This is a special love story that goes beyond one couple. Sheila and Andrew worked together as young adults helping homeless teenagers. Later in life they met again and fell in love. Each of them had two children from previous marriages, and they soon had another child together.
But they still felt there was room for more.
Knowing how many Bay Area kids are in foster care, they became Foster Parents through A Better Way and opened their home and their hearts. Over the years they fostered and then adopted 6 children – five of them through A Better Way.
But their love did not stop there…
Sheila and Andrew understood that each of their adopted children carried a rich history of kin and community. Whatever family struggles may have led to the children being adopted, they knew that these lost relationships might be important to the fabric of their children’s lives and identities.
With mindfulness and care, they set out to build bridges. They located birth parents, siblings, aunts, & uncles. And with each new person they contacted, they opened their arms, and they helped to re-build bridges between child and kin. Many of the people they discovered are now integral parts of their family’s life.
Reconnecting with lost kin did not diminish their love for their children or their role as parents. Quite the opposite.
Their family grew into a village.
And as it did, they experienced what we all need and deserve: The warmth that comes from being wrapped by an intact fabric of community.
Together – we can keep children safe. We can offer them permanent forever families. And whether they live with their birth families or an adoptive family, we can wrap children in a warm blanket of kinship, kindness, and love.
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An interview with Kimberly Murphy, Director of Social Services Programs, about A Better Way's new Parent Partner Program in Santa Cruz, CA
Can you tell us about A Better Way’s new program in Santa Cruz?
The new program is called the Parent Partner Program, operated in partnership with Santa Cruz County Family & Children's Services. The Program provides eligible child welfare involved parents with time-limited education, peer mentorship, and support with the goal of successfully reunifying, and/or reunifying sooner with their child/children, while decreasing subsequent changes in placement or custody.
Parents referred to our program will receive a Parent Partner to assist them with completing their case plan goals. Parent Partners are parents who have successfully navigated the child welfare system as clients. They provide support, advocacy, and encouragement to referred parents and are bilingual and bicultural, representing English and Spanish speakers. They facilitate effective communication between the parents, their social workers, resource parents, and service providers and ensure parents’ voices are uplifted during the teaming process. Their experience and success offer hope and guidance.
The Parent Partner Program is a 4-6 month, voluntary program. Santa Cruz County Family and Children Services Social Workers will make referrals at the time of removal or whenever additional support is needed. Once referred, each parent will be matched with a Parent Partner who will work to empower them by providing education, advocacy, and support to navigate the child welfare system, understand the identified safety concern(s), and whenever possible, reunify with their children.
Why is it important to provide services to parents and families who are in crisis, or struggling?
It is important to provide these services to parents and families because it helps keep children safe and have their needs met. All parents experience ups and downs or challenging times around their parenting, and some more than others. Providing Parent Partner services to a parent helps them extend their circle of support; by identifying who is in their immediate circle or within their community who they can turn to in times of need. Parents also feel like they are not alone and have the resources available to them to better parent their children.
What kind of results have you seen for programs like this at A Better Way?
The parent partner programs or programs with lived experienced staffing here at ABW are the trail blazers of service delivery programs. They provide a humanistic approach to case management, family reunification and family stabilization service delivery. It uplifts the personal experiences of the families we serve and demonstrates that families can overcome and build resilience even in times of great challenges. These programs have positive outcomes for parents served, including zero return rate of parents receiving services from our differential response program and 90-100% satisfaction rates from parents who have received our parent partner services.
How many people will be on staff in Santa Cruz, and how many people will they serve?
Santa Cruz Staff consists of two parent partners. Both will have caseloads of 13 each, one program supervisor, one administrative assistant and director of social services programs.
Why is this work important to you personally?
I believe that having a part in changing the narrative or outcome for a child is why we are here. Every child deserve a happy and healthy parent who has the resources and support to improve the outcomes for their children’s lives. I enjoy seeing parents do the work and find the self-confidence to improve their family function. It is a blessing to be a part of something that is greater than yourself. It is equally important to provide committed and authentic partners for families to have by their side on their journey towards family reunification and family stabilization.
Can you share a success story from one of A Better Way's programs?
