps keep her focus on her own family. “Being in child welfare is a good one, because you tend to meet people who really value family. I have worked all sorts of combinations of part-time since my daughter was born. It’s enabled me to be much more available to my kids.”
Being available to her children is another example of a small thing not everyone can take for granted. “Our advocacy focuses on making sure that families can spend quality time together even if separated by foster care. For example, sometimes, we’ll have to get a court order so that a parent can go watch their child sing in the chorus. If you are that child singing, you want to know that your parent is there watching,” Cortese says.
To learn more about the Center for Family Representation, visit cfrny.org.