In 2004, Child Protective Services (CPS) took Kimberly Mays’ daughter. It was the fifth time that one of her children had been taken away.
Mays was going to school and had recovered from drug addiction, but she had a rough history. From 1991 to 2001, the state had already terminated her parental rights four times for her nine other children.
The experience was traumatic, Mays said. The first two times the state took her children, the experience left her feeling helpless and alone. The next two times, she felt defeated and didn’t even try to fight the courts.
The fifth time, however, Mays was on the right track and had a judge who believed in her case. A Pierce County judge dismissed her case, and she was reunited with her daughter again.
Mays isn’t alone. The state handled 5,081 dependency cases in 2013, and terminated parental rights 1,814 times that year, according to the Washington State Center for Court Research.
While Mays was fighting to keep her parental rights, Brenda Lopez was developing a new way to support parents through the process, which can be isolating and disheartening without support.
Lopez was forming the Parents for Parents program, a support system that matches people like Mays who have successfully navigated the legal system with parents who are still fighting to keep their children.
Mays was one of the first people to work with Parents for Parents in Pierce County. Mays took the program to King County, where she modified it based on her own experiences and her college education in social work.
The Children’s Home Society’s Catalyst for Kids program took Mays’ work to other counties. Today the program is operating in Grays Harbor, King, Kitsap, Mason, Pacific, Pierce, Snohomish, Spokane and Thurston counties.
The Washington State Legislature is considering a bill this year that would fund the existing program and study the service to expand it to other parts of the state. If passed, House Bill 1728 and Senate Bill 5486 would allocate $800,000 to start the program this summer and $600,000 every two years. This would fund an effort to help organize parents who have navigated the child welfare system to help other parents do the same.
The funding would come at an important time. So far Parents for Parents has operated through grants from the Children’s Administration in the Department of Social and Health Services. The funding ends this year, and the state legislature could continue to support the program with the bills.
Proponents of the bills say the program helps parents reunify with family members and keeps children from staying in the foster care system any longer than necessary. It supports families and could possibly save the state money.
If they pass, the state will codify a program that was founded, nurtured and expanded by parents who were previously in the court system and almost lost their children. Many of the workers and proponents of the program once sat in a courtroom, close to losing their children due to drug use or mental illness.
“I took my own experience of my own failed dependencies: what worked and what didn’t,” Mays said. “I started morphing and changing the model to better serve families.”
Parents run the show
Lopez based Parents for Parents on her own experience, too. She almost lost her kids in 1998. She had two children who had been taken by CPS for neglect.
Entering the court room, she already was traumatized by losing her children. Now she had to face a legal system she didn’t understand.
“That was one of the most overwhelming things to me,” Lopez said. “As emotionally traumatized as I already was, I was going into a system I was taught my whole life to fear.”
Today, with Parents for Parents established in nine counties, people have a wholly different experience. They still experience the horror of losing their children, but now there’s another parent who approaches them at the hearing to say, “I’ve been there, and you can do this.”
The change is visible the very moment the parents meet to talk.
“If you witness a parent in that moment, it’s like a crumpled piece of paper unfolds into a straight piece of paper,” Mays said.
Soon after, the parents take a class called Dependency 101. Social workers and lawyers familiar with the court system give presentations on how parents can get their kids back. But, it’s the parents who run the show, Mays said.
Parents use lay terms to describe the esoteric legal process. They go over lots of dos — show up to every hearing, document everything, ask for more help when you need it — and don’ts — don’t emote when you hear the prosecuting attorney say something disagreeable, don’t overreact.
From that point forward, parents in the court system can keep in touch with the “veteran” parents who have already been through the system.
In the last few months, Parents for Parents workers have helped people navigate their new lives, ideally toward pursuing an education, securing employment and building community.
And some of the parents end up becoming Parents for Parents workers, volunteer positions paid with a stipend.
Parents for Parents volunteers and professional case workers say the program works because people are more likely to listen to someone who’s been through the process rather than a lawyer, judge or social worker.
Alise Hegle, parent engagement coordinator at Catalyst for Kids and former Parents for Parents volunteer, said she’s that mom who held her daughter for a moment before cps took her child away; she was the mom scared and alone in a courtroom; and she was the mom who got her daughter back and is now working full-time as a social worker.
“I can meet parents where they’re at, because I understand what it’s like to change every single piece of my life,” Hegle said.
Jill Murphy, Parents for Parents program supervisor in King County, is a social worker. Before, parents only knew their next court date and left with a few phone numbers for services such as mental health counseling and treatment for drug addiction, Murphy said. Parents for Parents provides a person to help people make the call to get help. The legal system wasn’t there to help parents follow through.
“We didn’t have the ability to reengage a parent when things started going awry,” Murphy said. “When you have someone who has been through it, you have a higher chance of success.”
The bills in the legislature call for a study of the program to assess its efficiency. People who have developed the program believe it is helping more parents reunify with their children — and faster than before.
The state can save money if dependency cases are resolved quickly. It costs the state about $10,000 per child each year to keep them in foster care.
Most of the parents who have nurtured this program have experienced the fear of possibly losing their child. For them, the success is represented by families who are back together again.
It’s almost been a decade since Mays’ dependency case, and her life is completely different. She works as a social worker for the Washington State Office of Public Defense Parents Representation Program.
And she’s reconnected with and supports eight of the nine children she lost in her first four dependency cases.
Af ter several at tempts, she reached them through their adoptive parents.
It’s stories like Mays’ that help other parents do the same: “If I can do it,” she said, “you can do it, too.”