Some parents don’t know how to parent.
When their lack of parenting skills put the child in danger, that’s when the state comes knocking – to take their children away. Nearly 7,000 kids in Washington state were placed in foster care last year.
The state aims to reunify birth parents with their children, but that only happens about half the time. Now, a new program hopes to increase the number of successful reunifications – by allowing case workers who sit in on visitations to coach them.
At a small house in Lynnwood, Shrounda Selivanoff pulls out a photo of her daughter, Alexis. "She has a face like an angel, it looks like a heart with beaming cheeks that looks like she’s holding something in them, the darkest eyes, the curliest brown hair and a smiling face that says ‘my life is perfect.’"
When Selivanoff was pregnant with her daughter seven years ago, all she thought about was crack, heroin and alcohol. Two weeks before her due date, she was hit by a car. "It was enough to send me into labor," she says of the accident.
When her baby was born, she went immediately into foster care. Selivanoff did not protest. "When you’re in addiction it certainly robs you of the ability to really feel and embrace what’s happening," she says.
But Selivanoff’s mom intervened. She said if Shrounda didn't try to get her daughter back, "then we're not doing us."
That was enough to start Selivanoff's wheels turning. "There was a little girl in me that still wanted that mother's love," says Selivanoff.
Selivanoff turned her life around a year later. She used all the tools at her disposal: methadone, counseling, Alcoholics Anonymous.
"When you get free of drugs and alcohol, that’s the easiest part," she said. "You have to find out who you are and you have to learn how to feel and how to be a part of and be authentically you and be OK with that."
Selivanoff also had to convince the state that she could make a good parent. She had state policy on her side in this quest; reunification is the goal of Washington’s foster care program.
But to get there, Selivanoff would have to convince a court-appointed observer, who sat in the corner of a tiny room, silently taking notes each time Selivanoff visited with her 2-year-old daughter.
Selivanoff remembers how insecure she felt during those visitations. And the awkward presence of a stranger in the room.
"I’m in complete self-loathing, I’m feeling inadequate, and you sitting there taking your notes only adds to that," she says. It was hard to be present as a parent feeling so judged.
Meanwhile, the observer with the laptop must sit on her hands, and suppress her urge to reach out to this struggling mother. "We have to follow the contract as it’s written," explains Kerry Ann Shaughnessy, a foster care therapist.
Shaughnessy wasn’t ever in the visitation room with Selivanoff, but she’s observed many other parents.
When I met with her at her office in Tacoma, there was a visitation going on across the hall. As she walked toward her desk, a child's cries filled the building. Shaughnessy didn’t look concerned at all.
"I know all the cries," she says. "This was I’m a little mad. I’m a little mad at mom. I might kick a door." And then it'll be over, she predicted.
Sure enough, the crying stopped.
Shaughnessy runs parenting classes through Tacoma’s Youth for Christ (many groups helping foster kids are either religious or spun out of religious organizations). She's a trained therapist with a masters degree in social work. Shaughnessy has all kinds of good parenting advice to give. But instead, she can only offer praise and smile encouragingly.
There was this one time when she was supervising a parent visitation. A mom had put her child in a “time out” on a chair. There was so much she wanted to say, "like 'You're doing a great job setting up this time out. And really, you've explained why you're child's in time out, you don't need to talk to her anymore."
Washington State spends nearly $20 million a year to coordinate these parent-child visitations (the number comes from the budget being debated right now). Ben de Haan of the University of Washington School of Social Work wants to change how the money is spent.
"What’s missing from the equation is you’re not doing anything to make these parents more successful," says de Haan. "You’re just watching them and writing down something that you’re going to need to report to the court that never gets shared with a parent.
"If your interest is in reunification and improving parental capacity you’re spending a lot of money and not getting the desired result."
De Haan received foundation funding to develop a new program that would empower visitation supervisors to become parenting coaches.
It’s called Strive, and it's distributed through a UW public-private partnership called Partners For Our Children. He says it could spread rapidly after going through its scientific evaluation period for a simple reason: It’s free.
The system has taken so long to change, says de Haan, because we're afraid of monstrous parents. Parents whose abuse and neglect are so horrifying, they dominate the news.
"They get all the ink, they get all the air time. But they are so unbelievably rare, that our approaches can’t be shaped by that."
De Haan used to be one of the state case workers who pulled children from abusive and neglectful homes. After watching many parents change, he became convinced that even some of them most warped and horrifying parenting behaviors were motivated by love. He tells the story of one father who used to take his son around, looking for random people to beat up.
"When you unpack that," says de Haan, "the father’s belief system is that there are two kinds of people in the world. There are those that survive, and there are those that are victims. He cared so much about his child, he wanted to guarantee that his child would know how to take care of himself. So he started early, teaching survival skills to his son."
The father went to prison, but he changed later on, after he understood how this could have damaged his son.
De Haan's point is that most parents are motivated to be the best parents they know how to be. Without training, we simply repeat the mistakes of our parents. He says we need to base our approach on decades of research that shows abusive and neglectful parents can become good parents – when they’re given the tools to change themselves.
De Haan has been soliciting feedback on his program from people like Shaughnessy and mom Shrounda Selivanoff.
Selivanoff says training visitation supervisors to be parenting coaches would be "revolutionary." It turns an awkward time parents spent in a small room with a tired child and a state-appointed observer into a positive experience.
"That moment of someone interacting with me like I’m a human being is a healing moment," says Selivanoff. "And when you’re able to give me that, I’m able to give that to my child."
In her case, changing herself took years of work that continued after she reunited with her daughter. But her daughter gave her a reason to follow that path. "I feel joy in my heart for her," she says. "I feel proud of the woman that I’ve become. I feel proud to be her mother." It’s something she tells her daughter whenever she can.
The STRIVE program enters a pilot phase in Tacoma this month. That's when Tacoma Youth For Christ will begin training visitation supervisors to become parenting coaches.