Kimberly responded with the following case study:
African American male 40 years old & homeless. Father was brought to the attention of the agency for General Neglect (Domestic Violence). Parent Partner (PP) enrolled the Parent into the Parent Partner program in March 2021. PP supported the Parent by attending his Child & Family Team (CFT), linking the Parent with his service providers, bridging the communication gap between the Parent and Social Worker, helping the Parent obtain referrals from the County by contacting Social Worker for homeless resources. PP has supported the Parent with basic needs items needed for reunification. PP assisted the Parent with community resources for housing, who assisted the Parent to get into a homeless shelter when the Parent was homeless. PP provided the Parent support around housing, such as reaching out to the Housing Authority on behalf of the Parent to get his section 8 voucher and his home inspection. PP assisted Parent with looking for housing, filling out credit applications for homes, finding funds for application fees. PP referred the Parent to A Better Way’s Father 2 Father Parent Support Group, a peer-led group providing fathers with support to build their father specific support network. The Parent made significant progress on his case plan. Parent received a certificate of completion for Father 2 Father support group. The parent also attended a community Fathers Program for additional support. Parent receives support services that centers around Domestic Violence trauma recovery. The Parent is working with a staff member around Domestic Violence Education. PP completed a safety plan with the Parent prior to discharge. PP provided Social Worker and the Parent with a copy of the Safety plan. PP worked with the parent to complete the following goals:
Closure Goal 1
Parent to build support network - The Parent has been attending the Father 2 Father support group. The Parent was awarded a certificate and a gift card for his attendance. The Parent has connected with other Parents in the group that he says are a great asset to his newfound support system. The Parent receives Parenting services, housing support as needed and Domestic Violence (DV) education. Fighting Back Partnership offers several support services that the Parent can rely on while working with a staff member from the agency. The Parent receives support services through a Trauma Recover Center surrounding domestic violence. The Parent has been connected and worked Resource Connect Solano, who assists Parent financially with housing should the Parent need case management services regarding housing in the future. The Parent has been working to repair his relationship with his Parents (Paternal Grandparents) and has made significant progress, as he added them in his 2nd circle of support and not the first. The Parent attends Support groups for Victims of Abuse. - Goal Met
Closure Goal 2
Domestic Violence Education- The Parent has been referred to a program for Victims of Abuse. The Parent receives DV support and education with a staff member at the agency. The program also offers victims peer counselling, Support groups, DV education for victims, restraining orders, court accompaniment, crisis intervention along with many other DV related case management services and is a great support for the Parent that satisfies and exceeds his requirement with the Department. - Goal Met
Closure Goal 3
Stabilize Housing - The Parent worked with Parent Partner (PP) and Family Navigator (FN) to find and secure housing. PP referred the Parent to a Resource Family Center. The Parent received case management services through Resource Center Services (RCS) who helped the Parent get into a homeless shelter. Parent put in applications and looked at apartments. Parent located housing and had it inspected by the Housing Authority who subsidizes the Parent's monthly rent obligation. PP supported the Parent with communication with the Housing Authority and assisting the Parent with filling out rental applications. The Parent now has stable housing with all utilities connected. PP supported the Parents basic needs by referring the Parent to Opportunity House who assisted the Parent with furnishing his home with items needed for reunification with his Children. - Goal Met
PP and Parent discussed the Parent's next steps. The Parent will continue working with his assigned staff member for DV Education, support groups, and DV case management as needed. The Parent will update his safety plan every six months. The Parent will maintain his stable housing and has the contact info for resources around housing assistance and/or case management. The Parent will continue working with his assigned case manager from Fighting Back Partnership for supportive services. The Parent will continue attending the A Better Way’s Father 2 Father parent support group The Parent will follow his safety plan if he finds himself in another Domestic Violence relationship and reach out to his support persons.
Perhaps, one of the hardest aspects of this work is connecting and empathizing with the parents and caregivers I work with. As with so many of us, connecting with the kids I work with comes second nature to me. Most days it’s easier than breathing. That feeling of connection to children reminds me of my favorite parts of myself. However, really connecting to a caregiver or family member often takes a real conscious effort on my part.
When I first began this work, I often would skip over this. I’d often think something along the lines of, “My client is the child, I don’t really have to connect to the families.” Or, “I work in schools with kids, and parents almost never come in so why even try to connect to them?” It’s an insidious line of thinking largely because it’s certainly a lot easier to stay grounded in that line of thinking than to challenge it and work with difficult caregivers. However, it became more and more apparent how essential it was to work with parents the longer I did the work. Gains we made in session or at school would quickly be lost in the instability and struggles clients would return home to.
This lesson struck home for me after finishing my first school year with my clients. I remember the look on my client’s face when he realized he had to go home to his unstable family system for a whole summer and somehow had to find ways to meet with me over the summer in the midst of that. At the end of the day, we are always only going to be a very small part of a client’s life. Hopefully, we will be a powerful part of our client’s life as well. However, a child’s relationship to their parents is something that will affect them for the rest of their life. If we have any small chance of shifting that relationship in any way, I believe it is imperative that we attempt to help heal and grow this relationship.
