Supporting Parents in Crisis
Community Representatives help parents facing removal to advocate for themselves.
Last Friday I was called to an Initial Child Safety Conference. This is a meeting to determine whether a child will be placed in foster care. Parents who are facing removal are allowed to bring friends, family and community members to the Conference to talk with child welfare staff about their family’s strengths and needs. But many parents are overwhelmed. They don’t know what to do. So I work for an organization—the Child Welfare Organizing Project (CWOP) – that provides parents with trained Community Representatives to help them out.
All of the parents involved with CWOP have had direct personal experience with the child welfare system. CWOP trains parents to support their peers and advocate for child welfare system reform through a six-month course called the Parent Leadership Curriculum, which I graduated from in 2004. Since then, I’ve been a board member, and when Children’s Services (ACS) decided to work with CWOP to train Community Representatives, I was very happy to participate. This initiative brings the voice of a trained and informed parent to the table.
Each week, I’m available if a family in East Harlem is scheduled for a Child Safety Conference. CWOP gets a call from the Children’s Services Field Office in Harlem. I go to introduce myself to the parent and ask if the parent would like me to sit in.
During the conference, all of the participants are supposed to work together to decide whether the child must be removed, or, if not, what will keep the child safe with home.
At the conference I attended last Friday, the mother spoke only Spanish, so I was nervous about whether we’d be able to communicate. Luckily, she had a close friend who was bilingual, and before the conference started, I was able to tell her about my role and about the CWOP and she asked me to attend her conference. Inside, ACS had an interpreter also.
A Painful Case
The allegation was sexual abuse of the children by the husband. Her husband had been locked up. She was arrested, too, because the child accused her of not keeping her safe. The child said her mother knew about it—it was going on for four years.
At the conference, the mother showed no emotion. She was leaning toward her husband’s version of the truth. She said, “I can’t believe he did that.” That didn’t help her case. They ended up removing all of her children.
It was very hard for me to see the mother defending her husband and disbelieving her child. I know how important it is to validate what your child says. My own daughter was a victim of sexual assault at a young age.
Still, I was able to assure the mother that, no matter how dark it seems, we’re going to try our best to help her reunite with her children. We got in her in touch with the Center for Family Representation, where she’ll have a lawyer, social worker and parent advocate working on her case. I also encouraged her to come to the CWOP support group to get help. I attend the support group regularly because parents look forward to seeing me there when they come.
The following Wednesday, the mother came to the support group. Some people there were bilingual, so we were able to communicate. She gave me permission to tell her story to the group. She trusted me to tell something so serious and upsetting. That made me feel good. I thought to myself, “I guess language is not a barrier to trust.”
During the group, I told her, “The child is the most important part of the family. Your children are the ones you have to protect. They’re most vulnerable. A husband, a wife—they’re adults, they have to fend for themselves. You have to protect your children. You have to let them say what they have to say, and you have to help them move forward. If it turns out that what your child is saying is untrue, OK, but you have to go by it being true.” It was difficult, but this is what I had to convey to her.
She broke down crying. All her emotions came out.
As she listened to other people telling their stories, she thought about it and she said, “He can burn in hell! I’m going to do everything I can to get my kids back.”
In the conference she showed only denial; maybe she was in shock. But in the group, she was able to connect. It was a wonderful feeling.
A Sense of Hope
That same day, another parent whose case conference I had attended a few months before came to the support group, too. She was hugging me, saying, “I’m getting my baby back tomorrow!” I said, “That’s great!” I was impressed that she got her child back in only a few months. She did everything. When she told her story, it made everybody hyped. I was almost in tears.
I feel proud of the work I do and happy to see the impact we have on parents. Even though children are removed, we’ve seen that fewer children in East Harlem have been placed in foster care since we began this initiative. I also believe that parents whose children enter foster care feel a greater sense of hope because we are there.
One man came to the support group with his mother. She was hugging me! That’s the reaction people have when they know you’re doing what you said you would do. We don’t promise, “You’ll get your kids back” but we promise that we’ll show parents what they have to do to get their children home and keep them at home.