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April 2020Vol. 21, No. 3Choose Compassion When Supporting Parents

Written by Shrounda Selivanoff, social service specialist and birth parent advocate, Washington State Office of Public Defense, Seattle, WA

Keeping families together should be of paramount importance to us all. The old way of thinking that children do better in out-of-home care has shifted. Now we recognize that the majority of families do far better when children stay in their homes rather than enter foster care, which can lead to additional trauma.

The latest Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System statistics show a downward trend in children entering care from fiscal year 2016 to fiscal year 2018 (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Children's Bureau, 2019). This may be attributed to the availability of federal funding assistance that can help make resources, such as substance use and mental health treatments, more accessible to families that need them. While various supports and services may be more accessible, some parents are hesitant to access them, as they may find it difficult to trust a system that historically removes children and find the contact they have with it lacks the compassion and empathy they seek.

Based on my experience, the hardest thing for anyone to do in life is ask for help. For many, asking for help feels like there is an implicit admission that you have failed or are otherwise lacking in some way. We must recognize the imperative need for a complete overhaul of the way we interact with people who find themselves in a state of crisis and in need of assistance. Families are resilient, and with the proper assistance, a vast majority can recover without crisis-driven interventions that produce and exasperate trauma.

Families involved with child welfare do not need to be fixed; they need to be healed. A healing approach recognizes that people are often overwhelmed by their circumstances and prioritizes their emotional stability. Crucial to this approach is acknowledging that circumstances are often out of a family's control and refusing to shame or blame parents in need. By granting dignity to a parent, we avoid creating more stressors and trauma for people who are already in crisis.

Although it can be easy to focus on addressing a family in crisis by presenting concrete resources, it is also essential to fulfill their basic human need to experience compassion, understanding, and positive engagement. Recognizing and tending to families' emotional needs, in my opinion, is more effective than providing concrete goods or funds. The people families encounter on their journey—such as providers, clinicians, and other professionals—should be viewed as valuable resources in helping improve well-being.

During my journey through the child welfare system, clinicians and professionals were the change agents that produced a permanent alteration in my beliefs and behaviors. Their tireless efforts in helping me see my value transformed the way I saw myself as a mother and as a significant and valuable contributor to the world around me. I learned to see myself as a purposeful mother, grandmother, employee, community member, and advocate. These professionals helped me end a generational cycle of abandonment, poverty, neglect, and abuse and prevented the next generation from enduring such conditions. The cycle ended because I was able to access treatment and, in doing so, encounter those who would provide me with the connections I had been missing for a substantial part of my life. 

When families seek resources, let us remove punitive barriers and challenges in favor of accessibility that takes into consideration the hardships of the individuals seeking help. Let us change the way we see and talk about helping families and ensure that our efforts build their capacity for hope. If a child asked for support, we would comply without any hesitation. Why does our activation change so drastically when asked by the child's mother or father? Let us be as motivated for parents as we are for children and acknowledge the importance of keeping families together.


U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Children's Bureau. (2019). The AFCARS report: Preliminary FY 2018 estimates as of August 22, 2019 (No. 26).