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Parents saving other parents, and their neglected kids

Dana Dildine in her office at the King County Regional Justice Center

Ten years ago Dana Dildine was a mess – and, the Washington Department of Health and Social Services and King County Superior Court concluded, a terminally failed parent. She’d lived the whole disaster: She had her first child when she was 14, then married a guy with a drug habit and had another child. She got hooked on OxyContin after an auto accident in 2002: “My doctor pretty much gave me anything I wanted.” When she got pregnant again, she asked her doctor to help ease her off the drugs: “He just cut me off.” She went to a hospital. “They told me if I just quit cold, it could hurt the baby. So they put me on methadone” — a synthetic opioid prescribed as a maintenance alternative for those addicted to heroin and other opiates. Her daughter Cherish was born addicted to methadone.

Three months later Dildine was kicked off the methadone program for taking narcotic muscle relaxants as well. She turned to getting her drugs on the street and, as she put it “just went downward.” She spent time on the street, attempted suicide, overdosed 25 times by her own count, and saw the insides of four mental hospitals.

Dildine’s story followed a predictable course. She became one of the 5,000 or so parents in Washington pulled into what’s called dependency court each year for neglecting or, in about a third of cases, abusing their children. The state’s Child Protective Services took Dildine’s kids from her and filed what’s called a dependency petition, declaring that because she and their father could not care for them safely, they were now dependents of the state. Her mother took them in — a better break, it turned out years later, than Dildine could imagine at the time.

The other big break, also years away, would turn out to be a connection with other parents who had been in the same position and were now part of innovative efforts to strengthen and reunite families when the mothers or fathers are failing to provide adequate care.

Her case wound through dependency court for two-and-a-half years. She gave up and blew off the rehab and other services the court ordered her to get. She felt helpless and alone: “I had no support. CPS treated me like a criminal. My social workers treated me horribly. Even my attorney” — a public defender — “wasn’t there for me. I was just a case number.”

That might sound like self-serving grousing, but it jibes with the accounts of many professionals in the dependency courts. “We [attorneys] were pretty much just reactive back then,” says Laura Hughes, a lawyer who’s represented parents in Spokane County’s dependency courts since 2005. “We were in court all the time. We didn’t have time to work the case for the parent. We were processing the paperwork that led to termination” — termination, that is, of all parental rights, forever.

In 2006 the court terminated Dildine’s rights to her three children and a fourth born along the way, which her mother eventually took in as well. Her husband also got “terminated,” and wound up in prison. In 2009 Dildine got pregnant by a man who was clean and sober but just passing through. She concealed her pregnancy with bulky sweaters, faked symptoms of fibromyalgia, and continued getting prescribed methadone. Her fifth child, a daughter, was born addicted too, and taken away in the hospital.

“Once my last child was taken, I didn’t want to live anymore,” Dildine recalls. “But then I said, I’m not going to let CPS take away another child!” She went into detox, then spent 12 months in a residential rehab program. “I got support, but I wasn’t doing it for me,” she recalls. “I did it just to get my daughter back.” If she could keep her daughter and resume using, she would. She was set for another fall.

Dildine left treatment to stay with her mother, who’d been belatedly diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer — and with her own kids. Two weeks later, her mother died. “I was left in her house, home with all my children for the first time in my life.” It all seemed to go too easily; eight months later she relapsed. One day a state trooper pulled her over on the freeway, swerving and weaving and nodding out on methadone, with her daughter in the back seat. “I went back to jail, and all my kids went back into the system.” The court parceled them out to her aunt and mother-in-law and a godmother.

Dildine’s youngest daughter’s father and his wife appeared “out of the blue” to claim the child she had fought so hard to keep. “The social worker was going to give her up to them, even though she didn’t know them at all. I couldn’t believe it. I was ready to just give up.”

Dildine believes she would have given up if she hadn’t met another parent who’d been through the same ordeal and was now working in a bootstrap program to help other parents get through it.

