Touro College Alumna Aims to Keep Kids Safe During Pandemic

Touro School of Social Work Graduate Diana Roberts-Richards Honored by NYC with "Child Advocacy Award" for Leadership, Protecting Children from Harm’s Way

January 08, 2021
Diana Roberts-Richards
Touro College Graduate School of Social Work alumna, Diana Roberts-Richards, at her desk at the New York City Administration for Children’s Services (ACS).

Growing up in the Canarsie section of Brooklyn, Diana Roberts-Richards was certain she wanted a career helping people, but was never sure exactly how things would work out. All she knew was that she wanted to give back.

“I come from a pretty nurturing family,” says the 40-year old Roberts-Richards, whose parents brought her to the United States from Grenada. She was just 13 when the family moved to settle in Brooklyn. Watching her mother care for children in a day care center inspired her to pursue a similar line of work, but at a different level.

“I always liked working with kids and helping people,” she says, and so it was an easy decision to pursue her bachelor’s degree in human services at Touro College’s New York School for Applied Studies (NYSCAS, Class of 2010), and later on a master’s degree at the Touro College Graduate School of Social Work (GSSW, Class of 2018).

While enrolled at NYSCAS she worked as a clerk at United Parcel Service, but then opted for a job where she felt she could put her degree to better use - as a Child Protective Specialist (CPS) at the New York City Administration for Children’s Services (ACS).

Child Advocacy Award

After 12 years as a CPS, and a promotion to supervisor of a Hospital/Sex Abuse Unit in April, Roberts-Richards has at last found that “different level”. In October she was rewarded with her agency’s coveted “Child Advocacy Award” from ACS Commissioner David A. Hansell.

The honor recognizes her leadership, hands-on style helping her staff in the field, effective collaboration with hospital and other staff, and her steadfast focus on children’s safety.

“Diana has a bright future in the agency or wherever she goes,” observed Paul Melbourne, child protective manager and her current supervisor in the Williamsburg, Brooklyn office.

Melbourne said he recruited Roberts-Richards for the opening in their unit because he was convinced she was cut out for the job, which he said can be overwhelming. She supervises a team of five specialists who investigate allegations of child abuse and neglect, make home visits, service referrals, and collaborate with schools, doctors, medical social workers and file cases in court if a child needs to be removed from the home. Her caseload hovers around 30. Twelve-hour days are customary.

Social Work in a Public Health Crisis

Surely the pandemic has not made things easier, with schools closing, jobs lost and ACS struggling to maintain face-to-face home visits.  Roberts-Richards declined to comment on COVID-19’s effect on her work, citing confidentiality concerns. In general, she says, “It can be challenging, but it’s working.”

Melbourne emphasizes the unit’s first priority is always safety. “You have to make serious decisions on a daily basis. You’re dealing with a lot of trauma,” he said, adding Roberts-Richards can handle it. “She’s good. It’s a tough unit with the most critical cases, but Diana took it up and rose to the occasion.”

Most of the unit’s cases involve sexual abuse – including children who are admitted to the hospital for injuries like burns, broken limbs and fractured skulls.  “It’s heartbreaking especially when it’s babies,” says Roberts-Richards. She agonizes over whether she made the right decisions. If she allowed a child to remain at home, she wonders should she instead have removed them.

“Did I do the right thing? It’s called ‘secondary trauma’…always wondering, ‘Could you have done better?’ ”

At the same time, she notes the best part of her job is recognizing when she makes the right decisions, and connecting families with the services they need and seeing positive changes in their lives.

“When I have to separate them and then can unite them again – that’s the most rewarding,” she says.

Roberts-Richards credits her Touro College professors with teaching her how to break down problems that seemed overwhelming, and manage her time – which meant balancing work, family and school. Learning these skills have served her well in her career.

“The tools I learned I’m also able to use daily and teach my staff those skills as well,” she notes. “I was very shy and quiet. Participating in class projects and presentations helped me grow and come out of my shell. I now have the confidence to feel comfortable presenting ideas, speaking up for the underserved and leading my team.”