A Parent’s Ally: Providing “A Bridge” for Parents in Early Legal Representation

By Keyna Franklin, Parent Leader, Rise

“I’m from the area where most of my clients live—I grew up there, I know people there, and I know a lot of things that the legal agency doesn’t know. It helps that I’m closer to the streets, and I’ve been through these things myself. I had to teach myself things that now I’m teaching other people, because no one taught me.

As an advocate, I am the bridge between the client and the legal system. It’s really hard for parents to trust the child welfare and legal systems. I break down that wall and make them a little more comfortable.”

Parent advocates have an essential impactful role in providing effective legal representation to protect parents’ rights, prevent family separation and support parents involved with the child welfare system. Here, Iesha Hammons, the Parent Ally at Legal Services of New Jersey, explains how she supports parents, why she does this work, the challenges of being a Parent Ally and how she takes care of herself in the role.  

Q: Please tell us about your role. How do you support parents?
A: I’m a Parent Ally. We call the role “Parent Ally” because we work with parents as a team. I work with parents who have DCPP (Division of Child Protection and Permanency) cases. My work includes prevention, support, mentoring, help with finding resources and using my experience to brainstorm with parents.

I assist my clients with whatever they need in order to get them to their goals. I go to court. I print out paperwork and bring it to them. I never want them to stagnate because they don’t have access to the internet, or small things like that. I try to offer any services that I can because I want to see everybody be successful.

Sometimes, child care is needed or clients need to find employment. In a lot of cases, housing is the main goal. A lot of families don’t have anywhere to stay. I try to find affordable housing. I’m from the area where most of my clients live—I grew up there, I know people there, and I know a lot of things that the legal agency doesn’t know. It helps that I’m closer to the streets, and I’ve been through these things myself. I had to teach myself things that now I’m teaching other people, because no one taught me.

I’m also here for support. I try to teach them different coping mechanisms for dealing with pressures and stressors, dealing with DCPP. I motivate them and help them know, you can be successful. It may take a while, but you can be successful.

Q: Why did you become a Parent Ally?

A: I am an affected parent. My family was torn apart and it took me nearly 5 years to get my children back. I want to prevent that from happening to any other families. The children are really the most important, so that’s why I do it. I don’t want other families to go through what my family went through.

It is helpful for parents to know what to expect from someone who has been through this experience before. The advocate can guide you and even offer little gems or ideas about what parents can do differently. I wish I had an advocate in my corner when I was going through my hard times with DCPP. I just had no guidance. I felt hopeless. I didn’t know what to do or where to turn. Even though I was working with DCPP, I felt I would never get my children back.

I think back to where I was at that time in my life, and the kind of help I needed. I try to see that for my clients, because I don’t want to let them let their emotions send them in the wrong direction.

Q: Why is it important for parents to have early legal representation, including an experienced advocate or ally?

A: It’s important because it is hard to navigate the DCPP system. Good representation is important, especially for families who are poverty stricken, because they don’t get a chance to defend themselves properly. Usually, families with better incomes are safe from the system sooner than people with public defenders or without legal representation.

As an advocate, I am the bridge between the client and the legal system. It’s really hard for parents to trust DCPP and the legal system. I break down that wall and make them a little more comfortable.

Q: What challenges have you experienced in working with parents as a Parent Ally?

A: At first, I might be seen as a caseworker, and sometimes parents don’t want to hear from another person they don’t believe can help them. When they actually speak to me, they see, “Oh she’s been through this, she has a lot of great ideas and can push me in the right direction and give me some information that DCPP won’t give me.”

Some parents are defensive, because even people that claimed they were there to help them,  have hurt them. They may look at me as someone in that category. I really want to help as much as possible. Some parents are stressed out, so they don’t want to agree to a lot of the things that DCPP is asking for them to do. That’s really the only type of block that I’ve felt with parents—really just being under a lot of pressure and stress, and not wanting another person asking questions that they don’t believe can help them.

I am there for the duration of the case and even after. I have some clients who no longer have DCPP in their life, and they still keep in contact with me because I support them, not only through this hard time, but in life, period. With any type of stressor, with any type of help they may need with their children, if they are looking for guidance–I’m just there to help them come up with ideas and to help them be the best person they can be.

Q: What are the challenges you’ve experienced with how the system works?

A: Every worker is not the same. I have some cases who’ve had great DCPP workers who want to keep families together, but some clients have caseworkers who are not all the way for them. There are some caseworkers who are not empathetic. They don’t put themselves in the parent’s shoes, to really understand the pressure and stress that they’re under, or the emotional factors. They just want parents to comply, or they ask for things that are unreasonable or unrealistic, especially under the timeframes that DCPP gives.

It is really important to have a good lawyer to guide you, a lawyer who is knowledgeable about all of the ins and outs. DCPP has a lot they can offer but they don’t inform parents of programs that they are eligible for, so I feel that DCPP creates a lot of blockage.

The court system as well, because they get your case and read all of the bad notes about you. There is no one writing good notes about you from DCPP, so judges feel like you’re just a case number, or a bad parent. It just seems hopeless after that.

Q: How do you take care of yourself in this role?

A: I’ve been through a lot in my life, so now my life is like a breeze. I really take everything as it comes. I’m so grateful. I’ve been exposed to so much and so many opportunities.

When I do get a little overwhelmed or stressed, I take a little “me time.” I listen to music, take a nice bath with candles, and I love to cook.

My main focus is how to help and support, because I’m not in a place of sadness right now. I’m grateful to be able to help anyone. Any problems that they’ve had that I’ve been through, I just try to coach them through it because there’s still light at the end of the tunnel, believe it or not.

Related Resources:

Read more about Iesha’s experience: Jerry Milner of the Children’s Bureau Visits LSNJ