By Kim Phagan-Hansel
When Ohio mom China Darrington lost custody of her child 14 years ago it turned her life upside down. Little did she know that experience would one day lead her to mentoring other parents who’d lost their children to the child welfare system and partnering with foster parents as well. Darrington had been on a 16-year run doing heroin and cocaine. And while she knew she needed to stop using when her daughter was born, she just couldn’t do it.
“I was trying to do the best I could, but I had this drug habit,” Darrington said. “I wouldn’t know how to deal with these intense emotions and feelings and I would go back to using.”
When her daughter was 4, Darrington lost her job, and then lost custody of her daughter. Already struggling with drug addiction, losing her daughter only intensified the issues. “That night I spent looking at her bedroom and she wasn’t there,” Darrington said. “It was really, really confusing and really, really emotional. It was really scary because I didn’t know how to do anything without the drugs and I still had to navigate these giant systems.”
For Darrington, that was the beginning of a long road through treatment and eventual reunification with her daughter. What she learned along the way is something she now shares with an unlikely audience: foster parents. Working as a peer recovery coach, Darrington trains foster parents to help them understand unique challenges that birth parents face when their child is taken into the foster care system.
“My whole goal is to rebrand the child welfare system so families feel safe to do their part,” Darrington said. Darrington works with foster parents in Ohio, but she’s also part of a growing movement at the national level to bring birth parents and foster parents together, two sides of the child welfare system that haven’t always enjoyed working together closely. In June she attended the Birth and Foster Parent Convening, a gathering of 32 birth and foster parents from around the country. The event was supported by the National Alliance for Children’s Trust and Prevention Funds, a national membership organization for state children’s trust and prevention funds, in partnership with Casey Family Programs and the Youth Law Center/Quality Parenting Initiative.
“We’re trying to make shifts in culture,” said Meryl Levine, senior associate for the National Alliance of Children’s Trust and Prevention Funds. “We want to elevate parents’ voices and let stories be heard to improve policy and practice and keep families together.” In 2015 when officials from the three supporting organizations started talking about the important role that birth parents and foster parents play in the lives of vulnerable children, they wanted to figure out how to bring those two groups together. In most cases, the two work on opposite sides, even though they both care for and love the same child. They created the Birth and Foster Parent Partnership and hosted the convening in June 2017.
“The three organizations brainstormed how to impact policy and practice,” Levine said. “It was critical that relationships be created between birth parents and foster parents.”
The convening helped to identify more than a dozen practices and policies that can impact how foster parents and birth parents interact in order to achieve the best outcomes for kids in care and to help prevent children from entering the system in the first place.
“I’m always amazed when we work face-to-face, heart-to-heart, one-to-one,” Darrington said. “They put us in the same room and we get to talk about the what ifs. When we’re in the same room together, all of the fears melted away. It’s pretty amazing.”
Robyn Robbins is a 15-year veteran foster parent who was among those at the convening. In her early years of working in the system, Robbins counted herself among the foster parents who had difficulty working with birth parents. “I became involved with 40 families and I realized a few years ago, very few of my children were being sent back home, and I was very concerned with that,” Robbins said. “I felt this hole in the situation. The fear is a big part of what keeps us apart.”
When her agency in Sonoma County, California, introduced the Quality Parenting Initiative, which is an approach to help strengthen foster care by refocusing on quality parenting for children in the child welfare system, Robbins felt energized by the cultural shift taking place. Being part of the convening has been a “life-changing experience” for Robbins who has already brought to her agency ideas that she’s hoping will be implemented to help grow the relationship between birth parents and foster parents. Sonoma County is now in the process of piloting a project with birth parents and foster parents mentoring each other.
“Participating provided me an opportunity to be there for these kids in a deeper way,” Robbins said. “I’m getting to see the children and the connections to the family.”
As a part of the Birth Parent National Network, a national organization promoting birth parents as leaders and strategic partners, Washington resident Jeremiah Donier was asked to participate in the convening as well.
Several years ago, Donier had his infant daughter placed into care because he had harmed her. As he struggled with a mental illness, Donier wasn’t being the best parent. He and his wife made sure their daughter was taken in by relatives and they began the hard work of getting her back. Working with the now closed Children’s Ark in Spokane and Circle of Security International, which is an attachment parenting training, the couple were mentored in parenting.
“The program included five-hour visits per day with our children, which was phenomenal considering most parents [got] at most one to two-hour visits once or twice a week,” Donier said. “In the program, we learned things like infant massage, music time, play therapy, basic skills for feeding and changing, as well as couples and individual counseling. We were supervised at all times with our children, but also coached by staff how to interact and care for our babies.”
After a ton of hard work and success in addressing his mental health issues, Donier and his wife were able to have their daughter returned to their care, but the scars from that time are forever present. “When they leave your home, they don’t leave your heart,” Donier said.
That was 10 years ago. Today Donier is working on a master’s degree in behavioral health counseling and volunteers his time as a parent-to-parent mentor, working with other birth parents in similar situations since 2009. “I was able to learn from my experience and grow from that,” Donier said. “When birth parents and foster parents realize what the main goal is, we work better together. It puts the child at the center. Children thrive in a community of strong families.”
Since the convening, discussion continues around some of the suggestions on policy and practice to move forward the idea of foster parents and birth parents working on together. Several taskforces are working on strategies and recommendations for foster parents and birth parents to work better together within the child welfare system.
“The Birth and Foster Parent Partnership is continuing to work on the development of short- and long-term policy priorities and joint policy statements,” Levine said. “Policy and practice can reduce the trauma children experience.”
Three short-term goals include the following:
- Increase involvement of birth parents and foster parents in advocacy for improved policies and practices that benefit families and children.
- Identify strategies to help birth parents and foster parents work together to facilitate reunification and prevent re-entry.
- Increase capacity of child welfare systems to recruit and retain foster parents willing and able to partner with birth parents.
“Our hope is to select and couple of different counties we will put our energies into,” Levine said. To learn more about joining this partnership, contact Levine at [email protected] or by calling 818-523-9410.