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Breaking barriers: Parents to become mentors to those navigating the foster care system

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Hadassah Meyer

Hadassah Meyer (center) and her three sons Ian Willis, Ashton Meyer and Aj Willis are seen. Meyer will be one of the first parent mentors to assist others going throught the foster care system to be reunified with their children.

A foster kid pregnant at a young age and forced to grow up too soon, ultimately, she lost custody of her children. It’s a story that has played out time and time again, through varying circumstances, in Jefferson County. Is there a way to break the cycle? A new Jefferson County program called Parents Supporting Parents hopes to do just that.

“I was a foster kid as well,” said Hadassah Meyer a Jefferson native. She went into the system when she was 13. “I went back with my mother after about two years or so,” she said.

After her time in the foster care system Meyer said she wasn’t a good kid.

“I got in trouble a lot. I got pregnant young, at 18, and had to grow up too fast. I did some things I regret. Things that make you feel ashamed, embarrassed, there’s a lot of guilt. You feel alone and angry.”

She lost custody of her three children.

“My kids were away from me for about three years and I was in a very bad spot. I drank a lot. I partied a lot. I didn’t have a job,” she said. “There is an awakening point where you stop and think what I am doing. I don’t have my children. I didn’t talk to them for an entire year at one time.”

For Meyer it was hard work that got her kids back with her.

“You want people to understand what you are going through. You feel alone, like there is no one you can talk to and like no one will understand. You have a case worker who is telling you what to do and they don’t understand what you are going through. You don’t see them as someone who is trying to help you at the time. They are like the enemy,” she said. “You’ve got that guilt and you feel that shame and that’s where I picked myself up. I was working overtime and I got my own place.”

Meyer is preparing to become one of Jefferson County’s first parent mentors, in hopes her experience will serve as helpful to others going through the same journey.

Jefferson County Human Services is part of an innovative change in child welfare practice, implementing the Parents Supporting Parents: Wisconsin’s Parent Partner Model program.

“This is an evidence-based model aimed at empowering parents with lived Child Protective Service experience as mentors to parents currently involved in the system, while integrating the voice of lived experience into the Wisconsin child welfare system,” said Andrea Szwec, family well-being coordinator for the Parents Supporting Parents program.

Parents Supporting Parents will utilize parent mentors, known as family well-being specialists, who have successfully resolved the child protection issues that resulted in their children being placed in out-of-home care to offer support, guidance and hope to parents currently experiencing a removal of their children.

In August 2019, the Department of Children and Families offered the opportunity for all 72 counties in Wisconsin to apply for funding as one of the state’s first pilot sites for this new family engagement model. Jefferson County applied for and was awarded one of the grants to implement the program over the next three years with total funding at about $460,000.

Wisconsin is adopting the Iowa Parent Partner Program model which has been successfully operating for 12 years and has demonstrated a strong evidence base around reunification and subsequent removals. Family well-being specialists will be employed by the county agency on a part-time basis and work as part of a team to support families whose children are in out of home care.

Szwec said the research on parent partner programs shows positive outcomes including: higher rates of reunification and lower rates or reentry into the child welfare system; parents receiving service reported increased hope and belief in themselves and felt supported; promotion of skill development and career pathways for parent mentors, who also reported an increase in self-worth, self-esteem and participation in their community and a culture shift and systems change in areas of programming, practice and policy.

Meyer, who has had her three children back living with her for four years, says parents who are working through the system have to realize the case workers are not the enemy in their situation.

“Be strong,” she said. “I know the county does look like the enemy, but they are not. That’s a lesson I had to learn. There is a way out.”

Earlier this year the program began reaching out to parents who have been reunited with their children, looking for those who would be interested in becoming parent mentors.

“I think the program is amazing,” Meyer said. “When I first got the letter asking me to participate. I was excited. It’s good for the parents who need support and gives parents like me a chance to be something better and do something we never thought we could. I went from working in factories to now working with the county and doing something good with my life.”

After being laid off from her full-time job due to COVID-19, Meyer took her hobby refinishing antique furniture and turned it into a business. She now hopes working with the Parents Supporting Parents program will be another opportunity for her to do something good with her life that impacts others in a similar situation to hers.

“I think with the experience we have, hopefully it breaks barriers with trust and we can teach them what worked for us, and tell them what we were going through, and what the breaking point was letting them know you can do this. If I can do it, you can do it.”

“The goal is to implement the program in 2021,” Szwec said. “As one of the three Innovation Zones in Wisconsin, Jefferson County is using 2020 as a planning year to prepare for implementation. The planning year is focused on building the infrastructure of the local program, increasing community awareness and participation, recruiting parents to be employed as family well-being specialists, and establishing the local level governance through the advisory council.”

The program will operate within the Human Services Department and will consist of a family well-being coordinator who will manage and supervise the team; family well-being specialists, who will mentor families involved in the system and clinical support from a licensed mental health provider who will facilitate monthly support for the local team of family well-being specialists.

As the family well-being specialists grow in their roles as parent mentors they will continue to receive training as well as attend local and statewide committees, trainings and collaborations.

So far, Szwec said four parents have expressed interest in becoming family well-being specialists.

She says she hopes the parent mentors are a person who, parents trying to be reunified with their children, can look to as a mentor.

“Just having someone there who can offer that ongoing support and show they there is light at the end of the tunnel,” Szwec said. “They can show how to be successful in having your children reunified. Partnering them with someone who was successful could be powerful for them. We all have the same goal we want kids to be with their parents. We work with a lot of parents who are isolated and don’t have a positive social support network and if we can help build that we should.”

Since she was a foster kid herself, Meyer hopes a program like this will help to break the cycle.

“I’ve always wanted to work with people. It’s great something so dark in my life can turn into a way I can help. If something good can come out of it, I’m very excited about it.”

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