From Survival Skills to Coping Skills – How to develop healthy habits in case planning

Interview by Keyna Franklin

Amelia Franck Meyer is the CEO of Alia, a non-profit dedicated to transforming the child welfare system by working with system leaders and partners responsible for getting youth back home with their families.

Photo: Amelia Franck Meyer

Q: In your profession have you seen that it is harder or easier to deal with parents who have been affected by the system in childhood? How do you think it affects parents dealing with service plans if they grew up in foster care?

A: When you grow up in foster care, you often do not have that support network, and can be less able to manage the ups and downs. The most profound trauma is disconnection from your caregiver, and that can happen multiple times if you grew up in foster care. That disconnection is the worst thing that can happen to a kid. That can bring a lot of strength with it – that helps people be tough, survivors and good advocates, but it can also decrease your ability to trust and to keep calm and balanced when things aren’t going well. Those are the effects of trauma and knowing the effects of trauma can help.

If you get really upset in a case planning meeting, you’re likely to shut down or go off, and that doesn’t come off well. Instead, you can say, “I need just a minute, can I come right back?” And you can say: “I’m sorry about that. I grew up in care. That can cause someone to lose the ability to regulate and I’m still trying to recover from my own experience.” You can also bring someone with you. You can make a signal, and when things get tough, that person can put their hand on your arm and you can ask for a break and go out in the hall. You can write down your talking points to excuse yourself and come back, and when you come back in, you can read it. 

Another normal response is if you don’t feel heard is to get louder. You can help people hear what’s underneath your anger. You can say: “You’re not hearing me. I’m terrified. I feel shame. I have nobody. I’m worried I’ll never get my kids back. I’m worried they’ll get hurt when they’re away from me. You’re not hearing my love. You’re hearing the volume of it. Underneath my anger is fear.”

Q: Parents often have to give up some of the ways of coping that helped them survive their childhood and learn different ways of coping as adults. Can you tell us what that is like? Why do parents have to do that?

 Things like getting high or other ways of numbing or soothing yourself are normal, natural responses to what happened to you, to ease the pain of what happened in your life. If you think about your coping skills, you can ask yourself: “What do I do to help me get through the pain I have to carry with me every day?”

Often in child welfare, parents have to give up their coping skills, but we need a replacement behavior. You need people who will walk this with you as you deal with the pain. You have to get to the point where you can say: “That shouldn’t have happened to me, I am worthy of love.” That pain won’t stay as strong if you deal with it. Our past never goes away, but you can be in control of it, instead of it being in control of you.

Q: How would you explain to a parent what the service planning process is in foster care and why they are expected to make changes in their lives?

A: A service plan is an effort to engage the parent in making changes in their lives to safely care for their children. But, what I believe is that, while most of the time the people creating those plans are well-intended and care deeply, those plans are often not realistic. When a service plan is created to tell parents what they need to do, instead of helping them design their own futures and families, those plans don’t meet the needs of the parents, which is what the child needs most. 

Q: Parents often have to do their service plan even if they feel that it is not right for them or their families. They have to do parenting classes or mental health therapy as part of their service plan even if they feel they don’t need it. How do you help parents when they have service plans they feel like they don’t need? How can parents know what services are right for them?

A: Fighting is not going to get you very far. If you don’t want to do what they’re recommending, have an alternative. Find what will help. Ask for a parenting coach. Ask for trauma therapy for yourself, which you may really need to parent well. Say: “These are things my family needs. I’m asking for your help.” Try not to say, “I’m not doing that.” If you do, you’re considered a “resistant client” who doesn’t want to change. Figure out what you can say yes to. 

Do not feel badly, or selfish, about taking care of yourself. Getting enough sleep, taking care of our spirit and our body, helps us be able to weather the ups and downs in our lives. Find the people and places that help you when you’re down – a great church, a moms group, a mentor. 

Q: Being a parent is hard work already without adding services to your plate. Once you get into the system you have to do services. How can parents deal with having so much to do?

A: It’s really about prioritizing and compartmentalizing. I used to have a saying on my desk, “You always have time for what’s most important.” You have to prioritize the most important thing. There’s nothing more important than your children being safe, healthy and happy – and that’s when they’re with you. So that has to come first. 

Get your children back. Give all of your energy and all of your time to that goal. Engage others to fight the battles for justice on your behalf. The second you’re done and have your children home, get started on advocacy. But, be aware that being an advocate during your case may get you labeled an incompetent parent. That is the real truth of the system. 

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