Here are some tools I’ve found helpful in building empathy with the caregivers and parents I work with:
1. Remember that the caregivers we work with are often just adult versions of the children we work with.
We spend so much time in our field contemplating generational trauma and how this generational trauma impacts the children we work with. However, this trauma also lives on in the parents and caregivers we are working with! And they often have more of their brains developed and more ability to heal this trauma in the family system than anyone. So frequently the caregivers we work with had no therapy or other supportive figure in their lives who helped them process and work through the generational trauma they were holding as children and thus they still carry this with them into this moment.
One of the most important and transformative conversations you can have with a parent is exploring how they were raised. It becomes a beautiful opportunity to build empathy for them as well as a chance to begin to connect patterns we see in our client with the parent. Just this conversation alone will often begin to open the parent’s heart, to seeing how the very things that frustrate them the most about the child happened in their childhood in a slightly different way.
2.Learning to see the person and pain behind the behaviors.
Just as we spend time learning how to see the pain and deeper needs behind the behaviors of the children we work with, so too must we learn how to do this with the parents we work with. When a step father expresses feeling like your client is never able to follow directions and is always manipulating to get what she wants, can we ask ourselves “what is the step-father trying to express with this?” “What feelings is the step-father feeling in this moment as he expresses this?”
One of my family therapy teachers once assigned me to find the parent or caregiver who it was toughest to connect with and spend a whole session just connecting and empathizing with this caregiver. When the stressed mother begins to berate her son again for staying out late with his friends, I would challenge myself to say to the mother, “Wow. I really hear that you’re trying all you can to help your son stay on track and it’s overwhelming!”
So often this connection building activity will immediately drop the energy in the room and open up the space towards more love and connection. It can provide this caregiver some much needed empathy so that she can better use empathy to connect to her son in a real way.
3.Reminding ourselves that the parents are a literal and embedded part of our clients.
When working with family members they are a literal part of our clients. They are the most powerful resources we have in understanding and healing our clients because they literally make up our client’s day to day life as well as their biological make up. Even when there might be a parent who the child expresses hate towards (and the parent might have engaged in some real harmful behaviors) it’s so very important that we remind ourselves that this parent is still a basic part of this child. That hate the child might be expressing is also an internalized hatred because that parent is a literal part of them. So when we join with that hate we are often just joining the child in a place of self-hatred. It’s still super important to validate and acknowledge the realness of our client’s feelings but we have to ask ourselves what would it be like to so strongly hate someone who makes up so much a part of yourself? How can I open my client to exploring all of these complex feelings they have about their parents? Our first step towards helping our client explore these feelings is being open to seeing this parent in an open and non judgmental way ourselves.
4.Parents and caregivers are the most powerful resource we have in helping our clients heal
When I first began doing family therapy, my colleagues and I used to say that parents are “the medicine.” That no matter what kind of pain or anguish our clients expressed that the parents were the ones who could most heal this pain. Of course, one parent astutely pointed out that this also meant that she was the poison. That she was most likely to be the one causing the client pain. It can be difficult for a parent to really open up to how much influence they have on their children, however when a parent can really open up to this truth they can then begin to really use love to heal the wounds in their children.
The better we can understand and connect with the parents and caregivers we work with the stronger our work we will be. Some truths and moments of love truly do resonate out into a lifetime and can profoundly change our clients. There are so many moments with my own parents that stick with me and keep me strong in tough times, moments of love and care that meant the world to me. If we can facilitate even one small moment of connection and care like this with the families we work with, who knows how powerful of an effect it could have? It’s the love and care we all want on a very deep and basic level and most of the time it’s just waiting for a chance to come out and flow between the parent and the child. All we have to do is remind them that it’s there.
Providing Mental Health services to school students requires patience, consistency, and a therapist who recognizes they are “a passenger on their journey”. An effective therapist must show up to every session flexible and optimistic -- even when the youth is consistently resistant to talking, when all they want is to use your office as a retreat from the classroom -- the greater goal of supporting student success must always be in mind. A Better Way’s school-based therapists are striving to help youth become successful students, while addressing the impediments to their success.
I had the opportunity sit down and speak with two of our school-based clinicians, Helenia and Jorge. Both therapists offer services in middle schools in Alameda County, serving up to 25 students a year. During this meeting, I learned the value of providing mental health services to young people during school hours.
Clinicians working with youth between the ages of 11-14 are witness to a critical developmental moment in this young person’s life. According to an article on All Pro Dad The Top Five Problems Tweens Face are:
In addition to the typical tween problems as mentioned above, some youth may be dealing with Anxiety, PTSD, Depression, and problems at home. Having therapists on campus can create a more nurturing environment for the youth to process and prosper through the changes they might be experiencing and the challenges they face within their daily lives.
