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Stories of Impact

A group of people stands together inside a large hall with arched ceilings, holding signs that read "Protect the TPS & DED Family Migration Rights." A woman is speaking at a podium marked with the New York State Seal.
Courtesy of JMACforFamilies
JMACforFamilies leads the Parent Legislative Action Network (PLAN), a statewide coalition of impacted parents and young people, advocates, attorneys, social workers, and academics working to effect systemic change through legislative advocacy

In 1999, Joyce McMillan’s kids were taken away from her and put into foster care. It would take two and a half years to get them back, but that wasn’t the last time that she’d face separation from them.

“The more often [Child Protective Services] came back, the more I learned; they never tell you your rights,” she said. “You learn everything in retrospect.”

In 2014, McMillan quit her job to pursue advocacy full time and make sure other parents had a different experience than her. Through Just Making a Change for Families (JMACforFamilies), McMillan equips parents with the knowledge they need if and when they come face to face with Child Protective Services (CPS), police officers, and other government agencies.

“My job, my work, is to educate people, inform people of their rights, make sure that CPS agents go to court, and have a judge find probable cause and issue an order before [government agents] enter their home,” she explained. “These are vital things that need to happen in order to keep children at home where they are safer.”

The way McMillan sees it, there are many parallels between the foster care system and the prison industrial complex, which both disproportionately impact Black and brown people. For example, both children in foster care and incarcerated people are separated from everyone they know and love, are made to change locations regularly, eat what they are served, and are heavily paroled and surveilled when released from state custody.

75% of children who spend time in the foster care system end up incarcerated for five or more years within two years of being released from the foster care system.

Most troubling of all, McMillan points out how the foster care system serves as a pipeline to incarceration, as about 75% of children who spend time in the foster care system end up incarcerated for five or more years within two years of being released from the foster care system.

JMACforFamilies pushes for deeply impactful legislation that would decrease the chance of children being put in foster care, and has passed monumental legislation that challenged and changed the New York State central registry.

Prior to 2020, if a parent was investigated in by a CPS agent in the State of New York, it was at the discretion of the investigating case worker whether or not the parent was put on the central registry—even if the child was not removed, no court date was issued, or any other further action was taken.

“Being on a registry has the same impact as having a felony conviction,” McMillan emphasized, with employment, financial, and social ramifications “pushing people into poverty.” One could only be removed from the registry after their youngest child turns 28 years old.

“It’s unconstitutional to place someone on a list that could have such a negative bearing on their life without any court intervention,” she explained.

A person stands at a podium with the Harvard Law School logo, pointing while speaking. The setting appears to be a lecture or presentation room.
Joyce McMillan, JMACforFamilies Founder and Executive Director, speaking at Harvard Law School

Through tireless advocacy, JMACforFamilies’ legislative arm, Parent Legislative Action Network (PLAN) successfully advocated for the change that made it so individuals could only be on the registry for eight years, resulting in about 1 million people in New York State being removed from the registry in 2020.

Since this win, JMACforFamilies has continued to “break the pipeline” between the foster care system and prison. With Brooklyn Org’s support, the organization led a restorative justice campaign around the The Informed Consent Act, which requires parents to give written and oral consent before a birthing person or their newborn are drug tested—which is often not medically necessary but used as a way to bring children into CPS custody.

“[The funding] did a lot in helping us educate people around what their rights are,” McMillan said. “Our collaborations with other organizations have been very impactful.”

[The funding] did a lot in helping us educate people around what their rights are. Our collaborations with other organizations have been very impactful. Joyce McMillan, Founder and Executive Director

Another issue that JMACforFamilies is tackling is the unconstitutional entrance of government officials into a home without warrants—a right that is often overlooked and violated when situations are wrongfully deemed as “emergencies” and the concept of children’s safety is weaponized.

“It is our fourth amendment right to not have a government employee to enter our home without a court order,” McMillan said. “My goal is to ensure that the constitution protects everyone.”

JMACforFamilies strives for a future in which all children are safe, especially children of color, and families are kept together with their parent(s) whenever possible: “The reality is that the [lawmakers] are the ones causing children the harm,” McMillan argued.

“The idea is not to say that homes are perfect and that children should be left at home in the condition that the home is in, but we should be utilizing our skills and our critical thinking abilities to provide the best resources to relieve people of the problem they’re experiencing.”

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