Seventeen years ago, a young mother in Pierce County named Brenda Lopez was threatened with losing her children in dependency court. Lopez found herself trapped on the same merry-go-round of arcane procedure and mystifying jargon that no one bothered to explain to her. She faced the same ordeals Dildine later would: “I was completely on my own, treated like less than human,” she says. The people handling her case “talked as if I wasn’t there.”

Even court officials acknowledge how opaque and bewildering the process can seem. “Parents don’t know our lingo,” says Jorene Reiber, the director of King County’s family court services. “They come into the system completely scared and confused.”

Nevertheless, with her church’s help Lopez managed to locate the services she needed and kept her children. She began volunteering at the church, then worked there as janitor, and finally became facilities manager. She started speaking to other embattled parents about the dependency process. “I wanted to make it different for other parents,” she says. “I didn’t want other people to go through what I went through.”

Meanwhile, impetus for change was building in the dependency courts. Some judges had become alarmed at the high share of cases — about 60 percent in Pierce County — that ended with parents’ rights terminated and their children consigned to foster care and, if they were lucky, adoption. It was an outcome with fiscal costs to the state —about $10,000 a year to keep each child in foster care — and much higher human costs, measured in broken families and traumatized foster kids who face a gauntlet of new risks.

Periodically, various members of the court hold regional meetings, called Reasonable Effort Symposiums, to consider improvements in the system. At a 2005 symposium, the professionals began talking about seeking nonprofessional help. As Julie Lowery, then a guardian ad litem in Pierce County Juvenile Court, recalls, “everyone talked about how great it would be to get veteran parents [who’d made it successfully through the system] involved.”

Lowery took the ball, and then enlisted Lopez to run with it. Lowery had served as the guardian ad litem, looking after the children’s interests, in Brenda Lopez’s dependency ordeal; she was one of the professionals Lopez had found so aloof. But they’d kept in touch since. Lowery applied for a $25,000 grant from the state’s Court Improvement Project to create a video and a class — “Dependency 101” — demystifying the process for the wayward parents swept into it. She got the grant, and encouraged Lopez to apply for the job of executing it.

The choice was a controversial one. “Many people didn’t feel parents who had been in the system could be responsible enough to run a program like this,” says Lopez. “The counties wanted professionals to lead it.” Nevertheless, she got the job, fulfilled the grant — and did much more.

Starting in Pierce County Juvenile Court, Lopez established what are commonly called “parents for parents” programs in eight counties. The basic premise: that “veteran parents” who have successfully navigated the child-welfare system, met the dependency challenge, and kept their families together can reach out to shell-shocked newcomers in ways suspect outsiders can’t.

One of the first veteran parents Lopez hired was a woman named Kimberly Mays with an even longer trail of addiction (heroin, crack cocaine) and failed parenting (nine children lost in four dependency cases). The fifth time around, as Real Change reported earlier this year, Mays managed to clean up her life and reunite with her youngest daughter; she would later earn a master’s degree.

After training under Lopez, Mays came north to start a Parents for Parents Program in King County. There she approached Dana Dildine  when Dildine came to dependency court for the third time, managed to get clean and recover her youngest daughter – and then relapsed and, it seemed, lost all her children for good.

“I was ready to give up,” says Dildine. “If it wasn’t for Kimberly Mays, I would have. Kimberly said, ‘You’re doing [rehab] for you, so don’t stop. Your daughter will be there. You’ll get this done for yourself, so you can get a solid foundation, and when she comes back into your life you’ll be ready to receive her with open arms.’”

This time Dildine stayed in treatment 18 months and, she says, finally confronted the traumas — childhood abuse, no father present — that had driven her to seek chemical escape. “Till I got into treatment I didn’t realize what my issues were. Now I went deep, into the core of them.” And came out the other side.

