“Advocacy Means Creating a Safe Space”: Honoring CFR Family Advocates This Social Work Month

To commemorate #SocialWorkMonth, CFR interviewed two of our passionate family advocates, Yesenia Aristizabal and Serena Zhou. Yesenia and Serena use their unique position as family advocates to provide direct support to CFR clients: assessing their needs and goals, providing referrals for needed services, and advocating for them at Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) and foster agency conferences. In this interview, Yesenia and Serena discuss the importance of social work and advocacy, what keeps them inspired, and the aspirations they have for the future of this work. 

Interview responses lightly edited for clarity. 


CFR: How long have you been an advocate?

Yesenia Aristizabal: I have been an advocate at CFR for a little over a year now. I have done volunteer work previously focusing on immigration rights and graduated with a masters in criminal justice in 2021.

Serena Zhou: I have been a family advocate at CFR for over four years but have always been an advocate at heart. 


CFR: What does social work/advocacy mean to you?

Yesenia: To me, advocacy means creating a safe space for anyone who comes through the door and making sure that everything else is checked at the door. Many people carry a lot inside that troubles them; social work helps to remind them that they are human and that there is no shame in where they come from because there is always a way to step forward. Advocacy helps to provide them with the confidence to speak up about their experiences while we support them through their journeys.

Serena: It means using your voice and resources or knowledge of resources to help others reach “justice” and/or their goals. It means doing your best to help others with the challenges they are presenting with and going through. It means to push back and speak up for your clients and their families’ needs. 

CFR: What keeps you inspired?

Yesenia: The families we work with keep me inspired every day. I like to find the little wins in between. I love getting pictures of clients and their kids at visits, seeing how excited they are to have a weekend filled with fun activities planned, the milestones celebrated and the love that you hear in their voices as soon as you ask about their children. I also feel so proud when clients have learned to maneuver themselves whenever we are not around and when they learn to say “this is not OK.”

As a first generation American, I find bits of my loved ones in those we represent, especially those trying to navigate a whole new world as a migrant because once upon a time, that was my mom, my grandfather, or many other individuals I know. Everyone I have worked with at CFR also inspires me because no matter the day, that spark is always there and the gears are always turning in a way that shows just how much we care. It is personal for all of us in some shape or form.

Serena: My clients and colleagues! All of our clients and colleagues are incredibly smart and passionate and do not let what they’ve been through stop them from taking steps forward.


CFR: Why do you think having social work staff involved in family defense is important?

Yesenia: The system can be so cold. It stigmatizes our clients, it is not forgiving, and rather than helping them, it demands for them to “prove themselves” by stretching themselves out thin and putting themselves last in a way that makes them feel so small and flawed.

Social work staff being a part of the dynamic means that our clients are reminded that they matter just as much as anybody else does in the room. Our clients are asked how they are doing, not just what they are doing. We see the nervous ticks and tiredness. The legal system is overwhelming and in our clients’ experiences, traumatizing. They are expected to act a certain way and with social work staff they are given an outlet for the frustration, the tears, and the heavy sighs that they hold in every time they are at an agency or in a courtroom. We are able to remind them that they are allowed to feel and there is no right feeling – whether that is by staying five minutes longer with them on the phone as they let it all out or as we walk them to a train station because they are scared of the world.

Serena: There is so much that happens in family defense outside of the courtroom. The more support the clients can get outside of the courtroom the more prepared they can be in the courtroom to be pushing for their cases to move forward. Additionally, I think attorneys and social work staff have two very different roles and while here at CFR we are great at supporting each other’s roles, having that specific expertise of both can create the strongest defense for the families we work with. Attorneys help social work staff by highlighting the legal part, and social work staff help attorneys by highlighting the progress our clients have made and the injustices the child “welfare” system puts our clients through despite our clients’ efforts in and out of court. 

CFR: What do you hope for in the field of social work or parent and family advocacy? Do you have any aspirations for the field?

Yesenia: I hope to see a very outdated system change. Systematic racism is so embedded within our country and within our fields because of the influence of white supremacy, patriarchy, and the need to control everyone by putting labels on them. I hope to see a system that makes an effort to appreciate the differences of those that it encounters rather than use those differences against them. And that by seeing advocates and social workers present that the system realizes that our clients and their communities have people who will show up with them and make sure they do not settle for less. My aspiration is to see more empathy in the world. I know it is a big thing to hope for but I believe that if you show an ounce of kindness today, it will ripple in a way that could create a change somewhere else without you even knowing. 

Serena: I hope that all family defense practices can add social work staff. Our clients have said it and we see it. Both roles are so supportive and necessary and it allows for us to be able to move our clients’ cases forward diligently and holistically. I hope that the family regulation system will address all the issues we have continued to highlight and that are continuing to prevent our clients from being able to be reunified with their children safely

These interviews were conducted and published in March 2024.