Submitted by Kimberly Mays.
As a mother who has battled drug addiction and struggled to navigate the child welfare system, I can say with conviction that I understand how critical support can be for parents and families in times of crisis. Now as a social worker and parent advocate, I see firsthand the fear and anxiety that prevents parents from coming forward and asking for the support they desperately need.
Families worry that asking for help will result in being penalized by the system, or worse — separation from their children. In order to strengthen families and get them the proactive support they need, we need to rely less on child welfare intervention and more on the community services that can assist them in their time of need. It’s much easier to stop a car at the top of a hill, rather than once it starts rolling down. It benefits both families and communities to invest in services that are available before a crisis call is made to a hotline, the typical entry point to the child welfare system where callers report their suspicions of child maltreatment.
Instead of hotlines, helplines or “warmlines” are a critical tool towards keeping families unified and out of the child welfare system. Widely available to 95% of the U.S. population, helplines connect families with resources like food, housing, clothing, child care, transportation, and a plethora of others depending on the situation and needs of the family. Especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, these non-judgemental, supportive helplines fill an important gap for families who are struggling.
Crucially, helplines are uniquely positioned outside of the child welfare system. This encourages families to reach out before their situation gets truly dire and destigmatizes the process of seeking help. And, most importantly, this encourages families to reach outside of the child welfare system who might otherwise be overlooked. In Washington State, the state-wide 2-1-1 helpline is a great resource for connecting families in need with support services in their community. While far from perfect–currently 2-1-1 has a long waitlist for services–helplines like 2-1-1 are one tool to connect families with the community services they need right now.
Alongside helplines, we must invest in community services and organizations already doing good work and build support capacity within communities through programs like Washington State’s Parents for Parents program that facilitates peer mentoring for families in the child welfare system. As one of these parent allies working for the Washington Office of Public Defense, I’ve seen how this support aids struggling families — allowing them to meet their basic needs and establish stability.
As crucial as these programs are, too many families and policymakers are unaware of their existence — let alone their importance. I’ve advocated for the support services families need and advised policymakers on how to implement them on the Washington State Dependency Adoption Reform Taskforce, the Washington State Parents Advocacy Committee, and the Washington State Model Courts Visitation Project Work Group. But there is still much to be done.
In order to truly support families, during COVID-19 and beyond, we need to invest in what has proven to be effective — a strong, community based approach that supports families before they find themselves in crisis. Urge your neighbors and community leaders to invest in more programs doing good work across Washington state and work alongside them to destigmatize families seeking help in times of need. Now more than ever we need to come together to support families — regardless of their circumstance — in order to emerge stronger as a community, region, and state.
Kimberly Mays is a strong parent advocate and mother of ten children who resides in Tacoma, Washington.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.