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The Women Behind NCSL’s Children and Families Program

A state representative and two NCSL staffers led the effort to create a program within the organization dedicated to working on issues facing children and families.

By Kelley Griffin  |  April 3, 2024

In 1982, Carolyn Kastner and Michele Rivest were both working for NCSL on projects affecting children. Kastner was helping states develop laws to enforce court-ordered child support and paternity establishment, something that few states did at the time. Rivest was working on a project to keep troubled youth out of the juvenile justice system. 

But they believed it wasn’t enough. As they dug into these issues, they could see how the success of children was intertwined with the well-being of the family. 

“We understood this work was really significant in the moment,” Kastner says. More and more, state lawmakers were looking for guidance, and Kastner and Rivest thought NCSL could best serve them with a whole program for children and families to develop a comprehensive understanding of the complex forces at play and how states could approach them.

“We understood this work was really significant.”

—Carolyn Kastner, former NCSL Children and Families staffer

But a new program would need new funding.

That’s why they found themselves meeting on their own with major philanthropic groups in New York City. They were connected to the foundations by Peter Forsyth, who was with the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, established by the family that founded the Avon Products cosmetics company.

By the end of the trip, they had secured $1 million from foundations that saw the value in supporting states—through NCSL—to work on children’s issues with a program dedicated to the effort. (That would be nearly $2.9 million in today’s dollars.) 

“It was just remarkable,” says Rivest, who has since done her share of fundraising. “It’s usually months of work and cultivation, and we did it in a week. 

“We both talk about it as one of the greatest moments in our life.”

Issue Needing Attention

Kastner joined NCSL in 1979, focusing on child support enforcement. At that time, courts would award child support but there was really no mechanism for collecting. That often left single mothers and divorced women and children in poverty, turning to state and federal aid programs. 

One of the first things Kastner did was publish an NCSL report that described laws on paternity establishment and child support enforcement and tracked what all 50 states were doing. She says lawmakers were starting to pay attention, especially when they learned about states’ successes in her report.

By 1981, Rivest had joined NCSL for a project funded by the federal government on runaway and homeless youth, aimed at keeping them out of the juvenile court system. 

“Many states treated teens as young as 12 or 14 as adults,” Rivest says. As NCSL shared findings about the underlying issues these youth faced and details about possible alternatives to incarceration, Rivest says legislators began to see the issue differently. 

“The response so many legislators had was they were unaware, they didn’t know what was happening—like, ‘Really? A 12-year-old who ran away from an abusive parent should be locked up with hardened criminals?’” Rivest says. 

She also created a report on the few state efforts to address troubled youth, and soon she was working with Florida legislators to devise alternatives such as housing support, drug treatment and other programs. 

“Very few had taken action prior to the project. It was kind of like going into the unknown,” Rivest says.

Program Takes Shape

Soon after Rivest arrived at NCSL, she began working with Kastner on children’s issues. They agreed they would push for the organization to develop a full program on children and families.

“We knew this was a hot area because we were getting calls from legislators and staffs,” Rivest says. Panels they organized at the NCSL annual meeting drew large numbers. “At that time, not many states had staff in children and families, women’s issues. There weren’t that many states with models.” 

Kastner remembers just how new it all was. She notes that in her day at NCSL, as growing numbers of women joined state legislatures for the first time, some found there were no private restrooms for them. Nebraska’s lone female legislator had to walk a block from the Capitol for a restroom break, she says. It was only in 1974 that women gained the right to apply for credit without a male cosigner. And it was 1978 before the Pregnancy Discrimination Act protected women from being fired just because they were pregnant.

There were a handful of women serving in legislatures who were advocating for policies that would help families and put the responsibility on the parent ordered to pay support. Chief among them was Rep. Jane Maroney, a Delaware Republican who dedicated her life to the causes of families and children. She died in December at 98. 

Maroney leveraged her leadership position on the NCSL Executive Committee to urge the establishment of the NCSL Children and Families Program.

“Rep. Maroney showed us how to place children’s issues on the state and national agenda by garnering political support,” Rivest says. “She was an incredible mentor, role model, colleague and friend.”

After the funding was on the table, Maroney organized and hosted a special reception for the program at one of the NCSL winter policy forums, inviting NCSL leadership and dozens of legislators from both political parties to ensure bipartisan support. From that day forward, the wheels were in motion to officially establish the Children and Families Program with its own bipartisan advisory committee and platform at future NCSL’s annual meetings and policy forums.

Credible, Nonpartisan Research

Rivest officially became the founding director of the Children and Families Program when the first grant arrived from the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation to support work on child welfare issues and family preservation. Soon, NCSL was researching policies to address the changing needs of families. One of the program’s early initiatives grew from a 1984 law championed by then-U.S. Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) that required states to enforce court-ordered child support with mandated legal remedies.

The Children and Families Program quickly expanded its scope as states sought support from a credible, nonpartisan source. 

Today, the program offers informational resources, legislative convenings and technical assistance aligned with members’ needs and interests. A team of about a dozen staffers primarily work on issues including child support and family law; child welfare and the prevention of child maltreatment; early care and education; economic mobility; and housing and homelessness. Taking an interdisciplinary approach, they work within and across these policy areas and commonly collaborate with other programs on topics related to health, education, employment and justice issues. 

Kelley Griffin is the host of NCSL’s Across the Aisle podcast.

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