Planting the Seed: How One Mother’s Experiences with the Child Welfare System Inspired A Growing Parent Ally Movement

by | Oct 29, 2021

When Brenda Lopez lost her two children to Washington State Child Protective Services, her journey to get them back inspired a parent ally movement to help keep families together that is now spreading across the country.

For over a decade, Brenda Lopez has been a social worker helping families separated by the Washington State Child Protective Services (CPS) reunite, but she hasn’t always been on this side of dependency cases.

In 1998 her two children were taken by CPS. Alone and struggling with substance use disorder, she did her best to meet with court-appointed guardians, social workers, judges, and attorneys, but she didn’t understand the complexities of her dependency cases.

“I had no idea what I was doing,” Brenda said. “I thought I was accountable to everybody. To me, they were all like the police and they had my kids. It was scary.”

Brenda knew she was a good mom struggling with addiction, and she wanted everyone who was part of her dependency cases to understand that too. “My life needed to change, but I also needed support for that.”

Recognizing her immediate family wasn’t able to support her recovery, Brenda reached out to her faith community where she knew she could find positive role models for herself and her children.

“I had felt enough pain in my life that I was ready for change,” Brenda said. “I started working at the church, went to school, and did all kinds of stuff to continue to improve my life.”

Brenda was hired as a janitor at the First United Methodist Church of Tacoma. There she began to take on new roles and responsibilities, working her way up the ranks to become a boiler room operator. After the church sent her to a leadership training program, she was promoted to youth outreach coordinator and building operations manager. With steady employment, she was able to find housing and reunify with her children two years after she was separated from them.

“I made it through the system and got my kids back because I had a relationship with God,” she said. “God led me to a church that supported me.”

Inspired by her transformation, Julie Lowery, who served as the guardian ad litem to Brenda’s children during her dependency cases, approached her with an idea—why not create a program to support parents involved in the child welfare system?

“I thought, absolutely. I would love to,” Brenda said. “I had that little seed planted already, so I just reviewed the history of my dependency and thought here are the things that were really helpful for me.”

Brenda understood the challenges and fear that parents in the system confronted. She knew parents would need a supportive network, much like the one she found through her faith, to understand the people, paperwork, court hearings and classes that would be part of their dependency cases. Brenda also knew not everyone would get there on faith alone.

“Parents in the system needed to hear from a credible source in order to have hope, and we recognized that we were not credible at saying ‘you can do this,’ not as credible as a parent who had done it.”

“Whereas I was always grabbing God’s hand, I realized that some people would need to grab another person’s hand and help them walk through things like that.”

With the support of Julie and a growing network of allies, Brenda was able to incorporate her experiences and knowledge of the system into Parents for Parents, a peer support program for parents involved in the child welfare system that is housed at Children’s Home Society of Washington. Through legal and nonprofit partnerships, the Parents for Parents program was passed and signed into law by Gov. Jay Inslee in 2015.

Over 15 years later, the family well-being movement has started to change the way states across the country approach child welfare. It is a movement focused on addressing the conditions families face and prioritizing an entire family’s needs as a means to supporting a child’s safety and well-being. The movement promotes listening to families and engaging them in the development of programs, practices, and policies to ensure families have what they need to be successful and prevent child welfare involvement in their lives. The movement offers a strong counter narrative to the effectiveness of removing children from their homes and embraces the role of parent allies in reducing family separations and achieving better outcomes for children and families.

She couldn’t have known it at the time, but the seed Brenda planted gave life to a vibrant network of parent allies that has changed child welfare across the state of Washington and continues to inspire leaders in the child welfare system today. What was once a small program in Pierce County, is now a movement that is spreading across the country and internationally, leading the way toward an approach to child welfare focused on keeping families together.

In 2004, when Julie approached Brenda with the idea for the parent ally program, she was supervisor of the Court Appointed Special Advocate program. In that role, she had been part of a group of child welfare professionals working to reform the child welfare system by creating opportunities for parents to support other parents in family reunification. 

“Parents in the system needed to hear from a credible source in order to have hope,” Julie said, “And we recognized that we were not credible at saying ‘you can do this,’ not as credible as a parent who had done it.”

When Julie received a grant to start a parent ally program in Pierce County, she was able to hire Brenda to lead the launch of Parent to Parent, which would later become known as Parents for Parents.

Hiring a parent with lived experience is one of the first ways she knew she could commit to building the movement. “It’s important for communities to recognize and pay parent allies for telling their stories and helping to fix the system,” Julie said.

Brenda and Julie produced an educational video for parents in the child welfare system, and developed Dependency 101, a course to explain the dependency process and support parents through shelter care hearings. During the course, child welfare stakeholders like social workers and guardians discuss their roles and parents are able to ask them questions, building trust and understanding between them.

Soon Brenda began developing a team of parents that had successfully navigated the child welfare system who could mentor other parents. Kimberly Mays was one of them.

