• Opinion
  • September 30, 2019
  • 9 minutes
  • 0

Mom knows best: the new role of parents in children’s social welfare

Opinion: Can parent advocates change the way we view social services?

This opinion article was written by David Tobis, Ph.D. and Visiting Scholar at the University of Central Lancashire. For more like this, see our early childhood newsfeed. 


Mothers who have had children placed in residential care or foster care have often had little voice on their own case. They are excluded from influence in child welfare programs and have no say in shaping child welfare policy.

This reality is changing dramatically due to a new movement, originating in New York, and which has since spread across the United States and abroad to the UK, Australia, Finland and other high-income countries. 

This movement is called parental advocacy, and is one of the main way parents are involved in strengthening child welfare systems.

A Parent Advocate is someone who has gone through the difficult experience of having their child placed in foster care, but has since bounced back and improved their circumstances, leading them to be reunited with their child. As a parent advocate, she (and it is most often a she, though some fathers are also parent advocates) is trained to be an advocate for herself and to learn how to advocate for other parents in the social welfare system.

The trained advocates work in government child welfare agencies, in service providers, law firms and in grassroots advocacy organisations.

Training parents to be advocates by teaching them the role of advocacy and the rules of the child welfare system has been a key to the success of involving parents in decision-making.

It’s no crime being poor

Parents are the experts of their own lives.

Most parents who are exposed to child welfare services in high-income countries are single mothers, and are often victims of domestic violence. These people love their children like the rest of us, but often lack the resources to adequately care for them.

They are often accused of neglect, but the exacerbating cause of their predicament is poverty. Some of these mothers — and a few fathers — have had children removed from their care, changed their lives, often been reunited with their children and have been trained to be parent advocates to help themselves and then to be advocates for other parents who are going through what they went through.

A growing volume of research literature has documented the efficacy of parent advocacy in reducing the number of children in care

Trained parent advocates are also advising commissioners, agency directors and other social welfare professionals about what struggling families need to have their children live safely with them or to be reunited after a separation.

John Mattingly who was commissioner of the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS), New York City’s $2 billion (£1,62 billion) child welfare system from 2004 to 2011, have said “Everywhere you look in this city where we are doing our best work…where the best is happening, you find parent pdvocates around.”

Listening to parents is a first step

A growing volume of research literature has documented the efficacy of parent advocacy in reducing the number of children in care, reducing the length of time children spend in care and in improving how parents experience the child welfare system, which will be documented in a forthcoming report that I have co-authored with my colleagues, Andy Bilson and Isuree Katugampala.

In New York City, for example, parent advocates attended all 10,000 Initial Child Safety Conferences last year to make sure the voice of the parent is heard. A recent study for the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS), found that when a parent advocate is present, families feel better about their experience with the child welfare agency, and fewer children are recommended for placement into foster care.

These activities significantly contributed to the number of children in New York City foster care decreasing from almost 50,000 in 1992 to fewer than 9,000 today

parent advocates work in foster care and preventive service agencies to help struggling parents reunite with their children. They also work in interdisciplinary legal teams to make sure the perspective of parents is investigated and that parents receive the services they need.

A recent study found these interdisciplinary legal teams reduced the average length of stay of children in care by 9 months, saving the city $40 million (£32,4 million) per year. And there is no increase in the rate of subsequent abuse or neglect and no increase in the rate of return of children to care.

Parents sit on the commissioner’s advisory panel to respond to policies he is considering and to present their recommendations. Parents also write for Rise Magasine, a grassroots advocacy publication, which is read by parents and social workers to learn from parents’ experience and their recommendations.

Changing policy around the world

Parents have also organised themselves at the grassroots level to be a force for policy change.

These activities significantly contributed to the number of children in New York City foster care decreasing from almost 50,000 in 1992 to fewer than 9,000 today.

The experience of New York is spreading to other high-income countries.

  • A local Finnish government of Turku sent a delegate to New York in 2018 to view parent advocates in action. As a result, the local authority of Turku is now developing a program for parents to help other parents and to advise government and service providers on policy and programs from the parents’ perspective.
  • The local authority of Southwark, London, UK is hiring a Family Inclusion Coordinator to support a Parent Council to advise on local policy and develop a peer advocacy Program that will involve mothers working to reduce the need for children to enter, or remain in, state care.
  • In Queensland Australia, the Minister of Child Safety, Youth and Women met with mothers with child welfare experience to learn from their perspectives and how the ministry can better meet their needs. In New South Wales, the Sydney Local Health District in a partnership program with the Department of Communities and Justice Sydney District is hiring two parents to be parent supporters to help families experiencing the child welfare system.
  • Lastly, the International Parent Advocacy Network (IPAN) is being created, with the support of several foundations and the Better Care Network to promote the influence of parents in child welfare throughout the world. One of IPAN’s first activities will be to provide on-line training materials to support parent advocacy in high-income countries and then in low- and middle-income countries.

Children have a voice and rights in child welfare. Parents also should have a voice so their needs are met, their rights are protected and their families can remain safely together and not be broken apart by residential care or foster care except when absolutely necessary. — David Tobis

(Picture credit: Death to the stock photo)

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