Desperate times, it is often said, call for desperate measures. For that grandparent stepping up to take care of their at-risk grandchildren, the foster parent attempting to offer a stable home to a troubled kid, or that parent trying to help their son or daughter through tough times. times are, indeed, desperate.
For some of these caregivers, help is available by people who truly know a thing or two about difficult times: Parent Partners. Parent Partners are a uniquely prepared group of Certified Peer Support Specialists that bring families back from the brink, and on to stability. The families they support have, all too often, hit rock bottom. Their children are out of control at home, in their schools and in the community. These caregivers, having exhausted themselves through years of battling the public school system, child protective services and the juvenile justice system among others, are despondent and frequently need their own mental health support to cope. They have, quite simply, lost all hope.
“I was about to lose my mind from all the stress,” says Colleen Adams, before she was assigned a Sound Mental Health (SMH) Parent Partner to work with her. Colleen takes care of her two granddaughters, removing them from an unstable home life with their mother. Now? “I don’t feel like I’m all by myself,” she says.
SMH’s Parent Partners, a group of five tireless individuals, work every inch of the county to support struggling families just like Colleen’s.
Who are these people? Most had other lives before becoming Certified Peer Counselors at SMH. Kim Runge, a Parent Partner since 2009, was a dental technician. Cathy Callahan-Clem, a long-time Parent Partner, used to work for Boeing. Jody Shreven, a Parent Partner beginning in 2009, just loved her chosen career as a landscaper. Yet, through their own struggles as parents and caregivers whose children were SMH clients, each found that helping others was their true calling.
Part of SMH’s Child and Family Services program, Parent Partners have had personal experiences that prove helpful to distressed parents seeking solutions and accessing crucial social services. Callahan-Clem had a foster child who received services here; Shreven had a son served by the organization, while Runge’s twin sons are still receiving support.
“A Parent Partner is primarily three things: a listening ear, their own lived experience and a systems navigator,” says Callahan-Clem, who has been a Parent Partner since 2003.
“The one thing Cathy has taught me,” says Michelle Thomas, a client, “is to be more patient with the process and that there is a system to it all. You have to go through the system and the hoops in order to get what you need.”
Whether it’s supporting a troubled child as they access services, guiding confused, stressed parents through the difficult-to-navigate juvenile justice system, or actively petitioning for specialized services, Parent Partners have direct experience with multiple systems. And serving an estimated 200 families in 2015 alone, the collective experiences of these specialists have an impact.
“We use our story,” says Shreven, in reference to their ability to bond with struggling parents. “Clinical staff don’t need direct life experience to draw from to do therapy with a child… but we use our life experience to help a parent move forward.”
They serve as liaisons between the family and schools, the child welfare system, the juvenile justice system, Wraparound supports and other social services. But their advocacy doesn’t end there. Parent Partners also broker better awareness and understanding among SMH’s clinical staff treating their children.
“Clinicians have boundaries. Parents have hesitations. And there is this gray area in the middle,” says Callahan-Clem. “That’s where Parent Partners come in.”
Most will tell you that holding back information can impact a youth’s progress and treatment plans, so the Parent Partner helps temper this hesitation and draw out open and honest communication with clinical staff and others in the systems touching their children.
“People need to have that resource (Parent Partners) available to them, to say ‘this worked for me, this might work for you.’” says Nancy Clark, another client whose son struggles with anxiety and other emotional disturbances. “There’s something about it that’s different than any relationship I’ve had.”
What immediately stands out in conversations with Runge, Callahan-Clem and Shreven, is their sense of unity. The words “we” and “us” not only suggest their collaborative work as Parent Partners, but it also points to something else: a powerful, shared experience that becomes the lifeblood of their work on behalf of struggling parents.
“I’m talking about a strong bond and story that we all share: our kids,” says Runge. “We understand what it means to feel isolated and judged, but most of all, (we understand) the small celebrations of the baby steps taking place with our kids and our family as a whole.”
Beyond the people they serve, Parent Partners effectiveness in assisting families has not gone unnoticed.
They are widely sought out regionally and nationally to share their promising practices, to share their approach with others so that it may be replicated. They have been asked by Washington State University, Schools and School Districts, Juvenile Court and the Division of Behavioral Health and Recovery to train families and professionals, as well as new peers seeking to become Certified Peer Counselors in the state. And there are others: Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health, Georgetown Training Institutes, The Washington State Behavioral Healthcare Conference, King County Recovery & Resiliency and the Washington State Co- Occurring Disorder Conference.
Gladly participating far and wide to share their promising practices, Callahan-Clem, Shreven and Runge are proud of the work they do—and do appreciate the widespread recognition. But it is the simple things that are most rewarding.
“It’s holding hope,” says Shreven. “I hold the hope for parents, until they can hold it themselves. If I can help a family go from that desperate place to a glimmer of light, I’ve done a good job for the day.”