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Alumni Spotlight: Barbara Conley ’69

In February 2013, Class of 1969 graduate Barbara Conley closed out a distinguished career after 25 years as director of the Office of Child Welfare Services and director of planning for Catholic Charities Brooklyn and Queens (CCBQ). Barbara’s sojourn from a St. Joseph’s College history major to one of the most influential child welfare professionals in New York state reflects well on both the academic and value-based education she received at SJC, and at Fordham University where she earned a Master of Social Work in 1973.

Barbara became a social worker by default when, shortly after graduation, she had an opportunity to join a work-study program at Angel Guardian Home. In that role, and later as an administrator, Barbara was responsible for the futures of hundreds of children, either through helping them reunite with their families or through placement with adoptive families.

At Catholic Charities, Barbara directed a federation of nine affiliated child-welfare agencies, coordinating and facilitating interagency activities and responses to policy, legislation and regulatory requirements impacting on child-welfare services in New York City. “Every year, not-for-profits face budget cuts, and much time and energy must be directed to advocacy to restore or add monies to the budget,” Barbara observed. “Over and over again, not-for-profits must prove their worth, even as the demand for their services increases.”

Barbara also administered a nationally and internationally recognized program at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility that fostered the ties between children and their incarcerated mothers. The ultimate goal of the program was not only to strengthen the family unit and motivate the mothers to work to be united with their children, but also to break the familial cycles of violence and drug abuse.

As director of planning, Barbara was in the middle of one of the most controversial challenges that has faced Catholic not-for-profit institutions. In 1973, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) alleged in a class-action suit that religiously affiliated child care agencies provided foster-care services with public funds in violation of the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses of the First Amendment, and that policies of racial and religious matching of foster children denied equal access to services in violation of the Equal Protection Clause.

The case, Wilder v. Bernstein, remained alive in federal court for more than 25 years. While it was agreed that the agencies could receive federal funding, a complicated settlement was reached in 1986 to ensure that all children had equal access to the best services (Catholic-sponsored child-welfare agencies were ranked amongst the best). The ACLU subsequently expanded the case to include a challenge to these agencies’ position on access to family planning and abortion services for children in their care.

“While that case was eventually resolved in 1998, new challenges are on the horizon — same-sex adoptions and the federal mandate on inclusion of birth control services in all health care plans,” Barbara explained. “To face those problems successfully, institutions like Catholic Charities need deeply committed people with the skills like critical thinking, collaboration and strategizing that my education at St Joseph’s gave me as a foundation.”

Ever true to her commitment, working with SJC President S. Elizabeth A. Hill, C.S.J., and Provost S. Loretta McGrann, C.S.J., Barbara spearheaded a collaborative agreement between the College and Catholic Charities that encourages CCBQ staff to complete their college and graduate education in St. Joseph’s programs, which are specifically designed to be user-friendly to working individuals.

“I feel very lucky to have gone to St Joseph’s,” Barbara said. “In addition to an excellent education, I have made lifelong friends.” Here is Barbara’s advice for today’s SJC students: “True change takes time, and often there are a couple of steps backward before you can really move forward. Time is a positive; it is not an enemy.”

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