Sometimes children are best left in “bad” homes.
Evidence is pouring in that keeping families together – even those deemed dysfunctional – is less harmful than pulling them apart.
It’s a U-turn in thinking and practice for child advocates, as new programs emerge with the aim of keeping children in their homes while fixing families.
“When the state has to be a parent, we do our best. But it’s never best for the state to be a parent if we have the family as an option, ” said Kevin Quigley, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services.
Two weeks ago, Heather Cantamessa delivered the keynote speech at a “Better Me, Better Parents” conference.
Years ago, social workers seized her kids again and again as she wrestled with poverty, drugs and an emotionally abusive lover who ping-ponged in and out of her life.
Two of her babies were born addicted to meth.
With her kids in foster care she despaired, but she quit drugs and began building a better life. Often the hurdles seemed insurmountable. And then seven years ago came the surprising phone call: Social workers wanted to put her family back together.
Today Cantamessa’s children thrive under her care.
She knows her story of hope and perseverance is a powerful example of second chances. Yet many families can’t achieve her success.
Does that mean they should lose their children? Cantamessa says “No.” And others agree.
No one advocates keeping children in dangerous homes. But the majority of state interventions are centered on drug abuse and neglect, not headline-grabbing horrors of violence and dangerous neglect.
Cantamessa, 36, started Spokane County’s Parents-for-Parents class called H.O.P.E., which stands for Helping Other Parents Engage. It’s among the growing efforts in Spokane involving government, community and philanthropic groups to heal families rather than tear them apart.
The Empire Health Foundation is a driving force. The Spokane-based nonprofit is supporting promising local efforts and has researched child welfare reform nationwide.
“The immediate concern for this community is how do we get upstream and keep these families together and get to the root of the problem?” said Antony Chiang, Empire Health Foundation president.
The nonprofit is interested in bringing a program to Spokane modeled after an initiative in Medford, Oregon, that is delivering impressive results.
Housing and life skills provided
Rita Sullivan’s heart breaks every time she hears of a child’s desperate plea to stay with mom and dad.
She’s made it her mission to quell those cries.
“The children removed from their parents do not fare well, and most are returned to their families with little change other than further damage to their already fragile parent-child bonds, ” said Sullivan, a clinical psychologist in Medford. “The trauma and associated negative effects of removal can last a lifetime.”
Sullivan built the Jackson County Collaboration, an unusual program with a sharp focus on repairing people while families remain together.
To that end Sullivan took extraordinary steps.
She acquired and developed housing that offers in-house treatment facilities for mothers and their children and another for fathers. Parents undergo intense substance-abuse treatment, attend group therapy and learn to parent; they are not released without a place to live.
“Without this, I’d probably be dead, ” one of the residents said last spring.
Most of the families who come into the program don’t have the credit or rental history needed to move into their own place. So Sullivan figured out a way to finance the construction of two low-income, drug- and alcohol-free apartment complexes where families can build new lives.
Apartments offer families the opportunity to build a functional home life, but they are monitored around the clock. Case workers are on site to teach families even the most basic skills, as well as problem-solving and coping mechanisms.
A.J. Oden moved into a unit earlier this year with his two daughters, determined to give up a life of meth use. He didn’t know how to cook a meal or clean a home.
“This is teaching me life skills, ” he said, adding simply, “I want to be their dad.”
Valerie Green, Oden’s neighbor, said: “I like this because you get to work on this as a family. It’s a very good place to build a foundation.”
The counselors who oversee the units are all former drug addicts.
“If some ‘normie’ walks up and tells me what to do, I’m not going to listen, ” said Mindi Patton, another resident. “What interests me is their wisdom. They’ve been in my shoes.”
Sullivan’s efforts caught the attention of a state senator who sponsored a bill to replicate the program in every Oregon county. Senate Bill 964 – Strengthening, Preserving and Reunifying Families – passed in 2012, and so far nine similar programs have been rolled out. The money each county saves in foster care will be reinvested in programs to keep families together.
So far, Jackson County, where Medford is located, has saved 50 percent in foster care costs. Even better, Sullivan notes: Fewer adults are mistreating their children after leaving the program compared to those who did not go through it, children are staying in school at higher rates and 100 percent of them are receiving needed physical, mental, developmental and health services.
The success didn’t happen overnight. Sullivan started building the program 20 years ago, firm in her belief that keeping families together is a better way to go. She made it her mission to demonstrate that to child-protection workers, politicians and judges.
Sullivan, who runs OnTrack Inc., an addiction recovery and counseling agency, was already familiar with many of the parents involved in child welfare cases because they’d been her clients, and she began to see their children coming through her office.
She believed that taking an addict’s child away meant they no longer had a reason to quit.
“Using drugs doesn’t mean you don’t love your kids, nor does it mean the kids don’t love the parents, ” Sullivan said. “The highest motivational moment (for them to quit) is when (child welfare) steps in.”
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