“I always say that if we keep ourselves open to the universe, amazing things can happen.” So said the Hon. Susan Danoff, an 81-year-old Judicial Hearing Officer (as she calls it, “a fancy title for a retired judge.”)

Danoff works four days a week at the Youth Transition Part, a special court for children between 16 and 21-years-old who are in foster care and want to become independent adults.

Danoff reports that last year in March, something extraordinary happened to her.

She says, “After one of my virtual hearings concluded and after everyone had signed off, the Case Planner who worked for the agency, stayed on and asked whether she could speak to me. She asked, “Do you remember me?” I said, “You know I never forget a face. So yes, I do recognize you.” She said, “I was one of your kids in Brooklyn!!”

I almost fell off my chair because in the 11 years I have been doing this work, none of my kids had ever come back to me in this way!

She then said, “I remember everything you told me and how dedicated you were and when you gave me a Happy Birthday cupcake just before I turned 21 in 2017.”

The case planner in question was none other than Yenifer Santana, now a Case Planner in LSSNY’s Enhanced Family Foster Care Program. In the foster care system herself as a youth, Yenifer came full circle to work with children and families in New York City’s foster care system. She was invited to speak at the New York State Unified Court System’s 2024 State of the Judiciary on the impact of family court on children and families. As LSSNY’s President and CEO Dr. Damyn Kelly said, “What a tremendous professional development opportunity!” 

Yenifer’s remarks and life story are incredible and well worth a read in full.

Highlights include a happy childhood growing up in the Dominican Republic, a traumatic move to the United States during 7th grade with her father and stepmother, learning English, and making the honor roll in school. Not only had it been difficult to leave her mother behind and move to a country where she didn’t know the language, but her father later left her in the care of her stepmother who became abusive, withholding food and turning Yenifer into a cook and maid. When Yenifer became pregnant at age 16, her stepmother kicked her out of the house and her father stopped speaking to her. Yenifer was afraid, on her own, then placed in a kind and supportive foster home.

For part of Yenifer’s time in family court, Judge Danoff presided.

“Whenever I was before her, she would ask me, ‘How are you? How is the baby? Are you both getting everything you need?’” Yenifer says. “She would also tell me, ‘I’m so proud of you. You can do whatever you set your mind to doing, and I can’t wait to see what else you become.’”

Judge Danoff’s words touched Yenifer and gave her fuel to keep going.

And keep going she did.

She graduated from high school with a high GPA.

Was accepted to the Borough of Manhattan Community College and graduated with an associate’s degree in psychology two years later.

Got married and became pregnant with her second daughter.

Was accepted at her dream school — the City College of New York — and in 2021, as a mother of two, graduated with her bachelor’s in psychology.

Says Yenifer, “Many of the kids remind me of me, and supporting them gives me a deep sense of meaning. But I also love supporting the kids’ parents. I let each parent I work with know that the main goal is for each child to return home. I consider it my job to help those parents be the best parent they can be so the child doesn’t return to care. I am so deeply passionate about working to break the cycles of intergenerational trauma that too often get passed down from parent to child, parent to child. I am hopeful for the possibilities the future holds for the families of the youths in my care, for my daughters, and for myself.”

Read her full remarks (pages 25 and 26)

Photo by David Handschuh/OCA