SCO’s Parent Advocates Engage, Advocate & Support

advocates + Liza Blank

Back row (L-R): Liza Blank, Annette Gonzalez, Rhonda Frazier Johnson. Front row (L-R): Tameka Christie, Yolanda Jimenez.

Rhonda Frazier Johnson was a victim of domestic violence when her children were placed into foster care 25 years ago. While she worked to meet the requirements for reunification, Rhonda was left to figure out the court’s multiple demands by herself.

“It was pretty much, ‘Go, do all these things and good luck.  Come back when you’ve got it all together,’” Frazier Johnson recalls.

Fortunately for families whose children are in care with SCO Family of Services, there are Parent Advocates – including Frazier Johnson – who can help.

Recognizing that birth parents needed help during the reunification process, SCO Family of Services began a Parent Advocate pilot program ten years ago. The pilot was so successful that a number of agencies have since adopted SCO’s model, and SCO’s four original Parent Advocates – Frazier Johnson, Tameka Christie, Annette Gonzalez and Yolanda Jimenez  – continue to define industry best practices and deliver life-changing results to those they serve through their work in SCO’s Parent Advocate Program.

What makes these four women particularly unique is that they were selected in part because each has a personal history as part of the foster care system, with past experiences that run the gamut from being a foster parent, to having had their own children in care to, in Christie’s case, having been in care herself as a child.

“What I think is extraordinary about the Parent Advocates is that they’re people who have had their own challenging histories,” said SCO Family Enhancement Support Services Director Liza Blank, who oversees the Parent Advocate Program. “They use their experiences to make themselves more compassionate and understanding.”

All four Advocates agree that compassion is one of the most important qualities of a successful Advocate, because this allows them to build relationships and trust with birth parents. “I think we’re on a much more personal level with our clients, because we’re not case workers,” says Gonzalez. “We kind of feel them out and get to know them as a person first and then slowly start working toward the goals. At first, some of the birth parents are aggressive and angry. They need some time to process that before we can even begin to work.”

“Many of the birth parents feel like everyone in the agency is against them,” said Christie. ”So we have to build that rapport with the birth parents, and listen to them and get them to understand where we’re coming from and where the agency is coming from because they’re not hearing it. Meanwhile, many of these parents may not even fully understand why their child came into care. So that kind of becomes our job to explain it to them.”

The potential for misunderstanding on the part of the birth parent is significant, considering that the emotional blow dealt by the news that their child is being placed in care is immediately followed by a legal jargon-filled explanation and a list of complicated requirements that must be fulfilled in order to reunify the family. “For families who often have significant trauma histories, having their children placed in care creates significant emotional upheaval,” said Blank.

As a result, much of the Parent Advocate’s job is just to lend a supportive ear, allowing the parents to vent their frustrations and also feel heard. “You have to remember,” said Christie, “a lot of times, it feels like no one is listening to them. They go to court and everyone hears, but no one is listening to what the parent is saying. So we’ll sit there and listen to them vent for half an hour just to let them get that off their chest. And once they do, they feel better, they’re more relaxed, they’re more willing to do things because now they feel like you’re actually paying attention to what they’re feeling and what they’re thinking, rather than telling them what they should think and do.”

“We allow them to be themselves,” said Frazier Johnson. “We don’t ask them to change their feelings. It’s all about partnering with the birth parents and relationship-building so that you can move forward in the case and get them to do whatever task needs to be done.”

“What needs to be done” can be daunting. Court mandated services required for reunification include  securing housing, Medicaid, mental health counseling, and a stable income (usually in the form of public assistance).  The requirements also come with a time limit: If the child is in care for longer than a certain amount of time (typically between 18-22 months), the agency is obligated to apply for adoption for the child. So while it may take some parents up to a month to finally engage with and trust their Parent Advocate, at the same time the Advocates remain conscious of the fact that the clock is ticking.

As a result, the Advocates take a very hands-on approach to helping the birth parents meet the court’s requirements.  Depending on the client’s needs, an Advocate may see the same birth parent 20-25 days in a single month, taking on many roles such as court advocate, translator and liaison between the client and multiple government agencies and not-for-profit organizations.  A large part of the job is helping clients overcome communication barriers, says Jimenez. “A lot of clients have trouble filling out forms, but they don’t want to admit that they don’t understand or that they don’t know how to read or write. A lot of these parents are immigrants and they don’t know what they’re reading, but they’re too ashamed to say I don’t understand, so they’ll just sign without knowing what they agreed to.”

But the Advocates provide their clients with far more than administrative support. Over the years they’ve helped clients clean and re-paint their apartments, buy furniture, move into new housing, and even enroll their child in school or day care once he/she returns to the home. Recently, when a client had a miscarriage that caused her to miss an appearance in housing court, her PA successfully advocated for the client to get a new court date and not be penalized for her medical emergency. A typical day for the Advocate might include escorting a client and her children to apply for housing – a process that requires spending 10-12 hours waiting and doing paperwork in the chaotic environment of a busy office filled with other families. The primary objective is to stay with the parent and do whatever it takes – providing emotional support and company, changing diapers, taking the children to play outside to give the parent a few minutes to breathe, etc.— to make sure the client doesn’t get overwhelmed and leave.

“The ultimate goal for the Parent Advocate is to get the parent to be reunified with their children,” said Christie. “So whatever obstacle comes up that gets in the way of that goal, the Parent Advocates try to find a way to handle it.“ And they usually do, by pulling from their own experience, tapping the collective wealth of knowledge the Advocates gladly share with one another, or even through simple trial-and-error. “I think we’ve become really resourceful,” said Frazier Johnson, while Blank and the other Advocates nodded in agreement.

For the Parent Advocates, the long days, the texts on nights and weekends from a client in need, the unexpected challenges that inevitably arise and the emotional demands of doing this work are all well worth it. “I love my job,” said Christie. “It just makes me feel so good that I can help a family reunite.”

“Every accomplishment becomes a victory for us,” said Frazier Johnson. “It can be something as small as going to the next level in the case by winning an appeal for housing. In those moments I think, ‘Remember yesterday it looked dark and now today we’re going to get that housing!’ There’s a lot of victories.”

Many former clients still keep in touch. “I get calls from cases that have been closed for years,” Gonzalez said, adding that former clients will also come by the agency with their children to catch up and share their gratitude. A few have even recommended their Advocate by name to friends facing similar challenges. Christie has received children’s report cards and notes of gratitude from clients who have moved out of state. Recently, she even attended a former client’s college graduation ceremony, where she was welcomed as a guest of honor.

“After 20 years in the field of education and social work, I am stunned by the combination of the parent advocates’ compassion and level of expertise in navigating complex systems,” said Blank. “It’s extraordinary.”

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