The partnership aims to help parents successfully implement their case plan so that they can be reunited with their children or avoid care proceedings.
The approach has been widely adopted by child welfare agencies in the United States, and there is a growing evidence base for such programmes being effective in promoting the birth-parent voice in decision making.
While the benefits of parent partner programmes are clear, agencies face challenges in setting up programmes, recruiting parents, and sustaining and growing it.
POLICY AND REGULATION
Parent partners programmes have their roots in the family support movement of the 1980s. The Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act (AACWA) of 1980 was the first family support legislation and clarified the relationship between parents and child welfare services. The act introduced the "reasonable efforts" requirement to support families and defined "child welfare services" as the provision of assistance to both children and their families.
A 2018 paper by academic Jeri Damman (see expert view), reviews the development of parent partner programmes in the US. She found that while AACWA's goals of preventing unnecessary separation, improving service quality and ensuring permanence were not fully realised, its "reasonable efforts requirement continues to be a fundamental safeguard for birth parents, and family support and preservation services remain an essential component to child welfare services", she writes.
The development and promotion of family-centred practice has also been influential in the emergence of parent partner programmes. The implementation of the 1993 Family Preservation and Support Services (FPSS) programme endorsed family-centered principles through its parent involvement requirements. The FPSS programme instructions mandate parent involvement in the design and delivery of family support services.
The family support movement and the family-centered approach have established the expectation in the child welfare field that birth parents have valuable insight to share and should have a say about the services that affect them.
- Parent partners support families that child welfare agencies are working with
- Parent partners are usually parents who have successfully reunified with children
- They use their experiences to help parents engaged with welfare services to navigate the system
- Programmes have been developed in many US states and been shown to improve reunification rates
- In addition to offering support, parent partners advocate for the parents in meetings
- Participation also helps parent partners by equipping them with new skills
HOW IT WORKS
All parent partner programme models provide peer-to-peer support but differ in their design and structure. Some focus on families involved with child welfare before a child has been removed, while others such as Iowa's Parent Partners Program focus exclusively on parents whose children are in foster care.
In one model, the child welfare agency hires and employs parent partners. They work directly with parents, as well as support other agency staff by exploring service options tailored to parents' needs. In another approach, the child welfare agency contracts with a voluntary organisation to implement a parent partner programme, such as the Parents for Parents Program in Washington state. Parent partners are either employed or contracted by the voluntary organisation, which implements processes for building relationships between the child welfare workers and the parent partners.
Parent partners are compensated for their work with parents, including attending family team meetings, court hearings and one-to-one meetings.
Parent partners typically make initial contact with a parent at the first dependency hearing. At this point the parent partner informs them that they can relate to what they are going through. They explain that they will be with them the entire time to help them navigate through the system so they can be reunited with their children.
Other programmes provide support to parents during a child protection investigation or following a case opening to prevent their children from being removed. In some instances, parent partners go out on investigations with caseworkers, in order to help families better understand what is happening and offer suggestions based on how they successfully navigated the process. In other instances, parents who are struggling with substance use are paired with peer recovery mentors who have themselves been through recovery. In these programmes, the parent partner teams with the caseworker and assists the parents through the recovery process to help keep the children safely at home.
Once a birth parent decides to engage with a parent partner, the parent partner shares contact information and takes steps to develop a bond around their common experiences. Parent partners are available during regular and non-traditional service hours (evenings and weekends) and are tasked with engaging the parent and responding to parental needs. The parent partner is with them until their support is no longer needed.
The two examples below highlight different types of parent partner programmes that have been evaluated and show promising outcomes, according to child welfare charity Casey Family Programs.
Parents Anonymous® is designed to be both a prevention and treatment programme that strengthens families who are at risk of or currently involved in the child welfare system, have behavioural health challenges, or face other family issues. It is open to any parent or caregiver in a parenting role seeking support, positive nurturing, and parenting strategies regardless of the age or special challenges of their children.
Services include weekly support groups, parent partner services - such as advocacy, kinship navigator services, in-home parenting, and supportive services including links to community resources - and helpline services.
Parents model and support one another in their leadership development through the process of shared leadership. A 2011 outcome evaluation of Parents Anonymous' peer support groups found that parent participants had significant reductions in risk factors for child abuse and neglect.
Iowa's Parent Partner Program has been implemented state wide since 2012. Each local parent partner site matches a parent currently involved in the system with a parent partner, who has been successfully reunited with their child for at least a year and/or has healed from the issues that initially brought them to the attention of welfare services.
Parent partners commit to working with a family for a minimum of seven to 10 hours per month and each parent partner can mentor up to 15 parents.
There are more than 150 parent partners mentoring 1,800 parents across the state. Preliminary findings from 2011-15 cohorts show that although length of time in foster care does not appear to be reduced by participation in the scheme, children with parents who participated have higher reunification rates and are less likely to be removed again within 12-24 months.
BENEFITS AND BARRIERS
There is a small but growing number of empirical studies of parent partner programmes in child welfare that reveal the following outcomes:
- Higher rates of reunification for those parents who have participated
- Lower rates of re-entry for children involved in the programme
- Increased participation in services and court hearings
Parent partner programmes have also proven to be beneficial to the mentors. As mentors take on helping and leadership roles, they feel enhanced self-worth and sense of responsibility, build workplace skills, and are compensated for their efforts.
While some parent partners may have records of substance use and criminal histories that limit employment options, serving as a parent partner also opens up new opportunities and job skills.
The effectiveness of a parent partner programme depends on the structure, leadership, and management of the programme. The programme must be developed collaboratively with child welfare leadership and with full buy-in and support from agency and community partners.
By Dr Jeri L. Damman, lecturer in social work, University of Sussex
Birth parent involvement in the US child welfare system has experienced a transformation in recent years with the introduction of peer mentoring, typically referred to as parent partner or parent advocacy programmes.
There is growing interest in adopting similar practices with pockets of activity across the UK.
Feedback from a recent event in the South East revealed participants viewed these programmes as highly relevant and transferable. They are well-suited to current shifts in the UK towards more rights- and relationship-based approaches.
By having birth parents in direct service roles and the parent voice integrated across the work of the agency, these programmes aim to shift child welfare culture and practice.
Central to these programmes is the belief that relationships are the key to positive change. These change-focused relationships function at both the case and system level.
Relationships between parent mentors and birth parents aim to promote positive change within families, while parent mentor and practitioner relationships contribute to system change by promoting understanding instead of "othering".
These programmes are not only well-suited to current UK child welfare trends, but with resources cut to the core, service developments that strengthen the voice of families and emphasise the need for improvements to how we do business are needed now more than ever.
The introduction of these programmes requires a strategic-level commitment to developing a more inclusive culture of working with birth parents. They need to be involved at an early stage to ensure that the parent voice is at the heart of programme developments.
Most US programmes started with minimal and unstable funding, with positive results from the work with families making the case for more sustainable funding.