Conversations with a Birth Parent

When I started as a Parent Aide, I didn’t know what to expect. I knew my job would be to meet with parents who had their children removed from their home, make sure the children were safe during visits, and teach a parenting skills course to a mom or dad. What I didn’t realize is that my simple “right and wrong” view of the world was about to be completely wrecked.

One of my first clients was Antonio. I read his felony charges before our meeting and was warned that he wasn’t very easy to work with. I arrived early to our first one-on-one meeting and sat down in a booth at a fast food restaurant near his house. When he arrived, I was nervous. He had tattoos on his neck and face, large diamond studs in his ears, and a shaved head. He sat down, stared at me for a second, and started into his monologue. I barely had time to introduce myself before he laid out his case, all his frustrations, and told me what I was going to do to help him.

I did what I was trained to and began a series of questions aimed at learning more about his past and current life situation. I asked about substance abuse, mental health, housing, and then… how he was disciplined growing up. He didn’t respond. I looked up from my notes and saw Antonio quickly wipe away tears and tell me he didn’t want to be like his dad. His dad wasn’t there very much and when he was there, he was “really hard” on him. That’s why he ran away from home. That’s why he started working when he was 15. That’s how he got with the wrong crowd. He met his children’s mom when he was 17 and his son was born when he was 18. He was 25 now and had four kids, all with the same mom.

After he separated from his children’s mother, he said he wanted to, “make things right,” so he started working more. He worked and gave money to their mom to help pay for clothes and food, which means he had less time to spend with them. Sometimes the kids would come to his house on the weekends, but he had no idea things had become as bad as they were. His children were removed for neglect when a family member called DCS because mom had left the children at their house with no way to be reached. Future drug tests would show she had started using again. Antonio said he had no idea of all the dynamics going on and was determined to get his kids back.

He paused his story, “So what do I do?”

I looked back at my notes. They didn’t offer any help. The case plan said he needed to stay sober, get stable housing, and attend domestic violence classes. He asked me how he could get all of that done and keep his job.

“You just have to do it one step at a time,” was all I could think to say.  As I walk alongside families working to get their children back, it’s always one step at a time. There’s so little that can be known about the long-term and it can be overwhelming… hopeless even. So this has become my mantra: “One step at a time.”

It works for me, too. What I determine as the “right” solution initially based on reading a police report or listening to others’ impressions, changes when I sit across the table and listen to their story. Every time. There’s more to the story. There’s a parent who has lived a life filled with pain and trauma which they medicated or passed on to their own children. But there’s also someone who deeply loves their children and regrets their actions. The right and wrong melts into brokenness and… hope.

My greatest joy has been seeing parents who own up to their past and work hard to make changes moving forward. They leave negative relationships behind, attend classes, submit to humiliating drug tests, get up early, ride the bus for hours, go to work, and do it all again the next day. I get to be a small part of that process. I know that genuinely listening and showing someone I believe in them might be just what they need to take that next step.

Five months later, Antonio began visits in his apartment and is on track to having them back in his care. It feels right. Reunification seems like the best case scenario. That’s why I work hard at my job. Because I believe there are parents like Antonio who have what it takes to be exactly what their children need if we give them a chance to get there.

Joseph Mason

Director of Birth Parent Engagement

Foster Care Initiatives

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