Helen Deines is Professor of Social Work Emeritus at Spalding University in Louisville. She was also a close friend of Kentucky youth advocate David Richart, who passed away last week at the age of 63. Deines shared the following thoughts on Richart’s life and career with Youth Today:
David was my buddy since we began graduate school together in 1973. I think we were drawn together because we were both big people and both Yankees – David from New Jersey and me from San Francisco. We both had decidedly non-Southern senses of humor and enjoyed causing as much trouble as possible. We talked almost every day, and David was “Uncle David” for my three children, so he spent a lot of time at our house.
1) David’s career was driven by his intense curiosity about EVERYTHING. David was fascinated by kids in problematic situations. How had this occurred? Why did this happen to this particular family? In this neighborhood? And because he was a social history buff, he would automatically think, at this point in time? Influenced by what policies? With what agencies at play?
2) David supported the positive as much as he attacked the negative! He built coalitions with effective legislators, courted excellent social workers, effective managers, journalists, lobbyists, etc., so that he always had trustworthy sources, open doors, and honest feedback. Being a good strategist is a collaborative effort.
3) David had a great sense of humor and it was among his most effective strategies. He didn’t joke for to minimize conflict, but he was strategic in using cartoons to highlight children’s issues and/or needle intransigent legislators. Similarly, blanketing the capitol with posters with a visual punch was far more effective than a war of words.
4) David was secure in his own skin. As with most of us, he wanted to be liked. Yet he didn’t need to compromise his values or his intellect to curry favor with others.
5) David maintained a clear ethical division about funding. He never took money from a source he was supposed to monitor in advocating for children; hence, he never accepted a contract from the state child protection cabinet, the school board, juvenile justice provider, etc. This cost him dearly as foundation money dried up, but it gave him the independence he needed to advocate effectively for other people’s children.
6) David was generous in sharing, teaching, and mentoring his organizing skills. For many years he worked with state social workers helping them to organize in the face of budget cuts and punitive personnel policies. There he was at 7 a.m. on Saturday mornings, wearing a baseball cap and worn out jacket, carrying doughnuts, hammers, staple guns, sticks for posters, and bags of markers. He’d sit in someone’s basement talking long-range strategy, sometimes bringing a legislator with him. He wouldn’t do all the work, but he’d work right along next to the workers. If there was a laggard, man he would yell! “No free riders!”
He also organized former youth clients of his…I always loved this! This was the point of the work in his eyes: Youth telling the media specific stories of growing up in care. I recall facilitating one of these for him, and a youth in care in college (an honors student) talking about the state refusing to let her study abroad although the university had offered to pay all her expenses, including spending money. The room was just still as she talked about what it said, to be told to do your best, that it wasn’t her fault that she was in care, that she was abused, to have the university be so generous, and to have the door slammed in your face.
7) David had an experience a few years ago that taught him how intractable bureaucracies can be, no matter how overwhelming the evidence and the legal force. Over time he became more and more convinced that opening up family courts to public scrutiny (while protecting survivors of sexual abuse) was the only way to contest the closed doors of public child welfare agencies. Similarly, he had been working to open the records of deaths of children in care – Kentucky had the highest child fatality rate in the nation in 2008. This matter is currently in court.
8) People who didn’t know David thought that he was a big angry man, kind of a bull in a china shop. Actually, he was a very sensitive fellow, very self-aware. He used his size and his persona quite intentionally. He could be as gentle as a lamb, an unpretentious, quiet guy, so that people were rarely aware he was even in a room.
But when he walked into a room with one of those big evidence cases overflowing with papers, he wanted you to know that he knew the issue better than anyone in the room, that he was there for the kids, and the kids had someone to speak for them who were not going to back down. And when he led 200 people to the state capitol with funny posters and four talking points, his eyes were twinkling and his bullhorn was going and he was going to help move a piece of legislation for other people’s kids.
And when he was locked in a room with lawyers, legislators and research staff drafting Kentucky’s juvenile code, he was a technocrat watching every word, every punctuation mark, thinking ahead to the implications for Kentucky’s children.
No saint, David Richart, but a truly committed advocate. The ones who should be grieving most are other people’s children.