Over a span of 17 years, Kimberly lost nine of her 10 children to the child welfare system. Each of those losses compounded her stress and fueled her substance use.

“I kept destroying myself all those years. I felt that how dare I be happy if I know my kids aren’t happy?” Kimberly said.

It wasn’t until she found herself in jail and separated from her last child, Heavenlymiracle, that Kimberly began her recovery, enrolled in school, and started therapy to deal with the trauma of the removal of her children. In 2005, after reuniting with Heavenlymiracle, Kimberly was approached by Brenda, who asked her to join Parents for Parents as a parent ally.

“I was created to do this,” said Kimberly, who is now a social worker in the Washington State Office of Public Defense and a national consultant for Casey Family Programs. “Everything I went through, I utilize in my work, even the bad stuff. Cause I’m an expert on what doesn’t work.”

“Brenda stole the show and had a huge standing ovation. It opened people’s eyes to the possibilities and potential of parent involvement in the child welfare system.”

In order to grow the program, Brenda, Kimberly and other parent allies needed more buy-in from professional stakeholders, but that wasn’t easy to get.

“Nobody trusted parent allies,” Brenda said. “Everybody thought we were those people. We had the label that we’ll never change, we can’t succeed, we’re bad parents. I had to break through all of those barriers first in Pierce County.”

One of the barriers came crumbling down after Brenda delivered the keynote speech at the Cultivating Change: A Summit on Family Engagement in 2006. The summit was organized by Nancy Roberts-Brown, the then-director of Children’s Home Society of Washington’s Catalyst for Kids, a coalition of child welfare stakeholders working to reform the system. Over 200 people were in attendance, including social workers, judges, attorneys, and parents involved in the system.

The audience was impressed by Brenda’s confidence and presentation and her story of growth from being a parent no one believed could reunite with her children to the head of a program supporting other parents on their road to reunification. For many of them, it was their first time seeing a parent who was in the system speak so eloquently about their experience.

“Brenda stole the show and had a huge standing ovation,” Nancy said. “It opened people’s eyes to the possibilities and potential of parent involvement in the child welfare system.”

From that summit, there was a renewed commitment to promote the involvement of parents in reforming the child welfare system. This led to funding that allowed Nancy to hire Brenda as a parent engagement coordinator at Catalyst for Kids, where she oversaw the expansion of the program into several counties.

It also led to the formation of the Washington State Parent Advocacy Committee, under Brenda’s leadership, which brought together parents and other child welfare stakeholders working to change the system. In the following years, the committee would go on to support the passage of several pieces of legislation in the state.

As parents led the expansion of the program and developed advocacy agendas, they were able to get to know and understand the professional allies who worked alongside them, opening doors and creating opportunities for them to share their stories.

“Parent leadership is essential for this,” Nancy said of the successes of the parent ally movement. “The team of parents and other child welfare professionals working together has really been the magic of it.”

With parents at the helm, Parents for Parents received a series of evaluations testifying to the power of the program. In 2009, an evaluation by the University of Washington motivated statewide interest and in 2011 and 2013 evaluations by The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges found that Parents for Parents improves parent attitudes and compliance throughout their dependency cases.

In 2020, the Washington State Department of Children, Youth and Families found that 70 percent of parents who participated in Dependency 101 reunified with their children compared to 53 percent of parents who did not participate in the course. As well, 26 percent of parents who participated in Dependency 101 had their parental rights terminated compared to 39 percent of parents who did not participate in the course.

“[Research] tangibly demonstrates the value that parents bring to this work and to the child welfare system writ large,” Nancy said.

Alise Morrissey was one of the last parents Nancy hired at Catalyst for Kids before her retirement. Alise had her own painful history of going through the child welfare system, which she discusses on the podcast Seen and Heard by Institute for Family.

On the day her dependency case was closed, she began her work as a parent ally.

“If there’s anything I’ve learned is that there are some hard walls to try to climb,” Alise said on the podcast, “and it is so much easier to have someone lifting you up to get you over that wall than it is to do it on your own.”

As Parents for Parents continues its expansion across the country, led by Heather Cantamessa, a parent ally and the national impact family program manager at Children’s Home Society of Washington, it is the organizational vision that no one will have to navigate the child welfare system alone.

There is an inherent need for peer support programs like Parents for Parents, to support families during what is likely the most difficult time of their lives. Children’s Home Society of Washington, which has already received funding to expand the program statewide, is working to expand the Parents for Parents presence across the country, with expressed interest in 30 states, as well as internationally.

“Any place there are families who are at risk of separation due to child welfare intervention,” Heather said, “Parents for Parents should have a presence.”

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Meet Alise Morrissey and see how serendipitous moments of being seen meant the difference between reunification and terminating parental rights.

Get more insights and innovations from the front lines of the family well-being movement.

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