When Philneia Timmons’ children were placed in foster care, the last thing Timmons felt like doing was the one thing she was required to do to get her kids back home: cooperate with the very system that had broken her family apart.
“I felt angry,” she wrote in Rise, a magazine by and for parents involved in the child welfare system. “The system offered me no help before taking my kids, and my side of the story didn't seem to matter. I felt robbed, cheated and railroaded in every way.”
Many parents whose children have been placed in foster care have similar reactions, putting parents and child welfare workers in a difficult, often adversarial relationship. And often parents have been shut out of this discussion. But now, the city’s child welfare system is relying more and more on parent advocates to help foster care agencies work more effectively with parents. For their part, the agencies have begun to recognize that children benefit when the system works with birth parents -- especially since the goal for most kids in foster care is to return them home to their families.
WHAT THE PARENTS DO
Today, Timmons is actively involved in this effort. She first became involved at the Child Welfare Organizing Project, which helps parents with kids in New York City’s foster care system advocate for themselves. Through the project, Timmons learned about her rights as a parent with children in care and how to work with the system to get her kids back home. She also got emotional support from other parents in a similar situation.
Eventually, her interest in the Child Welfare Organizing Project went beyond her own needs, and she became an advocate for other New York City parents whose kids had been placed in care. Timmons urged caseworkers and supervisors in the foster care system to remove kids only as a last resort, and whenever possible, to offer services to help keep the family together. She used her own experiences to explain just how traumatic it can be for a family to break apart, and how difficult it is for parents and kids to build a relationship after the kids have been removed.
Timmons is not alone. In the last five years, partly as a result of CWOP’s work, dozens of agencies have hired birth parents. Today, approximately 60 parent advocates work at different foster care agencies in New York City. These parents, many whom are paid advocates, work hands-on with other parents whose kids are in foster cares, run parenting classes and support groups and give one-on-one support to parents with kids in care. They meet with child welfare leaders, help train caseworkers and speak at conferences about the foster care system.
WHAT THE PARENTS OFFER
The parents, says Dana Guyet, director of Advocacy for New York City’s foster care system, are revolutionizing the child welfare system. “I’ve always tried to take a more progressive view of how we can work with families,” says Guyet. “But the parents have more direct knowledge about their community, clients and cultures. On a regular basis, they point something out new.”
Guyet oversees the Administration for Children’s Services Parent Advisory Workgroup, whose members meet regularly with ACS Commissioner John Mattingly to discuss issues relevant to birth parents. Now the group is looking into the possibility of securing subsidized guardianship in New York City so that relatives can help a struggling family without going through the foster care system.
Lynne Miller, a paid parent advocate at Seaman’s Society, says that if birth parents can talk to someone who has been through what they are coping with, they will be less likely to act out their anger and frustration and more likely to cooperate with the demands of the court and the city government. “They’d probably be more willing to admit they had problems, and more open to getting help,” she says.
Miller says that almost half of the new birth parents she works with are in denial about why their kids are in care. “They like to place blame anywhere and everywhere except on their own shoulders,” she says. “It’s hard enough to admit to yourself that you might have done something wrong, never mind admit it to strangers who are now controlling your life.”
Miller helps the parents work through their resistance by letting them talk and vent all they want. But she also lets them know that it is possible for them to get their kids back and uses her own experience of getting her son out of foster care as proof.
When the time comes, she talks to the parent about how difficult it can be for a child to return home. A child coming out of foster care usually has lots of anger and resentment to work through, says Miller, and many need therapy. After the kids of Miller’s parents return home, she stays in touch, offering to visit or talk. Sometimes she volunteers to look after the kids when the parents need a “little breathing space,” or feel overwhelmed.
And she encourages the adults to do what feels counterintuitive to most parents with kids in care: stay in touch with their child’s former foster parents. “Foster parents aren’t the enemy,” she tells the parents she works with. “They can be more like the Red Cross.”
For many parent advocates, working for the foster care system that once took their children from them requires a big adjustment. But for Miller, the difficult memories from when she was a client of Administration for Children’s Services fueled her passion for her job as an advocate. “The way I see it,” she says, “my job is to help parents see the agency and the foster parents as supports, and to help the agency and the foster parents see the birth parents’ strengths, too.”
Timmons agrees. “ACS is starting to develop a relationship with parents and to understand our perspective,” she says. “I see the very beginnings of a change here.”
This article is adapted from stories in Rise, a magazine by and for parents involved in the child welfare system, which is published by our partner, Youth Communication. Read stories from Rise at www.risemagazine.org.