Then, like Job, that biblical paragon of the parent who loses everything, Dildine experienced a miraculous restoration. “Two months after I got out of treatment I got my children back.” That was possible because they had stayed with relatives rather than getting adopted out, and because Washington is one of the few states that sometimes restore terminated parental rights – but only when a child at least 12 years old who hasn’t been adopted seeks to retie the bond. Her youngest daughter’s father relinquished her to Dildine after splitting up with his wife.

“God was working.” So was the system. Dildine began working under Mays as a paid volunteer. When Mays left to work as a social worker in Olympia, Dildine applied for her job. She now leads King County’s Parents for Parents Program.

Here as in the other counties, the strategy is to reach floundering parents at a critical juncture: at the “72-hour shelter care hearing” held to determine whether their children can safely return home or must be placed in other care. Ann Brice, a veteran parents’ attorney in Everett, calls it “the worst day of their lives.” The parent helpers urge them to attend a two-hour class called Dependency 101. There, the helpers and various official players — a court commissioner, DSHS social worker, assistant attorney general representing DSHS, parents’ attorney, and guardian ad litem or CASA volunteer (court-appointed special advocate for the children) — explain the system and their own roles in it, what parents should expect and what they must do if they want to get their kids back. It’s the veteran parents who run the class.

The veteran parents hang in as cases unfold, just as Mays did with Dildine. They steer the parents to the services they need: drug treatment, counseling and health care, housing or rental assistance. Everyone needs at least one: “I would say 70 to 75 percent of the cases involve chemical dependency,” says Trina Coleman, a social worker with the state Office of Public Defense working in Spokane County’s dependency court. “Mental health is also significant, specifically trauma … but poverty is the Number One issue.”

Lopez also established Dependency 201 classes — ongoing support groups — and Dependency 301, when parents meet to perform monthly community service and enjoy what Lopez calls “healthy alternative activities — bowling, picnics in the park, a Christmas party,” with the kids if possible. In Spokane and King counties, everyone on up to the judges gathers for annual Reunification Day picnics honoring parents who have managed to beat their demons and be reunited with their kids.

Craig Smith, a veteran parents’ attorney in Spokane, calls that county’s peer parents’ intervention scheme “AA for dependent parents.” And like many other court professionals, he thinks this amateur program is terrific. “It really helps for parents to see people who have gone through the process,” he explains. “They feel brutalized, they think people aren’t telling the truth and are taking their kids away for no reason. It’s addiction denial. Maybe things aren’t as bad as things as described by the department. But they usually are that bad — parents just don’t realize it.” And it takes other formerly failing parents to make them face the facts.

Judge Helen Halpert
Judge Helen Halpert

“I love that program!” exclaims Superior Court Judge Helen Halpert, who tries King County’s toughest dependency cases, the ones that go to trial — not least because the mentors get parents who might otherwise despair to take the first essential step: to show up. King County Court Commissioner Jennie Laird, who handles the cases that don’t go to trial, refers to the parent mentoring as “the most effective and helpful interaction in the dependency process.”

Contrary to the original Parents for Parents scheme, not all those who provide that interaction are “successful“ veteran parents. “One of our best parental advocates is a woman whose parental rights I terminated,” says Judge Halpert. “She’s a wonderful person who’s turned her life around.”

Most of the parents struggling to keep their families together are women, but not all. The state has labored to get more fathers involved, and the effort seems to be paying off. “You see more and more men all the time,” says Lopez, now a consultant in dependency cases. “I have three guys now on my caseload of 26.”

Commissioner Laird thinks the veteran fathers are “particularly effective” at inspiring their younger counterparts to take responsibility. “I don’t know whether it’s the role model that makes a difference or the proof that it’s possible. I’ve seen men from the father’s engagement program sitting in the courtroom during hearings to support them. And they help not only in the dependency process but with all aspects of being a father.”

