Supporting Young Parents in Care with Building Healthy Relationships

The Brighter Futures Workgroup is an initiative of CSSP’s Youth Power, Parent Power portfolio. The Youth Power, Parent Power initiative partners with expectant and parenting youth to transform standards of care across public systems and communities so that they can succeed and thrive. The Brighter Futures Workgroup is a collaboration between current and former youth with lived experience in foster care, legal agencies representing children, legal agencies representing parents, community-based organizations, child welfare system leaders, and other key stakeholders working to improve outcomes for expectant and parenting youth in foster care, their children and families.

On February 23rd, the Brighter Futures Workgroup hosted a roundtable discussion in New York City to explore how to support young parents in foster care to build strong relationships and how to reduce system over-surveillance when it comes to relationship conflicts. Before the roundtable discussion, we ran two focus groups with young parents. One parent perfectly expressed what a lot of us feel. He said: “It’s like, we’ve just had a baby. Our lives are chaotic. Our sleeping patterns are messed up. We’ve had years of having to defend ourselves and fend for ourselves in the system. We have all this unprocessed trauma. And then if we have a fight, it’s like, ‘Wow. You blew up. You’re bad. You’re unsafe.’ There’s no process of being able to learn from experience. There’s no process of, how do we sit down and talk about this.”

As parents who were in the system as young people ourselves, we believe that it’s important for everyone working in the child welfare system to be trauma-informed and to understand what it takes to heal from trauma. If people working in the system were trauma-informed, they’d understand that fight, flight or freeze modes are normal responses to trauma, but that people who have experienced trauma can develop different ways to respond to day-to-day situations. If they understood trauma principles, they’d be able to bring healing-centered practices to their interactions with young parents.

During the roundtable, participants also said that when mandated reporters jump so quickly to report young parents when they have relationship conflict it just puts a Band-Aid over a bigger issue. It’s looking at the behavior and not the cause, and it makes young parents feel threatened and even more likely to go into a fight, flight or freeze mode.

If instead we worked to provide young parents with tools and information about relationships and helped them to recognize their own personal trauma triggers, it might empower young parents to learn how to work through conflicts now and in the future. If staff interacted with young parents from a place of understanding and empowerment, those interactions would be part of a process of healing, rather than subjecting young parents to another experience of shame and punishment.

When the system doesn’t have any ways to support parents in learning how to work through conflicts, it sends the message that you can’t make a mistake. But all parents and all young people need to feel like it’s OK to make mistakes. Especially when we grow up being ridiculed, talked down to, made to feel like we’re always less than and never beautiful, we need to know that we can learn and grow and not be stuck in this vicious cycle of powerlessness, shame and system involvement.

Dominique Arrington and Nancy Fortunato are parent leaders from the Brighter Futures Workgroup in New York City. They both published stories in Rise Magazine to share their experiences with the child welfare system to advocate for change in how the needs of youth and families are being met and identify better ways to support families so they can thrive.  Dominique and Nancy want to reduce the over-surveillance of young parents in foster care and increase the concrete support young parents have to end the intergenerational involvement in the child welfare system.