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Profile: Advocating for Children's Rights, Well-Being -- and Breakfast

Cecilia Zalkind has spent nearly three decades making life better for New Jersey's kids

cecilia zalkind
Cecilia Zalkind, executive director, Advocates for Children of New Jersey

Name: Cecilia Zalkind

Title: Executive Director, Advocates for Children of New Jersey

Age: 66

Home: Zalkind lives in Montclair with her husband. They have two grown daughters.

How she got into child advocacy: Zalkind graduated from college with a degree in English, "which didn't prepare me for a lot." She had always had an interest in helping children, and wound up as a caseworker with the state's child welfare agency, which was then known as the Division of Youth and Family Services, or DYFS.

Why she earned a law degree: Zalkind saw an ad for trainees to work in the division's Jersey City office and thought it sounded interesting so she took it. At the time she was working primarily on foster care and adoption cases. But it got frustrating "to see the same things happening to kids over and over" so she decided to go to law school.

Why she never practiced: Zalkind said she had not planned to work as a lawyer, instead hoping to use the degree as a stepping stone to a policy position. She has worked as an adjunct professor of family and adoption law at Seton Hall Law School while at ACNJ.

Zalkind got her degree from Rutgers Law School in 1984. She met the executive director of what was then called the Association for Children of NJ and he hired her to work part-time on legislative issues, which was perfect, since her daughters were young.

She has been there ever since -- it will be 30 years next year.

How she helped change the lives of New Jersey's foster children: In those days, DYFS was quick to place children in foster care, where they often remained for many years. There was not a push toward getting them into a permanent home.

"We were involved in the enactment of the first child placement bill of rights," Zalkind said, as well as changing the regulations for terminating parental rights.

In addition, Zalkind said the group spearheaded the enactment of the state's first juvenile-justice code.

How she got into early childhood education: In the late 1990s, ACNJ's board and staff "took a hard look" at its mission and other areas of child wellness that needed advocacy. As a result, the group developed an agenda to work for early childcare and education reforms. This was around the same time the state Supreme Court had ordered that urban districts in the Abbott v. Burke school-funding case begin offering preschool programs.

"Probably the most exciting time for me was during the Whitman administration," Zalkind said. She was concerned that the preschool standards the administration put forth would not provide high-quality preschool programs, so she pulled together a number of officials in the early childhood community and chaired a coalition that met weekly to work on the topic.

"We developed a set of recommendations, some of which were pretty revolutionary at the time," said Zalkind. Among these was the requirement that all early childhood teachers have at least a bachelor's degree; at the time, those working in childcare did not even need a high school diploma.

Why she appeared before the state Supreme Court: Although she had never practiced law, Zalkind got to present arguments to the state Supreme Court on the issue as a friend of the court in the case brought by the Education Law Center seeking better preschool programs. The Supreme Court agreed and cited ACNJ's brief as being influential, which Zalkind said "was pretty exciting."

She has also argued before the court on the issue of permanency for foster children in several child welfare cases.

What's for breakfast? More recently, ACNJ has been working to try to increase participation in school breakfast programs, issuing its third Food for Thought report earlier this year.

The effort has been successful, with the group exceeding its goal and forging partnerships with various school districts to boost the number of children getting a free or low-cost breakfast.

“In two years, we’ve seen a 35 percent increase in the number of kids receiving breakfast,” Zalkind said. “This is a great example of how data can be used to foster change.”

Just last week, the group released a report on the high cost of childcare in the state.

What's in a name? As a reflection of its expanded mission and large network of partners, ACNJ changed its name to Advocates for Children of New Jersey in 2010.

What she is best known for: ACNJ was one of the first groups to pilot the annual Kids Count assessment of child welfare funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation more than a decade ago. It includes measures of education, health, wealth, criminal justice, and child protection. Every year, the group releases a statewide report and assessments of each county and Zalkind talks about progress made and improvement still needed.

“Kids Count has really become our signature publication,” Zalkind said, adding that the report is possible only through a partnership with state agencies to provide data for the measures.

What she likes least about her job: Fundraising. “It’s not the favorite part of my job,” Zalkind said. “Fundraising every year is an enormous challenge.”

ACNJ is a nonprofit organization and depends on private funders to conduct its research and work to improve issues for children. The group is fortunate to have a development director and a supportive board of trustees, which makes that job easier, Zalkind said.

She suspected fundraising would be challenging when she became executive director in 2001, when former director Ciro Scalera left. “That’s when I knew my job as deputy director was much easier,” she said.

It wasn’t just the fundraising. ACNJ owns its own headquarters and shortly after Zalkind took the job, the building’s façade crumbled. “That first year was a trial by fire,” she recalled.

What has made her job tougher: “This is a challenging time for advocacy,” Zalkind volunteered. “Our greatest successes in the past occurred when we were able to forge partnerships with state agencies. That’s harder to do now. It’s far, far more difficult to get information.”

What you don’t know about her: Zalkind quilts in her spare time. “I love working with fabric.”

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