In honor of National Reunification Month, Jeanette Vega, assistant director at Rise, discusses how Rise supports reunification of families separated by the foster system, explains how this work connects to our goal of abolition and highlights Rise resources by and for parents impacted by the system. She also shares a message to parents working to reunify with their children.
Q: How does Rise support reunification of families separated by the foster system, and how does that work support abolition?
A: Our work has always been to elevate parents’ voices and fight for what parents in New York City say will help their families thrive. Over the past two years, we’ve been learning about abolition, naming it and saying out loud that this is the goal of our work—Rise is working to abolish the family policing system.
We want to decrease the number of families that come into contact with ACS by advocating for investment in communities and community-led approaches through our Parents’ Platform. We are working to build a peer and community care network to support families and give them information about resources, so that when families have challenging situations, they can address them early on and get support within their community, without system involvement. Through these strategies, we seek to dismantle the system and immediately decrease the number of families coming into it, while supporting safe and thriving families and communities.
At the same time, we know there are families coming into the system or involved with the system right now who need information and support with reunifying quickly, and with building self-advocacy skills, a support network and connections to safe, accessible resources so that they do not re-enter the system. Rise provides information, materials and tools directly to parents that can support them with advocating for themselves and their families. We also provide tools and training to Parent Advocates working in foster care and preventive agencies, so they can effectively support parents in reunifying and/or closing their cases. Through our Parent Advocate movement work, we are working to shrink the numbers of families in the system by helping families to get out more quickly and then stay out of the system.
A lot of people may think it’s easy to reunify with your children—but as a parent who has reunified, I can say that it’s not. In NYC, fewer than one third of children who enter the foster system reunify within one year. They’re often in the system for a long time, and when our children are returned, life is so different. Our children are impacted by their experiences in foster care. It’s important that we support relationships between parents and children throughout the process, and that after reunification, parents have the information and resources they need to continue to advocate for themselves. We also hope that they will become part of the Rise team and advocate for other parents.
Q. What do parents say they need when navigating the system?
A: For the past 15 years, Rise has been hearing from parents about what would be helpful and supportive to families. Parents consistently say that they feel alone when they’re involved with the family policing system — that they feel they can’t trust anyone and that no one understands what they’re going through.
Rise is working collaboratively with other groups to create community and peer support so that parents don’t feel alone. Other parents have gone through this and can provide peer support. The goal is to create a network of peer and community care by and for parents throughout New York City, so that parents do not have the family policing system intervene in their lives in any way, at any point. They can depend on each other and get the support they need in whatever situation they may be going through. Parents shouldn’t have to go into the system or to system-connected agencies in order to have access to resources, and they should be connected to early legal representation if they experience an investigation or threat of a report.
Q: What Rise resources are available to support parents working toward reunification or who have recently reunified?
A: Rise is led by parents who went through the system personally. We created TIPS with information to support parents in reunifying at a faster pace. Our Visiting TIPS and video for parents provide direct guidance to parents with children in foster care on how to navigate their visits and have quality visits. Our Service Planning TIPS give parents information about how to advocate for themselves and negotiate their service plan. The TIPS also support parents with processing what they’re feeling by building their understanding of trauma and toxic stress.
Last year, parents at Rise and Parent Advocates made a reunification video speaking directly to parents who have reunified to say, “Congratulations—this wasn’t easy.” We also have stories on our website about families who have reunified, information about parents’ rights and other resources that may be useful to parents navigating the system or rebuilding after separation.
We invite parents who currently have an ACS case, as well as those who have reunified, to join our community support circle by and for parents impacted by ACS. Through the support circle, you can stay in community with other parents and learn how to advocate not just for yourself, but for the communities that you live in.
Q. How does Rise work with Parent Advocates?
A. In the past two years, Rise ran a collaborative with CSSP and six foster care agencies to redefine and strengthen the Parent Advocate role and to support Advocates in using our TIPS resources upfront with parents. Rise also has trained 20 Parent Advocates working in the system and is working with two agencies to continue to improve how they elevate the role and power of Parent Advocates.
When we say Parent Advocates, we mean parents who have experienced child welfare themselves, have overcome their situations and are now advocating within agencies for other parents going through similar situations. We focus on the first 90 days so that, when parents enter the system, they immediately have support, information and tools to advocate for themselves. Our training emphasizes the importance of building relationships and the values of safety and self determination, which means providing parents with information and respecting parents’ voice and choice in their plans and lives.
We’ve also been working with two legal agencies to ensure that attorneys, social workers and Parent Advocates in family defense agencies are able to use the TIPS to help them to work differently with parents and incorporate more self-determination into their work. We hear that parents especially value the negotiation TIPS, which draw on corporate negotiation strategies.
Q: What is your message to parents trying to reunify?
A: Stay strong and know you are not alone. Know that we welcome you into our community. Go to the Rise website, reach out to us directly and join our support circle if you’re in NYC. If you’re in other parts of the country or world, there is a growing movement, and you can also build the movement after you reunify. There’s always a Rise parent staff there to listen, be a support and share resources. If at any point you feel alone and can’t join the support circle, reading parents’ stories on our website can be a reminder that you are not alone and that you can overcome the situation.