Pressure from the Administration for Children’s Services led a nonprofit service provider to fire an employee over activism and social media posts that criticized the city agency, THE CITY has learned.
Joyce McMillan, long an advocate for parent rights who wants to end what she’s called a racist child welfare system, didn’t stop posting after getting flak from ACS. Among her social media offerings: a picture of a wine bottle labeled “F—k ACS.”
But a groundswell of support for McMillan helped get her rehired — and now ACS calls the entire episode a “misunderstanding.”
McMillan works at Sinergia, which helps people with developmental disabilities and their families. She’s a coordinator for the nonprofit’s We Are Parents Too (WAPT) program, which is funded through a $50K contract with ACS.
McMillan oversaw classes for parents with disabilities whose kids have been caught up in the child welfare system, working on cases sent to Sinergia by ACS.
A Dec. 28 email from Sinergia head Donald Lash to an ACS disability services program director indicates McMillan was suspended that month. The reason: “concerns” expressed by the director on a phone call to Lash regarding “social media posts by Joyce McMillan,” according to the email, obtained by THE CITY.
McMillan told THE CITY the director and another ACS staffer complained to Lash about a Dec. 23 Facebook post in which she mocked the agency for referring to drug testing as a parental “service.”
The ACS representatives expressed concerns about “a potential conflict of interest between activism and service to a contract program,” Lash told THE CITY.
“She will step away from day-to-day involvement in WAPT cases, and will not have access to information conveyed from ACS or any other referral source,” wrote Lash in his email reply, a copy of which was provided by McMillan.
A Defense Before Firing
In the email Lash also pushed back, making clear he believed McMillan had adhered “scrupulously” to the organization’s social media policy and kept all client information private.
“While we are suspending Joyce’s access to confidential case information based on your concerns, this is not an indication that we believe there has been any breach or that there is a potential conflict of interest,” wrote Lash.
He added that Sinergia has “employed many individuals who ... engage in system change activities.”
On Jan. 19, Lash says he told the suspended McMillan that he couldn’t give her work in her usual role as he waited for ACS to “clarify the issue.” He offered to possibly shift her to a different job unrelated to parent advocacy, but she declined.
On Jan. 22, McMillan was fired.
“This is not a reflection of any deficiency in your performance of duties,” read the termination letter, signed by Lash and provided to THE CITY.
McMillan said that she saw the firing as an opportunity to shine light on an agency she and many experts believe has a disproportionate impact on Black families. At an October City Council hearing, she called it the “family regulation system.”
“They’re not thinking about my well being that I have my daughter on my insurance,” McMillan said of ACS in an interview with THE CITY this week. “They’re not thinking about my well being that for all they know I could end up homeless. They don’t know if I have a medical issue that I need regular doctor visits for when they push me out for their own selfish purposes.”
She said she remains proud she spoke out.
“No, I didn’t hesitate and I’m not going to apologize for it,” she added, saying she sees the problem as bigger than just her case. “They need to be accountable.”
An Anti-ACS Campaign
She’s never been one to stay quiet. After fighting to recover her own children when they were taken by child welfare workers in 1999, McMillan eventually emerged as a leader of a movement advocating for parent rights in the child welfare system — calls that have been gaining traction. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration even put some of her fellow advocates into key ACS positions.
In the weeks between her suspension and firing, McMillan helped to organize an anti-ACS pamphleting campaign and a new billboard placed in Harlem that read “Some Cops are Called Caseworkers. #AbolishNYCACS.”
So ACS is no longer the only ones publishing messages. parents are now educating the community about how ACS (the family police) interacts with families-RALLY on 1/18-125th Street & 2nd Ave. PPE provided-we will put ACS on notice they will stop terrorizing our community. pic.twitter.com/2jdwQstPpD— JMacForFamilies (@JMacForFamilies) January 14, 2021
This was accompanied by a “F—k ACS” rally she helped plan in Harlem on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
On the day of her firing, McMillan shared her experience at a meeting of the Parent Legislative Action Network — an organization she founded to connect parents, attorneys, social workers and academics “committed to reducing and eventually ending the child welfare system.”
Lisa Sangoi, co-director of Movement for Family Power, a nonprofit parents-rights organization, remembered attendees being “shocked and stunned.”
Sangoi turned her particular ire toward ACS Commissioner David Hansell.
“It’s atrocious that this guy writes an op-ed in the Daily News about racial justice the same week that his agency is having Joyce fired from her job for calling out the anti-Black racism of the child welfare agency,” Sangoi told THE CITY.
“Could this potentially have a chilling effect on activism,” she wondered, “especially by folks who’ve had their kids taken away?”
Sangoi said that her organization and others quickly began discussing how best to respond — by reaching out to “anyone we know.”
Three days after sharing the news of her firing with PLAN members, McMillan was suddenly rehired at Sinergia.
McMillan says ACS was still holding cases back from her even after she got her job back. The agency denies that.
Child Welfare Officials Back Off
ACS spokesperson Marisa Kaufman called the one-month ordeal a “misunderstanding.”
“As soon as senior leadership at ACS learned of it, we contacted Sinergia,” Kaufman wrote in an email to THE CITY on Tuesday. “The bottom line is that ACS never directed that Ms. McMillan be terminated from Sinergia, we have not provided any direction about this employee’s workload and we have never threatened to cancel the organization’s contract.”
Lash, who did not deny the basic timeline of events, blamed an unwieldy system for the McMillan’s firing.
“Joyce is an employee in good standing and I think whatever happened during that period of time, I feel was a misunderstanding that occurred because things like that sometimes happen within government bureaucracies,” Lash told THE CITY.
Despite her reinstatement, McMillan told THE CITY that she wants people to know about what happened to her so that ACS is held accountable.
“They say they wanted change. But anyone who really wants to make change, doesn’t try to silence the change maker. They try to work with them. And the fact that they prefer me to shut the f—k up ... tells you it’s only window dressing,” said McMillan.
“Foundations need to start putting the money in the f—king community,” she added.