Commissioner Jennie Laird
Commissioner Jennie Laird Credit: Jacob Nierenberg/Crosscut

One family at a time, the numbers are adding up. Spokane County only launched its Hope program (its version of Parents to Parents) in 2013, amid some apprehension. Already, says coordinator Heather Cantamessa (a veteran parent and ex-drug user with her own grueling history) about 400 parents and 300 of their supporters and guests have attended its Dependency 101 classes. In King County, Dildine’s Dependency 101 classes draw more than 100 parents each year.

Over the past decade, many counties have dramatically increased the share of dependency cases that end in family reunification rather than parental termination — from about 40 to 60 percent in Pierce County, from less than 30 to more than 50 percent in Spokane. Parent programs aren’t the only reason; dependency courts in several large counties have also adopted collaborative team structures that ensure more attention and continuity for both children and parents than traditional musical-bench court dockets. But evaluations have started to show that the parent programs have helped bring the turnaround.

In 2011 the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges reviewed King County’s Parents for Parents Program and found that parents who participated in it were more likely to attend court hearings and comply with court-ordered case plans and visitation schedules. Those groups that benefited most were African American men, Native American women, and Caucasian families, who were more likely to be reunited and less likely to have parental rights terminated if they participated. Surveys found that parents had significantly higher regard for and expectations of the dependency process — and, especially, for those familiar bogeys, CPS workers — after taking the Dependency 101 class. An evaluation of Pierce County’s program by the state/university/nonprofit collaboration Partners for Our Children found that it reduced parents’ feelings of isolation, hopelessness and resistance.

All this is happening in the context of a wider cultural change in child-welfare enforcement. Participants on all sides of the process speak of a growing (though far from universal) spirit of collaboration and a determination to reunite families wherever possible. Dildine says the CPS social workers were much more supportive on her third trip through dependency court than during the first; she credits the transformation to Parents for Parents, which showed them that even the most messed-up parents could change. But the Parents for Parents programs emerged from an official culture that was seeking new solutions.

“It’s like the chicken and the egg,” says Julie Lowery, who as much as anyone created Parents for Parents. “The culture has changed as a result, and not just at CPS. But it was starting to change anyway.

The parents idea wasn’t entirely new when it arose in Washington. In the mid-1990s, parent advocates in New York City began clamoring for reform of what they saw as a hostile child-welfare system. Gradually they won recognition and a place at the table, a shift summed up in the title of a book on the movement, David Tobis’s From Pariahs to Partners. Peer-parent programs have risen and, what with the vagaries of funding, sometimes faded in scattered places nationwide, from Los Angeles to Iowa. But according to Nora McCarthy, the founder and editor of the New York-based parent-advocacy magazine Rise, “Washington has taken the idea further than any other place has.”

For all that, parent-to-parent programs have operated hand-to-mouth and under other constraints. They’ve scraped along on relatively small grants from DSHS and nonprofits such as the Children’s Home Society, the Casey Family Programs, and Spokane’s Empire Health Foundation. Some able parents who’d like to participate may not be permitted to; Cantamessa, the Spokane program’s coordinator, says she can’t admit those who are on probation or have court-ordered legal financial obligations (LFOs) hanging over them. “Some people are going to be paying on their LFOs for the rest of their lives,” she explains. “And we all have criminal histories.” That’s how they got there, and part of what makes them qualified.

Changes in those rules may come eventually; funding to expand Parents for Parents arrived last month. That’s when a bill (HB 1728 and SB 5486) that the Legislature passed overwhelmingly in April took effect. It allocates nearly $600,000 per biennium for parent-to-parent programs in county court systems, which the Office for Public Defense and Children’s Home Society will distribute. Nowadays no one seems to dispute this spin on the old watchword: Mother and father know what’s best — for moms and dads who haven’t figured it out yet.

Coming up: Courts from Seattle to Spokane try to break the cycle of opaque, unaccountable dependency proceedings that leave parents lost and families divided. Could teamwork be the answer?

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