Richard Wexler is a little like The Flash, the iconic comic book hero who moves at lightning speed. He swiftly takes on anyone he perceives as the enemy.
No sooner had Children’s Rights, the nonprofit child welfare reform group, released a report last month advocating full reimbursement of expenses incurred by foster parents – at first blush, a seemingly reasonable idea – than Wexler issued a very different take: He told the news media that the idea of giving more money to foster parents, rather than to impoverished birth parents, “is built on a foundation of fear and stereotype.”
That’s nothing. This summer he flew to the aid of a Republican state legislator in Arizona who challenged the state child welfare system, joining her at a well-covered news conference.
And he fueled news stories in Utah that forced the state’s child welfare agency to admit error in creating a rule – based on a misunderstanding of federal law – that had delayed the placement of foster youths with relatives.
As executive director and sole employee of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, Wexler is an unrelenting opponent of one of child welfare’s fundamental practices: putting allegedly abused and neglected children in out-of-home care.
The white-haired 53-year-old Wexler is friendly but intense, and makes no apologies for his “very blunt-spoken style of advocacy” – a style that wins acclaim among some reformers but leads critics to characterize him as a media hound who takes cheap shots.
“Part of Richard’s role is to get everybody’s attention,” says Marc Charna, director of the Allegheny County, Pa., Department of Human Services, who shares many of Wexler’s views.
“He gets an awful lot of press. That’s because he says a lot of provocative things.” Richard Gelles, dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy and Practice, says Wexler overstates the problem of children being wrongly taken away from their biological families. But, he says, Wexler is difficult “to debate because he’s so over the top and not particularly interested in finding common ground.”
Journalist becomes advocate
Wexler’s media mastery flows from his experiences.
At the age of 8, he says, he produced a mimeographed newspaper for his family’s co-op in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. He graduated in 1976 from the prestigious Columbia School of Journalism, where his journey to advocacy began.
A project on foster care led him to interview a college student who had been in nine foster homes by the time she was 9. Wexler emerged from the interview convinced that “if we got rid of those no-good birth parents and got everyone adopted, everything would be fine.”
As he wrote more about child welfare, however, he began to believe that agencies intending to protect children often did them harm by taking them from their families. But while his media colleagues played up abuse deaths of children left with abusive parents, they paid little attention to abuse and deaths in foster care. Wexler did cover such cases, for such newspapers as the Albany Times Union and City Newspaper of Rochester, N.Y., and for public radio.
“I started to find facts on the ground not matching what most widely quoted experts in field were saying to me,” he says. “When the dichotomy became too much to bear, I wrote a book.” Wounded Innocents: The Real Victims of the War Against Child Abuse was published in 1990 and argued that removing children from their parents usually hurt kids more than it helped them. For Wexler, it was “a bridge between journalism and advocacy.”
The book prompted a letter from Elizabeth Vorenberg, a member of the national board of the American Civil Liberties Union whom Wexler had known while reporting in Massachusetts. Would he be interested in helping to form an organization based on the principles enunciated in the book? He said yes, but it took years to get funding.
The NCCPR was born in 1997, with Vorenberg as president and Wexler as the sole (and part-time) staffer. When grants came from the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Open Society Institute, Wexler went full-time in 1999, leaving his job as a news writer and copy editor in the Washington bureau of CNN.
Stirring things up NCCPR’s headquarters is Wexler’s cluttered three-bedroom condo, a former postwar rental in Alexandria, Va., that he shares with his wife and 19-year old daughter. The small living room is big on bookcases, while Wexler uses one bedroom as his office. NCCPR is not really a coalition of groups; it’s Wexler, backed by foundations and a board of well-credentialed individuals.
Vorenberg is still a member, while the board president is Martin Guggenheim, former director of clinical and advocacy programs at the New York University Law School.
“I am executive director, deputy executive director and assistant to the executive director,” Wexler says. “The office Christmas party is kind of dull, but office meetings are a breeze.”
He earns $77,000 a year – accounting for most of the organization’s $100,000 budget – with no benefits. From that base, Wexler influences the way many journalists see child welfare and report on it to the public. His big weapon is the Internet.
He begins each day surfing the Web for stories on child abuse; his own database contains 30,000 entries. He contacts reporters to chat about the stories they’ve done, offering more sources and suggesting follow-ups. He then mails the reporter a package of materials about the subject.
Every week he sends an e-mail blast, his “NCCPR Child Welfare News Exchange,” to some 350 journalists interested in the child welfare beat. The e-mails typically include fresh news stories about child removals gone bad or child welfare foul-ups, often topped by comments from Wexler.
He writes a blog on his website and op-ed pieces for newspapers, testifies at public hearings, attends news conferences with family preservation advocates and writes reports about problems in state child welfare systems. His response to the Children’s Rights report was classic Wexler.
While the group focused on disparities in state reimbursements to foster parents and advocated a minimum federal standard, Wexler cast the proposal in class terms: Middleclass foster parents would get the financial help poor families need to provide for their own children. His tactics have earned him quite a few fans and not a few critics.
“He is a remarkable advocate for child welfare reform. He has an impact all over the country,” says Ben Wolf, associate legislative director of the ACLU of Illinois, which has waged a years-long legal battle to reform the state’s child protection policies.
“He is excellent at traversing the Internet and making connections with media outlets,” says Shay Bilchik, former executive director of the Child Welfare League of America – which Wexler frequently rails against. “But I really give very little credence to what he says.”
But CWLA Vice President Linda Spears thinks they could be allies.
“He often puts himself in position at odds with the CWLA, and I’m not sure our positions are as far apart often as he would state them,” she says. She says CWLA is “very much in agreement” with Wexler on family preservation and keeping kids out of foster care.
While Wexler often attacks the CWLA, Spears is diplomatic. “Richard is an interesting person,” she says. “He works very hard to draw attention to the issues he cares about.”