Peers help parents navigate child welfare system
Foster care is supposed to be a temporary fix. When a child ends up in state care, the first goal is to reunite them with their birth families. But only about half of the 13,000 children in Michigan’s child welfare system every year end up going home. A small group of parents in Washtenaw County wants to change that.
The Parent Partners program is a collaboration between the Dispute Resolution Center, the Washtenaw County Trial Court, and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. The support group connects people with children in foster care to “veteran parents” who have been successfully reunited with their kids.
Felecia Harvey is one of those veteran parents.
I meet Harvey in the backyard of her modest brick ranch in Ypsilanti where her four daughters are gathered around the sandbox. Matilda, Roxy, Serenity, and Rosalie are busy assembling a makeshift zoo. “We have a roly poly, some ants, and a frog, and a big beetle that I think he might eat,” Matilda says as she shows me an aquarium full of sticks and leaves. There’s also Rosetta the bearded dragon, and a turtle named Shelby. “The Shelby from the 'shell,'” Serenity explains proudly.
The four girls are all smiles on this sunny spring afternoon. Sitting and watching them, their mom can’t help but smile too.
“I catch myself taking it for granted some days,” she says. “And then other days, overly grateful, like ‘Wow, I am so blessed to have my girls and to have all this stuff,’ because I was so close to not having any of it.”
Harvey was addicted to OxyContin for a couple of years. But when her boyfriend died in November 2010, the pills got too expensive for her to buy on her own. So, she turned to heroin. By May 2011, Harvey was in jail on drug charges. Without friends or family willing to take in her three daughters, Madison, Matilda, and Roxy were placed in foster care.
After the state took her girls, Harvey tried to get sober. “I stayed clean for nine days” she recalls. But then she got a prescription for painkillers. “And then I went back on the heroin, and then it was a struggle. I could barely even make it to my court appointments.” She kept failing her drug screens. And every time she’d try to get clean, painful withdrawals would send her back to the needle.
She stopped using heroin for good in March 2012. Her daughters had been in foster care for over 10 months at that point. It would take her another 15 months to get them back home. The court had a long list of things for her to do before she could regain custody. She would need to attend parenting classes, go to Narcotics Anonymous meetings, and find a place to live. But it was hard to keep appointments without a car.
It was a supportive caseworker that made all the difference. She helped Harvey keep track of her appointments and gave her rides to visits with her kids. "Being an adult is scary when you're an addict for so long," Harvey says, but having someone rooting for her gave her the courage to keep going.
Now, Harvey wants to offer that same kind of support to other parents like her. So, on the third Thursday of every month, she heads to Brown Chapel AME Church in Ypsilanti for the Parent Partners meeting.
Belinda Dulin, executive director of the Dispute Resolution Center (DRC), is the facilitator at the meetings. But she’s quick to tell you that it’s the parents driving this effort. The program evolved out of a series of focus groups the DRC held with parents who had been successfully reunited with their kids for at least one year. They asked the parents in those groups what challenges they faced while they were working to get their children back.
Like Felecia Harvey, many had trouble finding transportation and navigating the complicated court system. But most of all, Dulin says, what parents in the child welfare system really need is a friend. “They have often burned bridges with their own families. They are not connected with any other resource in the community,” she says. “So, they feel very alone and very isolated as they try and go through the motions of their work plan.”
And so that’s what veteran parents in the group try to be: a friend. They go to hearings with parents and connect them to other resources in the community. But most importantly, they listen. “Every parent has a bad day, every parent wants to blow off a little steam, wants to cry, wants to show some sign of vulnerability,” Dulin says. “And I’m finding that the parents as they navigate the court system are afraid to be vulnerable themselves and to talk about their personal needs.”
Unlike social workers who report to the court, parent partners aren't required to testify or talk to DHHS unless they think a child is in danger. So parents can vent their frustrations without worrying it will be a strike against them in court.
Parent Partners is one of a handful of programs like it across the country. It’s fairly new, and the group has only met four times so far. But the results from other states are promising. Jefferson County, Kentucky started its Parent Advocacy Program in 2004. An evaluation of the program three years later found that children whose parents worked with an advocate spent less time in foster care and were more likely to be reunified with their families.
Until recently, all the veteran parents in Washtenaw County’s program were volunteers. The budget for snacks was coming out of Dulin’s pocket. But the group caught the attention of the Michigan Supreme Court. And now thanks to some extra funding, veteran parents will get a small stipend for their time, and Dulin can buy dinner for the monthly meetings.
Felecia Harvey says she thinks this program could be the key to helping parents like her build a better future and bring their children home. She says she'll never forget the day she learned she’d be getting her girls back. The court sent a letter that would tell her whether or not she’d have her parental rights terminated. “I was with my caseworker, she was dropping me off at home, and the letter came in the mail,” Harvey says. “And we opened it, and it was the best moment of my life.”
It felt like a million bricks had been lifted off her shoulders. “My hope was restored," says Harvey. "I just knew God had bigger plans for me, and he totally does.” She says those plans include helping other parents in Michigan's child welfare system feel a little less alone. She wants to give them the hope that someday they’ll be sitting in the sunshine, watching their children laugh, and play, and sing, too.