Profile: Gary Mallon, Ph.D.

MallonDAI is honored to profile Gary Mallon, the Julia Lathrop Professor of Child Welfare at the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College in New York City as well as Executive Director for the National Center for Child Welfare Excellence.

Gary has spent his entire professional life working in child welfare. Since starting as a line child care worker at St. Dominic’s Home in 1976, he has served as Director of Grace House (1979-1986); and worked at Green Chimneys Children’s Services (1987-1997), the first mainstream child welfare agency in the country to work toward improving practices and policies that enhanced the lives of lesbian, gay, bi, and trans children, youth, and families.

How long have you been working in adoption and foster care?

I started in child welfare on January 24, 1976, so just the other day was my 39th year in child welfare.

What motivated your initial interest?

As a kid I was part of the CYO (Catholic Youth Organization) and we did social justice work at a place near where I lived called St. Dominic’s Home for Children in Blauvelt, NY – we called it an orphanage – but it was a child welfare agency, we had no idea at the time. I thought after volunteering there, this would be a great place to work, helping kids and families. I then went to Dominican College, also in Blauvelt, NY and while going to college, I started working as a child care worker in a cottage with what we called in those days, “the baby boys” – ages 6 -13 years old. Working as a child care worker was very different than I thought it would be, the kids had lots of challenges, all the kids were African American and Latino and the staff were all white –we had, in those days, no cultural competency training and there was a lot of ignorance on our part about the families of the children.

Gary, you literally wrote the book on “Gay Men Choosing Parenthood.” So much has happened in the last 10 years, how do you think the book would be different if you were writing it today?

Oh, I think I would have many, many more people to interview and probably lots of Dads with very different experiences. I interviewed a group of 20 men who I called then, the pioneers of the Gay Dad movement, so I think if I were to re-write that book today, it would be a very different story than the stories of those 20 brave men and their children.

Much of your academic and practical work has centered on LGBTQ youth in foster care. What are some of the unique challenges they face in finding permanent families?

I think all youth in the foster care system face challenges in finding permanency. LGBTQ youth, although things have gotten much better for them in many child welfare settings, depending on what part of the country they live in, have some unique challenges. But the challenges lie with our society and the adults that care for them, not the youth themselves. There is still a lot of work that needs to be done here. Working with LGBTQ youth in foster care was one of the greatest joys of my professional life — I adored them – loved working with them — I cannot understand why some still have such an issue with them. That frustrates me, but, we have come a long ways, and yet still more needs to be done.

How has your personal adoption experience inspired or influenced your work?

I am deeply affected in my work, by my own personal experiences with foster care and adoption. I have been a foster parent and I am an adoptive parent, so I always say that I talk, the talk and walk the walk. Doing it and talking about it, are two very different things. I feel like, I know about foster care and adoption on a much deeper level than the person who “studies” adoption and foster care – not to say in any way I am better than they are, not at all, but my personal experience has informed my work in deep and meaningful ways. I am still affected every day when of my former “kids” reaches out to me on Facebook or when my daughter calls me to tell me something that happened to her that day.

How has your work changed over the years?

I am older. After 39 years of doing this work, I am still thrilled and delighted that I made the choices that I have made, but some days I realize now as I am aging, that I can only do three things, not the five or six things a day that I used to do. I am also distressed some times, by some of the changes I have seen in the field – too much blah, blah, blah about outcomes and evidence based practices – what happened to care, compassion, empathy, competence, building relationships and meaningful engagement of families? I am all for using science to inform our practice and holding folks accountable via measuring outcomes, but some of the professionals who are leading the way in this regard, have never spent five minutes in the field and that bothers me. And, now that I’m old, I can just say that and not worry about what people think of me for saying that. I think in some ways it is a natural process of aging both in the body and in the profession; it’s not the same field we initially started in. But, despite that, I still very much love child welfare and what we do as a profession, I have never done anything else, never wanted to, and it has been a worthy lifetime commitment for me.

If you could change one thing about the practice of adoption/people’s attitudes toward adoption what would it be?

I would LOVE to get professionals to believe that youth really need permanent, loving, lifetime families. I still hear way too much – “Oh, these kids don’t want a family, they want to be out on their own.” I know some of my former kids who at 33 and 43 are still floating out there, like a boat without an anchor, because we did not do our jobs and connect them to lifetime families. So, yes, if I could change one thing it would be to change our professional colleagues’ mindsets that older youth do not need or want families.

What are you working on now?

Right now I am working on a bunch of projects. My colleague, Peg Hess and I just published the second edition of Child Welfare for the 21st Century, published by Columbia University Press. I have a couple of other writing projects that I am doing, I have been around so long that I am now doing the 2nd and 3rd editions of books I wrote in 1998. I am also doing some wonderful evaluation work on caregivers for older adolescents, family finding, and continue to do training and technical assistance on LGBTQ issues and foster care – so, I am still busy and still feeling passionate about this wonderful work that we have been called to do – I hope to continue for as many more years as I am able to be productive, and then I am gonna retire and raise French Bulldogs.