Friday, December 22, 2006

Parent advocates help birth parents put their lives back together

Voices of experience
Parent advocates help state put families back together
Yetter, Deborah. Louisville Courier-Journal, Dec. 14, 2006, pg. A1.

More than 10 years later, Lynda Dougherty says she will never forget the shock of losing temporary custody of her daughter because of Dougherty's drinking and drug abuse.

"I was sitting there crying," Dougherty recalled. "I walked into court with my daughter, and I walked out without her."

Dougherty, 42, regained custody after completing drug and alcohol treatment. She is back in the courtroom, this time as an advocate for other parents in the same predicament.

Dougherty is one of 18 parent advocates in a nearly year-old pilot project in Jefferson County through the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services aimed at helping families navigate the child- welfare system. All are part-time volunteers except Dougherty, who works full-time on an Americorps grant.

Early results have been so impressive that Tom Emberton Jr., the state commissioner of social services, said he's working on a plan to expand parent advocates statewide.

"This is a wonderful program," said Emberton , who believes it could help keep families together, reducing the growing number of children in state custody.

All parent advocates must have been through the child- welfare system themselves and successfully resolved their cases. Those in drug or alcohol recovery must have been sober for at least a year.

The purpose of the project is to provide parents extra help to regain custody of children removed because of abuse or neglect — " to bridge the gap between parents and social workers," said LaRonda Davis, the coordinator.

The belief is that parents who have been through the system are best equipped to help .

The project began in January in Louisville with a $50,000 grant from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. It is drawing praise from state officials, lawmakers and families helped by the advocates.

"They brought my life back together," said Howard Danzy, a single father who lost custody of his three sons because of problems related to his alcoholism.

Danzy said his parent advocate went to court with him, attended meetings of social workers and others involved in his case, and helped him succeed in a recovery program to stop drinking — even going with him to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

Knowing his advocate had been through the same thing inspired him, Danzy said.

"That was a big difference," said Danzy, who has regained custody of his sons and is now thinking of becoming a parent advocate .

Emberton said he plans to use about $350,000 in state funds to create parent advocates in 23 centers statewide where adults attend parenting classes. Most have been directed to attend by a judge or social worker because of neglect or abuse .

He said he also intends to find state money to continue the program in Jefferson County when the grant expires next year.

The state hasn't decided when it will start the expanded program but is working with Prevent Child Abuse Kentucky, a non profit organization that focuses on education, advocacy and preventing abuse, Emberton said.

Davis said statistics aren't complete for the 11-month-old project, but preliminary information shows that more children are being reunit ed with families.

Members of a state panel looking into Kentucky's child- welfare system said last month that they like the concept of having people who have been in the system help others.

"It's an example of community resources being used, of communities helping themselves," said David Cozart of LexLinc, a Lexington advocacy organization.

Shelton McElroy, 29, a single father, became an advocate after he resolved a bitter custody dispute in Jefferson Family Court over his daughter, 20-month-old Jasmin Davis . He and Jasmin's mother now have shared custody — and an amicable relationship, he said.

McElroy was removed from his home as a child and grew up in foster care. That's one reason he decided to volunteer as a parent advocate.

"A lot of parents have children taken from them," he said. "I was a child that was taken. I have seen the ups and downs."

McElroy said that as an advocate, he has worked with several young parents — some successfully and others not. The key is the parent's motivation, he said.

"I'm willing to work with them," he said. "But they have to be willing."

An important service a parent advocate can provide is helping parents new to state social services work through an often complex and bewildering system.

Parents can face a list of requirements: to get drug or alcohol treatment, to get a job, to attend parenting classes, to go to counseling and to follow a schedule for visits with their children.

Advocates also can help harried social workers arrange visitation, which often must be supervised .

Dougherty said her job even extended to taking one child home when the state couldn't arrange care on short notice for a boy whose mother she represents.

The other choice was to send the boy to the Home of the Innocents over Thanksgiving until the state could arrange placement with a relative, so Dougherty took him home.

The goal is to get the boy back with his mother, an outcome Dougherty said makes her work worthwhile.

"That's the best feeling of all," she said. "Everybody deserves a second chance." - NOT EVERYONE; I DRAW THE LINE AT SEXUAL ABUSE: "NO TAKE-BACKS."


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