Making It Safe to Ask for Help – How can child welfare support more and investigate less?

Over the past three years, Rise has worked with and interviewed more than 40 mothers who grew up in foster care. A common theme is our fear that if we reach out for assistance, our families will be hurt rather than helped.

Here, we asked three professionals—including a program director whose own children grew up in foster care—about approaches that have been proven to help families. Suzanne Barnard is the director of the Evidence-Based Practice Group at the Annie E. Casey Foundation; Lashaunda Harris is clinical director of the Parent-Child Assistance Program (P-CAP) in Yakima County, Washington; and Rebecca Dombcik is a lawyer for parents in Yakima County.

Investing in Prevention

Barnard: We believe the place to start is by investing in preventive programs in our communities that are available to all families, so that parents don’t have to have a problem before they get help. Programs that visit parents at home, like Nurse-Family Partnership, are very effective because they start by supporting mothers when they are pregnant, they stay with moms up until babies are 2 years old, and they have been proven to work.

Parenting programs that work with parents and children together also help parents learn how to help their children if they are behaving in ways that are hard to manage, especially if the children have also experienced trauma. Programs like Triple P (Promoting Positive Parenting), Incredible Years, Family Unidas, Strong African American Families Program, Parent Child Interaction Therapy and Family Systems Therapy help parents learn positive parenting skills even when they may not have had a lot of good parenting themselves.

Someone to Trust

Harris: I run a home visiting program for mothers who abused alcohol or drugs during pregnancy. The vast majority of mothers in our program were in foster care as children. Some of our staff members, including myself, are also parents who have a history of substance abuse and/or child welfare involvement.

What we find is that it’s not enough to have services available in our communities. A lot of moms who grew up in care need someone they can trust, because without that trust they won’t go to services.

I’m working with a mom right now whose son fell off the bed. She was terrified that if she took him to the hospital someone would be suspicious and involve child protective services in her life. When moms really have problems, sometimes they run. Often they hide. We help them know that it’s OK to deal with their problems face forward, and that we will support them.

We stay with moms for three years and at a minimum we’re in their homes twice a month. Sometimes we’re there every day. We connect them to services, but we also help them see that it can be OK to rely on someone. Our own stories are our ticket in and give them hope when they’re feeling hopeless. Then we provide them with that consistency that a lot of parents who grew up in the system never had.

Clear Rules Around Reporting

Dombcik: When parents feel safe asking for help, they’re generally less likely to end up getting investigated. The problem is that the laws around mandated reporting are so vague that parents never know what might get them reported if they do ask for help. Parents who have grown up in foster care have even more reason to be afraid, because when they share their own histories, especially if they’ve had mental health problems, substance abuse or domestic violence in their pasts, that often increases the chances that they’ll get reported.

After children are placed in foster care, parents are even more afraid to be open because they don’t know how their information will be shared in court. One thing parents can do is speak with their lawyers to help them understand what is and isn’t safe to share. Because of attorney-client privilege, parents can share anything with their lawyer without it being shared with others, and lawyers can help parents find supports they can trust. But child welfare systems also need to get smarter about not punishing parents when they reach out for help and become more transparent about what will and will not lead to a child protective investigation.

Harris: The child welfare system is not a system that naturally helps parents build trust. One of the best things our local child welfare office has done is make clear that a parent’s drug use alone doesn’t warrant opening a child protective case. If a mother has a drug or alcohol problem but has not been neglectful, we have the opportunity to help that mother get connected to treatment and services without losing her children.

Practical Help

Barnard: Parents who grew up in foster care also need support just for themselves. They need help to deal with the stress in their lives. They need ways to build community and connections. And they need ways to connect to education and work opportunities so that they can gain economic stability and feel good about themselves. They also need programs that treat the specific traumas that come from child welfare involvement.

In the past, child welfare systems put financial resources into services that hadn’t been proven to work. Many still do. But in the last 3-5 years we have seen a growing awareness of the difference for families when systems invest in effective programs. Now we just need to make sure that parents have access to those programs, because too many do not.

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