She is reforming the child welfare system by tapping into the knowledge of parents who lost (and worked to regain) custody of their children.
In 2005, I learned about a small and growing movement of parents in Washington state that inspired me. These parents had lost custody of their children to Child Protective Services due to neglect or abuse – and then transformed their lives to get their kids back. These ‘veteran parents’ were convinced they could offer hope, support and resources to other parents navigating the system.
I wanted their help. After 40 years working in family welfare in various roles, I had just become director of Catalyst for Kids, an organization working to transform a foster-care system responsible for more than 10,000 children every year. We needed their voices in our coalition of child-welfare professionals and decision-makers. So I asked a veteran parent, Brenda Lopez, to be the keynote speaker at a statewide summit.
Brenda electrified the crowd – the eloquence of her presentation, the pain and struggle of her history of addiction and homelessness, her daunting journey to get her kids back, and her stunning transformation into a powerful, intelligent and creative woman. At that moment, Washington state leaders began to believe in the power of veteran parents.
Developed 63 “veteran parent” advocates since 2005
Supported passage of nine pieces of family-friendly legislation
Since then, Catalyst for Kids has developed a statewide network of 63 veteran parents who help hundreds of parents throughout Washington state have the hope and support they need to transform their lives and safely regain custody of their children.
In King County, parents in our program had greater attendance at court hearings, increased levels of parental engagement, more positive case outcomes, greater rates of reunification, and lower rates of termination of parental rights than nonparticipants.
In the eight years since we began this work, veteran parents have gone from being stigmatized to being highly sought-after ‘silver bullets’ in child-welfare reform. The state has a new core training curriculum for all foster parents, and for the first time, it includes a presentation by and dialogue with veteran parents. We’ve even supported the passage of nine pieces of family-friendly legislation.
I was going to retire in 2014, but I can’t. These parents are inspiring and uniquely successful in their work. They are the reason I love this work and must keep going.