Champion for Children Cecilia Zalkind Announces Retirement from Advocates for Children of New Jersey (ACNJ)
After nearly four decades of service, Cecilia (Ceil) Zalkind, President and CEO of Advocates for Children of New Jersey (ACNJ), will retire at the end of this year, effective January 1, 2023. Zalkind will continue to serve as a senior advisor to ACNJ’s early childhood agenda. Current ACNJ Vice President, Mary Coogan, will be stepping into the role as CEO at the start of the new year.
Under Zalkind’s leadership, ACNJ achieved transformative wins for thousands of New Jersey’s children:
Ensuring New Jersey’s state-funded preschool programs were high-quality, arguing before the New Jersey Supreme Court on preschool standards in Abbott v. Burke, the landmark decision that mandated public preschool in 31 of the state’s poorest districts. Zalkind chaired the Early Care and Education Coalition, which laid the foundation for the state’s nationally-recognized preschool model. Since its implementation in 1999, the number of districts with free, quality preschool has grown to more than 200 and more than 45,000 3- and 4-year-olds get this early start every year.
Improving the well-being of children living in foster care through legislation and policy, as well as arguing before the NJ Supreme Court about the permanency needs of children in foster care. Zalkind authored several ACNJ studies that impacted child protective services cases, including Splintered Lives about decision-making for children in foster care, which led to improvements in the child protection agency and court systems. She was instrumental in the passage of the Child Placement Bill of Rights – a law that established independent rights for children living in foster care.
Ensuring more students start the school day with a healthy, morning meal. The Breakfast After the Bell campaign pushed New Jersey to one of the top 20 states in the nation for school breakfast participation after placing nearly last for years.
Partnering with other stakeholders to make reforms to the juvenile justice system, including raising the minimum age at which judges can “waive” or transfer juvenile offenders into the adult system to 15 and narrowing the list of offenses that can lead to prosecution as an adult.
More recently, through Zalkind’s leadership for Think Babies, ACNJ has brought a focus on strengthening New Jersey’s supports for our youngest children from birth to age three, bringing together funders, state agencies and community stakeholders to improve outcomes for infants and toddlers, in particular to address disparities facing Black and Latina women and their babies.
During this time, ACNJ helped secure the passage of a universal home visiting law, allowing parents the opportunity to receive at least one visit from a nurse within two weeks of the baby’s birth or adoption, at no expense to the parents. New Jersey is only the second state in the country to provide this service to new parents. In June, Thriving by Three, an initiative to develop more quality early education options for infants and toddlers, was enacted and included $28 million in the fiscal year 2023 state budget to support its implementation.
Zalkind has also been instrumental in prioritizing and assessing ACNJ’s work and policy agenda with a racial equity lens, incorporating it to the internal operations of the organization as well.
“Her name has become synonymous with integrity, consensus building and unwavering advocacy for New Jersey’s children. As a top policymaker and foremost expert in child welfare and early care and education policy, Ceil leaves a legacy that is powerful and far-reaching, with her ability to foster strong partnerships and collaboration,” said Charles Venti, chair of ACNJ’s board of trustees. “We are forever grateful for her service.”
“Our greatest successes have happened when we band together with our many partners – parents, community programs and state leaders – in our efforts to put children first. I am inspired by the ability of people to come together in the interest of children and I am honored to have been part of the process that made that possible,” said Zalkind. “I look forward to seeing how ACNJ will continue its mission of giving every child a chance to grow up safe, healthy and educated.”
Before joining ACNJ as public policy director in 1984, Zalkind’s exposure to child advocacy began by working as a caseworker for what is now the state Division of Child Protection and Permanency (DCPP).
“I saw first-hand the failures of a system not responsive to the needs of foster children. After starting a family, I went to law school. I wanted to make a positive change on a policy level, instead of a case-by-case basis,” she said. In 2001, Zalkind became the executive director of ACNJ, succeeding Ciro Scalera.
While at ACNJ, Zalkind also served as an adjunct professor of family and adoption law at Seton Hall Law School. She holds a B.A. and M.A. from New York University and a J.D. from Rutgers Law School.
The organization will move forward under the leadership of Mary Coogan, ACNJ vice president, starting in 2023. Coogan has been with ACNJ since 1993, leading policy initiatives and providing leadership in statewide committees regarding foster care, kinship care, children’s health and juvenile justice. She also oversees the publication of ACNJ’s Kids Count data reporting, and is currently head of the KidLaw Resource Center.
ACNJ is the trusted, independent voice putting children’s needs first for more than 40 years. We educate the public and policymakers and equip caregivers with the information they need to be their child’s strongest ally. Our work results in better laws and policies, more effective funding and stronger services for children and families. This means more children are given the chance to grow up safe, healthy and educated.