‘I Made a Mistake’ Not ‘I Am a Mistake’ – How parents—and the child welfare system—can stand up to shame.

Ambrosia Eberhardt, Danielle Goodwin and Heather Cantamessa are “Veteran Parents” with the Washington State Parent Advocate Network, a project of The Children’s Home Society. Here, they explain the importance of addressing shame in child welfare:

Q: Parent advocates and child welfare administrators in Washington state have begun a series of panel discussions on shame. Why shame?

Heather: All of us are parent advocates who had our own children placed in foster care. In the past year, we’ve been really diving in to Brené Brown’s work on shame and reflecting on parents’ experiences of shame in the child welfare system—how we spin out of control when we’re experiencing shame, how that’s triggered, what our behaviors look like when we’re in a shame storm, and what we can do to build resiliency.

So many parents come from a place of shame. It’s not, “I made a mistake,” but, “I am the mistake, I am worthless, I am unable to do anything different, this is who I am.” When the system comes in, so often it reaffirms everything you’re afraid of because it’s all about your deficiencies.

Before the child welfare system even knocked on my door I knew my family wasn’t like other families. I saw in my kids’ eyes that they weren’t getting what they needed from me. But people who feel ashamed feel like the problem is not with their circumstances but with who they are as people. I didn’t believe I could make changes to make things better.

Ambrosia: Being in the system reinforces the idea that either you’re OK or you’re a failure, and parents feel like every failure is proof that they’re failures and can’t make it.

I grew up with parents who were addicts and then I got into relationships with men who were very violent with me. I always felt like I had to be perfect to counteract everything that was wrong in my life. When I got into the system, that shame was so reinforced. I felt like if I wasn’t perfect I was never going to see my kids again. After my case was closed, when I hit bumps in the road, I hid my problems instead of reaching out for help. Because of that, I almost did lose my children. That’s when I finally learned that you can’t let shame make you hide.

Danielle: If you grew up in foster care, your mission when you have a baby is to never repeat that. You have this fantasy of how things are going to be. Then when you see your own children’s lives unravel the way yours did, you feel so helpless.

My first daughter was the result of a rape and I entered foster care with her when I was 15. I always felt responsible for what was done to me, and I felt ashamed entering care. But I also felt like maybe somebody would finally see that I needed help. When there was no real help offered, I felt like there was nothing for me to do but numb my feelings with drugs. When I lost my children, my shame was overwhelming. I felt like I was destined to fail.

Q: As parent advocates, how do you help parents overcome shame?

Danielle: I don’t talk about what’s wrong with parents—I talk about what’s happened to them. If you spent your whole life in foster care and never had healthy parenting role models, and now you’re struggling raising your child, there is nothing wrong with you. You’re just repeating what you learned. Everyone does that. But I learned new skills to care for my children, and other parents can too. I also try to lift parents’ strengths for them, so they can see and begin to use them.

It can also help to change our ideas of what success looks like. When you grow up in foster care, you assume that everyone else grew up in perfect families. But successful people have struggles. I let parents know that struggling isn’t proof that they’re failing. It is their job to find the supports that can help them with those struggles.

Heather: Finding those supports can be very hard, especially when you’re afraid you’ll be judged rather than supported; when you don’t trust yourself to pick people who are safe; or you feel like you’re in it alone.

I was taught to fear the system from the time I was young. My mother ran away from horrific domestic violence and she always told us, “You cannot talk about what happened or what is going on. If they know they will take you away and we will never see each other again.”

The child welfare system came into my life three times. Each time I knew I needed help, but I really believed I would be punished if anyone saw how much I was struggling. It was only when I was 28 and I had my last case that I learned: Don’t keep secrets. Ask for help when you need it. If you ever want to be free of the system, you have to begin to open up and build a support network.

One way to do it is to take little risks, reveal little things to someone who seems safe. When nothing bad happens, you begin to say, “Hey, maybe I can trust this person.”

Ambrosia: We encourage parents to have one safe person they can talk to when they’re in trouble. Not one of us stayed clean after we got our kids back, and we needed to tell on ourselves to get better. Because we had built healthy support systems, we were able to recover quickly.

But it’s also the system’s job to make it safe for parents to ask for help. They have to make sure parents are supported, not punished or shamed, for bringing a problem forward.

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