Based on our conversation, I gathered that we need more therapists on campus and a greater interest in nurturing the mental health of our youth. School-based therapists possess valuable insight into the challenges students face, that school staff and faculty may not have the time, training or expertise to address. Because therapists meet with students one-on-one each week, they get to see the young person as they truly are. They are “more intimately involved in their stress and triggers”; therapists are aware whether the parents are involved or not, which greatly influences a student’s success in school.
Additionally, according to an article in the Washington Post:
“…Children under stress have difficulty focusing on the curriculum and retaining what they learn. When schools address these kids’ emotional needs, train the staff to spot signs of trouble, and intervene early, students feel safe and secure in their learning environments. This, more than anything else, can help students thrive in school.”
To my surprise, Jorge and Helenia report the youth have totally bought in to receiving therapeutic services. While students may not want to talk right away, they recognize their need for a safe place outside of the classroom, where they can be heard and just be themselves without judgement or punishment.
In schools, there is an expectation of youth to sit down, be quiet, listen and learn. What if that young person is struggling and keeping those feelings bottled up? “…We must prepare them with life coping and self-management skills and let them know it is okay to have space to take care of yourself.”
Therapy during school hours is a preventative resource that can help youth to grow and thrive -- not only in school, but also in life. Mental Health clinicians can also help to shift the culture of an entire school, making it a place where youth feel comfortable being themselves, knowing that the adults around them care about how they are doing.
This is a “Journey line”. It is a creative activity that helps clients open up. The way it works is you pick out important moments/memories and draw/write them down to give the client a narrative of their life. It shows growth and obstacles they overcame and how such events shaped them into who they are today.
Written By, Taisa Grant
“Bonding is not an event; it’s a process. It’s never too late to bond,” says Lyle Truscott, a mental health clinician for the 0-5 program at A Better Way’s San Francisco office. Lyle works with children under the age of 5, providing non-direct play therapy and child parent Psychotherapy (CPP). Additionally, she is a Certified Educator of Infant Massage (CEIM). As a CEIM Lyle is able to offer infant massage training to parents and caregivers to improve attachment and bonding within families. She can also present information about infant massage in her community, participate in research studies, and conduct in-service programs.
The infant massage program Lyle offers was created by Vimala McClure and was based on her lived experiences during her travels. However, Ms. McClure stresses that infant massage has been around long before that. The practice is rooted in many cultures around the world. More specifically she states that, “Infant massage is an ancient art that connects you deeply with the person who is your baby, and helps you to understand your baby’s particular nonverbal language and respond with love and respectful listening. It empowers you as a parent, for it gives you the means by which you become an expert on your own child.
The Benefits of Infant Massage:
The Benefits include enhanced motor development and reduced cortisol (the stress hormone). It’s especially beneficial to babies born premature or addicted, and HIV+ babies. The bond between the infant and caregiver is increased whether it’s a mother, father, foster parent or even siblings. The caregiver is more confident and it may even help mothers experiencing postpartum depression. Enhanced sleep is also a benefit…if infant massage is included in the bedtime routine it can reduce stress for caregivers.
Infant Massage USA’s Program Emphasizes Four Benefits:
The Four Modalities the Massage Strokes are pulled from are:
A Typical Infant Massage Training with Lyle:
When caregivers participate in an infant massage training with Lyle, they can expect to attend five structured 30 minute to 1-hour sessions. The length of time of each session is dependent on whether or not the training takes place in a group setting or one on one. The caregiver will participate with their infant ranging in age from 6 weeks to pre-crawling.
Initially you will discuss what infant massage is, when it was founded, its purpose, benefits, and the best oils to use. She also lets participants know that infant massage is baby-led. Throughout the training parents are shown how to ask for permission before administering any massage strokes. Caregivers are also supported in recognizing and picking up on the feedback their baby is giving.
Session 1: Focuses on legs and feet
Session 2: Focuses on stomach
Session 3: Focuses Chest and arms
Session 4: Focuses on face and back
Session 5: Review and gentle movements
Something caregivers should know: as a trainer Lyles never massages your baby. She only demonstrates the strokes using a baby doll, she affectionately named Maisie. This ensures that the trainer, Lyle in this case, does not intervene in the essential bonding and relationship strengthening taking place between caregiver and child.
Every session ends with a discussion, allowing caregivers to talk to each other about the process if in a group setting. Otherwise, a discussion takes place between the caregiver and Lyle, about what they would like to get out of the training. She ends each session with a nice closing, for example a song or whatever is appropriate for the client.
Lyle spoke to walking away from infant massage training's feeling grounded and relaxed. The power of touch can’t be overlooked; it is more valuable than any toy you can buy a child to soothe and entertain them. Infant massage is a holistic process because it is a non-invasive therapy that supports the whole baby. It empowers caregivers and encourages a strong bond built on trust and respect between caregiver and child.
Written By, Taisa Grant