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March 2019Vol. 20, No. 2Transforming Hearts and Minds Through Valuing Parent Voice

Written by Alise Hegle-Morrissey, advocacy lead, Children's Home Society of Washington

It has been an honor to incorporate birth parent voice in policy, practice, and program development for many years in Washington state through my agency, Children's Home Society of Washington. As a mother who was told that I should never have my child back, I have learned it is pertinent that my voice is at the table to shine a light on the fact that people change and families reunite. Equally important, we need to promote diversity in all that we do and be a voice for families and communities who are still in the midst of pain and unequitable practices.

Something powerful happens when the tone of the conversation shifts from one that refers to parents as "those people" to one that prioritizes listening, expressing compassion, and valuing partnerships with parents who have overcome such tremendous adversity to be where they are today. By utilizing the vast experience of families and reminding them that they have worth and that we care about their communities, we ensure policies and practices consider the needs of the populations they directly affect, which can also reduce unintended consequences. Incorporating parent voice into both the planning and implementation stages can lead to more effective policies, cost savings, and reduced trauma for children and families!

Parents like myself have helped institute significant change in Washington state in just a matter of years by having stakeholders, legislators, and system leaders recognize that we cannot create policies and plan "perfect" programs without hearing from those who would be directly impacted. Parents are empowered to become leaders in their communities, to share their knowledge and stories, and to translate their ideas into action to help other families succeed.

Over the years, parent allies (i.e., parents who have been involved in the child welfare system who successfully resolved the safety issues that brought child protective services [CPS] into their family's lives and now serve their community) have educated lawmakers on a variety of bills and issues related to social justice, disproportionate impacts on people of color, poverty issues, rights for incarcerated parents, and child development. Their unique expertise is often sought in advisory committee roles within the systems they were formerly involved with. 

Together, we can unite for positive systemic change, but we must first realize that the true experts are those who have been marginalized by daunting life circumstances and are further oppressed and stigmatized by a CPS system—and other systems—that are biased against them. The value of parent voice works to defeat this bias and create systems that help address the root causes of family instability and foster growth in the families they serve.

I am thrilled to be a part of the next generation of system reform, one that focuses on prevention and strengthening families while breaking down silos and bringing together a nurturing community around our children and families. I needed someone to believe in me and, today, I get to unite with others who recognize the potential behind every story. My daughter reminds me every day that life is precious and every journey of change is a gem.

For more on parent voice in Washington state, please see page 5: or