Jess: Graham Windham is a child welfare and youth development agency in New York City. About a year and half ago we sat down and talked about what we could do to further our support for parents. When we started to talk with parents about what they value, they said they valued their relationships with peers.
We thought that a Rise writing group for parents with children in foster care could add to that peer work and give parents a chance to work through and think through what they want to say about their experience with the child welfare system. In October, Rise started running a writing group here at Graham Windham.
Lynn: The whole idea of storytelling is really embedded in some of our approaches, like Parenting Journey and Solutions-Based Casework. Parents have stories to tell and it can be therapeutic and healing for them to not only tell but share their stories. That was a draw for us. The Rise group is a venue to share their stories and get support from other parents.
Kim: A large part of the support, healing and strategy that parents need in child welfare can come from other parents. When parents read the stories in Rise by other parents, they get examples and strategies around how they can deal with their experiences. We hope the same thing will happen in the writing group.
Peggy: In the group, I see a lot of friendships being formed and they are supporting each other. I’ve also decided to write my story so that other parents can see that I’ve been through struggles just like they are going through, and to let them know that there’s always help out there. You can get back to where you want to be in your life.
Parents can look at case planners like they’re the enemy. I share my story so that parents know they are not alone.
Jess: We want to really learn from the experiences of the parents that we serve. Reading what they write about how they experience our work with them will give us a real opportunity to reflect on what we do well and what we can improve. We’re also going to learn a lot about the power of peer learning and how to apply that more broadly across the agency.
Lynn: We have a subscription to Rise magazine and it’s distributed to all of our sites. Rise’s director, Nora McCarthy, has also come to all three of our sites’ staff meetings and talked about how Rise can be used. Case planners can read it and get insight into the stories that parents have to tell and what those stories can mean for their process of regaining their children. The stories are very powerful.
Jess: One of the things we’ve been doing in our work is to become better listeners. The child welfare system can too often categorize by issue or problem and everyone with that issue gets the same services. We’re trying to really understand each person’s story and respond to who that person is. What Rise does so well is make clear that everyone’s story is an individual story.
Jess Dannhauser is President and CEO; Lynn Brown is Associate Vice President of Foster Home Life; Kim Hardy Watson is Vice President for Family Permanency Planning Services; and Peggy Gibbs is a Parent Advocate at Graham Windham