A recent article in Social Work Today highlights a true triumph of empathy. In Innovations: New Foster Care Initiative Spotlights Parent Advocates, Debra McCall describes the parents’ pain when social workers have to remove children from their families.
“It is never easy. We enter parents’ lives at the worst possible moment—when the children they love have been removed from their homes. At that point, parents are experiencing shame, anger, and confusion. They are frightened and frustrated by the “intrusion” of the child welfare system into their lives. And they fear losing their children permanently, perhaps because that’s what happened to a neighbor or a friend.” (Social Work Today, Vol. 21 No. 1 P.3)
A “Groundbreaking” Initiative
The New York City Administration for Children’s Services has initiated a new parent advocates program where parents who have experienced the pain and guilt of having their children removed by Child and Family Services in the past will play a central advocate role on the New York City case planning team. ACS Commissioner David A. Hansell has publicly stated that “elevating the voices of parents is a critical strategy to reunify families more quickly and is part of our effort to increase parent involvement and input across all of our programs.”
Parents Who Have Experienced Similar Suffering
The empathetic insight that gave impetus to this new initiative was simply that parents who have already been through removal of their children by Child Services can positively influence parents who might be resistant to services or even accepting responsibility for creating unsafe environments for their children. Parent advocates are “credible messengers,” or people who have faced adversity similar to the challenges encountered by the persons they support.
These parent advocates can serve as guides, confidants, and mentors to individuals who are willing to talk and listen to someone who knows what they are going through—someone they can trust.
Because of that trust, parent advocates can authentically and more effectively engage, inform, and support parents. They will accompany parents to court and to family team meetings. They will specify the type of supports a parent truly needs. Parent advocates will be trained to help parents cope with the many shapes and forms of trauma and stress that occur when Child and Family Services finds it necessary to remove children from their families for the child’s protection.
The Right Advocate
“A child’s removal is devastating to parents’ humanity, dignity, and identity,” explains Jeanette Vega, assistant director of training and policy at Rise, who has been involved in the child welfare system herself. “Advocates trained by Rise will be working in a way that resists system dynamics of shame, blame, punishment, and harm, and that creates a community of care and support for one another.”
The Right Training
It is expected that parent advocates will have a profound impact on family foster care services, including helping to “humanize” parents. With the endorsement of parent advocates who have gone through the process, families will feel more comfortable to engage more authentically with case planners.
Parent advocates will be trained to:
- Inform parents about the child welfare and family court processes.
- Talk with parents about coping with trauma and toxic stress.
- Support parents’ self-determination in case planning.
- Help to identify and connect parents to community resources such as public benefits, services and education, and employment opportunities.
- Support high-quality family time during child visitations.
- Prepare parents for family team conferences.
- Attend transitional and family team conferences, court appearances, and other appointments with parents.
A Triumph of Empathy
According to the Casey 2019 strategy brief, “How Do Parent Partner Programs Instill Hope and Support Prevention and Reunification?”, peer mentors instill hope in parents, strengthen their self-advocacy skills, and accelerate reunification. “[They] serve to bridge the gap between birth parents and a complex, often challenging, and overwhelming system,” the report states.
Parents whose children need to be removed from their care for the child’s protection see the system as the enemy. Recognizing that parents who have already suffered the indignity of child removal are the only advocates these parents might trust is an empathetic triumph.