Published in Children’s Voice, Volume 28, Number 1
by Sarah Vogelsong
Sara Owen knows what it’s like to be on the front lines of child welfare work—and that until both sides step out of the trenches and meet on common ground, healing rarely is possible. Although today, Owen works as a parent partner with family services nonprofit Children & Families of Iowa, once she was a mother whose struggles with addiction were so acute that she called the state Department of Human Services (DHS) on herself.
“From 18 to 35, I was always self-medicating on something,” she recalls. Opiate use soon led to methamphetamine abuse, and by the time her daughter was 3, Owen felt she had lost control. After her call to Iowa DHS, she embarked on a chapter of her life that saw her in and out of treatment facilities and with and without her daughter. It took months until something “just clicked” and, she says, “I got it together.”
For almost four years after Iowa DHS closed Owen’s case, she sought to distance herself from that troubled period of her life. But “there was always something missing,” she recalls. And so one day, remembering an offer that had been made to her around the time of her case’s closure, she reached out to Sara Persons, the statewide parent partner coordinator for Children & Families of Iowa, and began the process of helping those who were now treading the path she had once stumbled along.
Parents who have become involved with the child welfare system “don’t trust. Their kids have been taken away, they’re using. It’s a whole different lifestyle,” says Owen. But when they can connect with a parent partner, the dynamic changes. “We’ve been in their shoes. They know we’re not judging. They know that we’ve been through it and that we’ve been successful.”
For more than a decade, parent partner programs have been quietly sprouting up around the United States as a way to make child welfare work both more effective and more compassionate. “Families are more successful when there is a parent partner involved, because they now feel like they have an ally,” says Michael Rauso, a division chief with the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services. Parents “are the number one source for us to learn how effective our services are,” says Sandy Lint, a program manager and parent partner expert with the Iowa Department of Human Services. And after all, she adds, “These are their services. We needed to know what was effective from their perspective.”
Sometimes called “parents in partnership” or “veterans,” parent partners are exactly what they sound like: They are parents themselves, and their key role in the child welfare system is as a partner, both to those going through the system and to those who oversee it. They are, in Rauso’s words, “a bridge.”
While recruitment and training methods vary depending on the agency or organization, all parent partners formerly have had personal experience in the child welfare system. Many have suffered from substance or other forms of abuse; usually, their children previously have been removed from their care. They have been through the court system, treatment programs, counseling, and sometimes experiences like jail or time in shelters—and they have come out the other side. “They give us a lot of insight into what parents go through—the angst, the complexities of trying to make those changes in a short period of time,” says Lint.
While involvement with the child welfare system is almost always a transformative experience, not everyone is capable of translating their personal trajectory into a framework that can help others. Under the Iowa
Parent Partner Approach, which is supported by that state’s DHS, potential parent partners are identified on the basis of their “interpersonal skills, successes, and proven abilities to overcome obstacles.” The Los Angeles parent partner program looks for individuals who can be good “advocates.”
Because so many adults who become involved in the child welfare system have struggled with substance and other types of abuse, the parent’s own recovery is also used as a critical indicator of whether he or she would be an effective parent partner. Agencies and organizations involved in recruitment closely examine how “solid” candidates’ recovery is, whether they have successfully distanced themselves from abusive relationships and whether, in the case of mental health issues, they have stabilized any medications they might need.
“We have noticed over the years that there needs to be a certain level of healing before you can successfully be a mentor,” says Lint. “We want our parent partners to be bridges and linkages, not more divisive. They’re there to support their client, wherever that client is at, but they also need not to bring their own stuff into that.”
Once identified, those parents who are receptive to becoming parent partners undergo training and mentorship. In Iowa, the process takes between three and six months and includes 11 mandatory sessions. In Los Angeles, where all parent partners must be at least a year past the closure of their own case to begin mentoring others, the formal training lasts about a month. Depending on the agency or organization that recruits them, parent partners may be volunteers, part-time staff, or full-time employees.
