When I applied to become a parent advocate at a foster agency in New York City, I feared I wasn’t ready. I was on public assistance and had never held a 9-to-5 job. But I knew that parents dealing with the foster care system needed support and tough love from people like me—parents who were once in their shoes.
My own two girls had gone into foster care because I was drinking. For about three years after they came home, I thought of nothing else but being that sober mother they lacked for so long. But when I was cooking or cleaning while the girls were at school, I felt empty. I wanted to do something to fill that void.
On February 15, 2004 I started a six- month parent leadership training program at the Child Welfare Organizing Project (CWOP), learning how the system works and what parents can do when they get that first knock on the door.
I Am Your Voice
Our training prepared us to become parent advocates at foster care agencies in New York. The director, Mike Arsham, recommended that I apply for a position. Mike had confidence for the both of us. Ready to face rejection, I applied.
I was hired! When I found out, I was numb. I couldn’t believe it! I thanked the CWOP staff for giving me the knowledge I needed to get my first professional job.
I’ve been a parent advocate at Children’s Village for more than a year now. At times it’s very stressful. Sometimes the parents and caseworkers are not as cooperative as I would like them to be. On the flip side, some parents do just what they need to and get their children home.
Parents come to me because they need to know their rights, they want help understanding the system, or they feel that the worker does not listen to them or help them. Parents are often intimidated by caseworkers. It’s easier for them to talk to me.
I tell them, “I am your parent advocate, and you could say that I am your voice.”
Two young parents I’ve been working with seem like they are really going to make it.
Sam is a young man with two children. In March 2006, when the foster care system came into Sam’s life things did not look good. Sam had been violent with his girlfriend, they’d separated, and the kids were placed in foster care with family members.
When I met Sam, he was a very angry young man. Sam was rude and loud, always using profanity.
One day he came into the agency yelling and the caseworker said to me, “Speak to him.” The caseworkers know I can talk straight with parents because when my kids came into care I also felt angry and unjustly treated.
I tell my story to the parents, explaining how I also thought I didn’t have a problem and wouldn’t comply with the services. I tell them how hard I worked and how wonderful I felt when I got my kids back.
‘I Ain’t No Thug’
I explained to Sam that acting out was not going to bring his children back home. “If you really feel angry at the system, get back at them by proving you are a good father and that your main concern is your children,” I said.
I also mentioned that the way he was talking so loud and wanting to be the center of attention gave me the impression that he is nothing but a street thug. “I ain’t no thug, you’re buggin’.” he said.
After that discussion, Sam started changing little by little. First he stopped being so loud and using so much profanity. Then he began speaking in a kind and polite manner. He took himself out of the spotlight and actually started listening instead of debating every suggestion.
He now attends classes to learn parenting skills and infant development and visits with his son often.
In Need of Help
Dawn is another young parent who is on her way to reuniting with her child. Dawn was 18 when she was charged with neglecting her son. She smoked weed, her room was dirty and the baby was very dirty. When I visited Dawn’s home, I found it unsuitable. There was garbage all over the place, empty beer cans in the kitchen sink and no food.
When I first met Dawn, she seemed confused, as if she didn’t realize what was going on. As I spoke to her, it occurred to me that she was a child herself. I thought she should have been placed in care along with her son, because they both needed supervision.
Dawn tried a program that she didn’t think helped her. Eventually, she asked me to refer her to an inpatient program in upstate New York.
“Why do you want to go upstate?” I asked her.
“If I go to an outpatient program I will be distracted and won’t go to school. I want to go back to school and do my parenting skills classes so that when I’m finished with everything I am ready for my child to come back to me.”
“I wish all my parents would think like you,” I told her. Since then, she’s been drug free. I’m very happy with the seriousness Dawn has shown.
‘Do You Love Your Children?’
Not every parent is so easy to work with. I first met Juanita in 2005. Her four children had been removed six years before because of her drug addiction. For years she denied hav- ing a drug problem and refused to get help.
The day we met I asked her, “Do you love your children?”
“I love my children dearly,” she told me.
“If that’s true, why do you choose drugs over your children?”
I myself had been asked the same question in rehab. I was stunned. It helped motivate me to get sober and get my kids home.
After our conversation, Juanita was very eager to get started in her recovery. The very next day Juanita went to a 5-day detox. Then she went to a rehab program for one month, a crisis center for 14 days, and finally a halfway house for six months.
Disappointed and Betrayed
When she went to court, the judge told her that she had to complete an outpatient program, too. Juanita she thought that she’d done all that she had to do. After that, she stopped trying to get her kids back.
I felt sorry for Juanita, but I was disappointed. It wasn’t fair for her to think that after six years she could simply stay clean for six months and get her kids home.
A few months passed. Finally, Juanita called me and told me that she was ready to do what she had to do. I called my ex-drug counselor at the program I had attended and spoke to Ms. Torres about Juanita.
“Juanita needs a reality check,” I said. “Show her a taste of tough love.”
Juanita went to the program for a week, but then she stopped. She called me two weeks later and lied about it.
I felt let down, even betrayed.
“If only she was as strong and determined as I was to get my children back,” I thought. “She’s not going to make it.” Juanita hasn’t kept in touch since.
I Give Parents Hope
Not every case ends well. But in the everyday of confusion of foster care, I am glad that these parents whose children are in care can come to me for assistance in finding services, comfort, and reasonable answers to their questions. This is a time in their lives when they feel nothing is working out and they have lost everything. They count on me to give them hope.
Having the foster care system in your life is not easy, and neither is watching the hard times that parents and their kids go through. But I give these parents my all, and it’s worth it. My biggest reward as a parent advocate is accompanying a parent to court to hear the judge say that she can take her child home on a trial discharge. The parent often comes running to me to say thanks.
The caseworkers know I can talk straight with parents because when my kids came into care I also felt angry and unjustly treated.