Little, Robert L. 1938–

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Robert L. Little 1938

Social worker

At a Glance


My whole professional career has been focused on the needs of the young and their families, and Ive tried to work within large systems to provide that care, Robert L. Little, director of New Yorks Child Welfare Administration, disclosed to Felicia R. Lee in the New York Times. Little, who is the younger brother of black activist Malcolm X, heads a large organization riddled with problems and scandal. Preceding his appointment, the agency was accused of neglect for not investigating reports of child abuse at the Brooklyn home of eight-year-old Yaakov Riegler. His mother was charged with killing the boy, who was found dead on October 14, 1990. A former foster child himself, Little entered social work aware of the overwhelming demands of working with families in limited circumstances. I think the challenge in the New York position is also what attracts me. The challenge is to take a system that many people believe is beyond repair and repair it and alter it in ways that result in better child care, Little divulged to Lee. Ive been called a dreamer, but I am believer.

Born August 31, 1938, in Lansing, Michigan, Little was the youngest of eight children. His father, Reverend Earl Little, was an activist and Baptist minister who was found deadlying on a street in Lansing with a crushed skullsoon after Littles birth. Becoming emotionally unstable at the time, Littles mother, Lucille, was placed in a mental institution. The infant Robert and three of his siblings were placed in foster homes. George and Beatrice McGuire, friends of Lucille, cared for Robert. I was not treated as an adjunct, he revealed to Larry Bivins in the Detroit Free Press. I was treated as a family member. Cognizant of social work as he grew up, Little chose his future career. Social workers came and went in my life, he told Bivins. One of the things that I became very aware of was what social workers were supposed to do, so I was convinced I had a unique perspective. I had a sense that I wanted to work with people, heightened in a sense by people who had worked with me.

When Little graduated from Sexton High School in Lansing, he enrolled at Michigan State University. The first person in his family to receive a college education, Little went on to earn a masters degree in social work and criminal justice in 1963. He credits his older brother, Malcolm X, with encouraging him to finish his education.

At a Glance

Born Robert Langdon Little, August 31, 1938, in Lansing, Ml; son of Reverend Earl (an activist and Baptist minister) and Lucille Little; youngest of eight children, brother of Malcolm X; married Patricia (a teacher); children: Pierre (foster son), Sheryl, Elizabeth. Education: Michigan State University, B.S., c. 1960, M.S, 1963.

Michigan Department of Social Services, 1961-86, began as social worker, became area manager, Wayne County director, bureau chief, and chief administrator; head of Youth Services Administration, Washington, DC, c. 1986-90; Howard University, Washington, DC, acting administrator and adjunct professor; Child Welfare Administration, New York City, director, 1990.

Addresses: Home Brooklyn Heights, New York, NY.

During the civil rights struggle of the late 1950s, Little almost dropped out of school to join Malcolm and five of his older brothers who had become Muslims. Malcolm convinced him that education was important in preparing him for the future. He was a very warm, caring, committed person and the greatest role model, Little informed Lee. He went through many changes. Thats one of the many strengths of Malcolm to me. He was not fixed in time and space. It taught me one has to confront the realities of life and deal with them.

In 1961, Little was employed as a social worker by the Michigan Department of Social Services. Promoted through the years to several levels, including area manager, Wayne County director, bureau chief, and chief administrator, Little remained at the agency until 1986. He and two other officials from the department were fired in May of that year when they approved $33,000 in direct state payments for welfare recipients rent to landlord James Kent Drew, despite suspicion that Drew forged welfare recipients signatures. Little was exonerated from any wrongdoing and offered reinstatement, but refused his job offer. He told Bivins, I made a commitment never to work in Michigan again. Some associates, including Stanley Smith, who resigned his position under the states Social Services director Agnes Mansour in protest of Littles treatment, saw the misunderstanding as a clash of professional styles. Bob likes to do things off the cuff, Smith related to Bivins, and that drove Agnes [Mansour, who fired Little] crazy. He wanted to see things happen and often didnt care about paperwork to get them done.

Praised throughout the late 1980s as an innovative administrator with the Youth Services Administration in Washington, D.C., Little incorporated training and counseling in youth services and decentralized welfare systems by revamping the cumbersome welfare delivery bureaucracy into groups of smaller, local centers. He also propelled the adoption of disabled and retarded children into mainstream social services. In 1990, New York City Human Resources commissioner Barbara Sabol announced Littles appointment as director of the Child Welfare Administration, stating in the New York Times, Robert Little is the consummate child-welfare professional.

In his plans to oversee the agency that ministers to New York Citys poorest families, Little wants to use volunteers and local organizations to explore the possibility of decentralizing welfare. He also desires dialogue with foster parents and families affected by the Child Welfare Administration. Little perceives their ideas as crucial in the effective examination of the child-abuse, neglect, and adoption cases the agency handles, as well as in the placement of children in quality foster care facilities. Married with two adult daughters and one foster son, Little attributes his awareness of future responsibilities to his own past: Had it not been for the special family that helped me and raised me, I wouldnt be where I am, he declared in the New York Times. I have insisted that people who work with me realize they have a special purpose. Working with children is not like making widgetsany decision you make about a person is literally a life-and-death decision.


Detroit Free Press, February 3, 1991.

New York Times, November 16, 1990; November 18, 1990.

Marjorie Burgess