In Los Angeles, Rauso, who developed the initial proposal for the city’s Parents in Partnership program under DCFS in 2003, considered it essential for parent partners to be full members of the child welfare team. “I wanted them sitting side by side with us in the office,” he says. “I wanted them to be just like any other employee. I wanted them to have a cubicle, I wanted them to have a phone and computer access and all of that.”
However, he soon encountered obstacles related to not only bureaucratic strictures but also personnel. Los Angeles County required all government employees to pass the California Live Scan criminal background check. Due to their history, many potential parent partners were caught in this net—although, ironically, it was exactly the experience that Live Scan flagged as a warning that Parents in Partnership saw as an asset. Furthermore, friction arose within DCFS over the standing that parent partners would have in relation to licensed employees.
“You have people who have spent a number of years in school [who are] … sitting side by side with a person who may not have close to the education that they do, but they have a lived experience, and they’re telling the licensed people that they may not be getting it right,” says Rauso. “Not everybody is at that level of acceptance to be able to say, ‘This person has that lived experience, and this person knows what they’re talking about.’” Lint also noted that the training process for parent partners can include complications not seen in other fields, requiring that extra supports be built into any system. “In any given workforce, [about] 20 or 30 percent has substance abuse, domestic violence, or mental health problems,” she says. “With the parent partners, it’s 100 percent.”
Despite these challenges, the programs have been worth it, says Rauso: The Los Angeles parent partners “taught us so much about the work that we never would have known before. … The DCFS staff can’t imagine what life was like before they got there.” Today, Parents in Partnership’s ranks have grown to 45 parent partners. The Iowa program has also seen huge growth, now comprising about 120 parents coordinated by 18 facilitators across the state. “Those places that have them then tend to do everything they can to have more,” says Julie Collins, CWLA’s vice president of standards for practice excellence.
As parent partner programs have spread across the United States, research increasingly has sought to quantify their effects. In one study, scholars from the University of Nebraska’s Center on Children, Families, and the Law examined four years of data from the Iowa parent partner program and found that the children of parents involved in the program had “a higher percentage of discharges to return home and a lower percentage of subsequent removals within 12 months of foster care discharge” (Center on Children, Families, and the Law, 2017).
Another study focusing on the Los Angeles Parents in Partnership program, published in the Journal of Social Service Research in 2017, found that parents who participated in the program “were 5 times more likely to reunify with their children” (Enano et al., 2017) than those who did not. On an anecdotal level, says Lint, she consistently sees parent partners having their children restored, starting to mentor other families and getting back on track with professional and educational opportunities. Rauso has noticed a particular impact on male parents, a group that the Los Angeles program is putting extra effort into reaching. “We’ve had angry dads who had a chance to talk to a male [parent partner], and you see a transformation from one day to the next,” he says. “You’re like, ‘This is not the same person.’”
For her part, Owen now works full-time with up to 15 parents, meeting them face-to-face, going to appointments with them, helping them find resources, and tracking their progress. She sees a clinical psychologist once a month to make sure that she’s staying on the straight and narrow, but, she says, since becoming a parent partner, “Nothing’s ever been a trigger for me.” “It feels really good to give back and help others in their darkest moments,” she said. “Really, that’s what it’s all about.”
Sarah Vogelsong is a freelance reporter and nonfiction editor based in Richmond, Virginia. Her work has appeared in newspapers and magazines throughout Central Virginia, including most recently Chesapeake Bay Journal and the Virginia Mercury.
Enano, S., Freisthler, B., Perez-Johnson, D., & Lovato-Hermann, K. (2017). Evaluating parents in partnership: A preliminary study of a child welfare intervention designed to increase reunification. Journal of Social Service Research, 43(2), 236-245.
Center on Children, Families, and the Law. (2017). Iowa Parent Partner Program Report on Child and Family Outcomes. Lincoln, NE: Author.