A Partnership Leads to Permanency

In the book, “The Theory and Practice of Change Management,” by John Hayes, the stages of the Helping Relationship are listed as the following; Developing the helping relationship, helping clients understand the problem situation, helping clients identify a preferred scenario and establish change goals, helping clients plan and take action, consolidating the change, and withdrawing from the helping relationship. In looking back on my recent work with a relative caregiver, who we will call Ms. Young, I was able to see how our work together truly was a partnership that followed the stages of the Helping Relationship listed above.

Ms. Young is a grandmother who took guardianship of her 3-year-old granddaughter, who we will call Alyssa, in October of 2015. Alyssa was placed with her in February of 2014, when her mother (Ms. Young’s daughter) was unable to care for her and her infant sibling due to drug addiction and the instability, unpredictability and safety concerns that can come with that lifestyle.

I began working with Ms. Young in October of 2014. She realized that she was not able to care for her infant granddaughter in addition to Alyssa and was filled with the guilt that that realization, and the subsequent decision not to take placement of the baby, brought. Ms. Young was, however, extremely grateful for the foster parents of the newborn, with whom she built a relationship and who allowed her to have visits every other weekend with the newborn.

Coreen Lautenbach Hicks
Coreen Lautenbach Hicks

Throughout all of the ups and downs, the highs and lows, and the ins and outs, Ms. Young worked hard to, and was successful at, meeting all of Alyssa’s needs. The girl displayed challenging behaviors such as tantrums and aggression, and emotional dysregulation. Alyssa was moody and had emotional ups and downs on a daily basis. She suffered from sleep disturbances and had medical issues, including a surgery. Ms. Young also had difficulty in her communication and interaction with her daughter, Alyssa’s mother. Establishing boundaries, expectations for communication and mutual respect were a challenge. Combine all of this with navigating the child welfare system, and Ms. Young had a lot on her plate.

Our work together, our partnership as I like to call it, began by us spending time together during which I listened closely to Ms. Young and began to understand her perspective and challenges. I gained tremendous respect for her point of view and learned what she wanted to achieve for her family. Her prime objective was to preserve the familial relationships, with her staying the grandmother, not adopting Alyssa and becoming her mother.

Humor and finding things in common were big components in our establishing our relationship with each other, which grew stronger as time went on.

Concerns were ever evolving for Ms. Young. At times, the issue was Ms. Young’s relationship and communication with her daughter. Sometimes the concern was Ms. Young’s employment and her job search, as she was downsized from her long-term employer during the time we worked together.

At other times, the concern was permanency and Ms. Young’s desire to have guardianship transferred, instead of adopting her granddaughter, to preserve the familial relationships for Alyssa and their extended family. Sometimes the concern was Alyssa’s health, behavior, or development and Ms. Young’s struggles to get the right services and evaluations for her granddaughter.

Ms. Young and I met bi-weekly, working to find what really needed to change, what didn’t, and what needed to change in the future but could be left alone at that point. Ms. Young and I talked through and established boundaries for her with daughter, which included her no longer providing her with money and directing the daughter to contact her ongoing case manager when she needed services or assistance instead of coming to Ms. Young.

We talked openly and frequently about the feelings of disappointment, sadness and frustration Ms. Young felt about her daughter’s current situation. She said repeatedly that she never thought that her daughter would end up in this situation: homeless, having substance abuse issues and losing placement of her children. We discussed things that she could not control, such as her daughter’s behavior, and things that she could control, such as her reaction to her daughter, how she manages her emotions, and stress, and where her focus is in life.

Ms. Young made many breakthroughs in coping with her daughter, and she was able to make tough decisions and ask for needed change and help when necessary. Eventually visitations between her daughter and granddaughter were supervised by a professional agency in the Milwaukee area, not by Ms. Young or at her home.

Ms. Young, Ongoing Case Manager Clare Morin, Permanency Consultant Nilufer Karul, Licensing Worker Marande Buck, and I met with Ms. Young several times to help her understand permanency and the goals established by the Division of Milwaukee Child Protective Services. This included several discussions about her responsibilities for maintaining contact between Alyssa and her daughter, Alyssa’s mother, after the transfer of guardianship was finalized.

I helped Ms. Young advocate for what she wanted for her family (her preferred scenario) and helped her talk through and express her vision for her family. Ms. Young was able to express in her own words the reasons why she felt that it was important for her granddaughter to remain her granddaughter, instead of becoming her daughter through adoption. She was able to articulately state that she was concerned that as Alyssa got older she would find it difficult to reconcile her grandmother becoming her mother, her mother and her aunt becoming her sisters, etc., and all of the emotions and confusion that that would bring. Ms. Young was also able to globalize those advocacy skills, and obtain the services needed for Alyssa, such as therapy.

Ms. Young and I had several conversations, talked for weeks about ending our relationship, and worked together as the transfer of guardianship drew close, in preparation for that event. I was with her during the court hearing at which her daughter voluntarily gave up her parental rights. Being at the hearing was painful but important for Ms. Young.

We reviewed everything that we had worked on, learned about, and advocated for in our time together. Ms. Young told me several times that it was going to be “weird” not having me around to talk to. I told her how much I had enjoyed our time together and how much seeing her grow, learn and change during our work had meant to me.

On our last day together, I drove Ms. Young to and from the transfer of guardianship court hearing. We talked about her feelings at that moment, and I congratulated her on successfully getting to this point: the point of permanency and security for her family. Ms. Young described that day at “bittersweet,” as she was glad to see permanency and stability achieved for Alyssa, but struggled with her daughter having lost her parental rights to her youngest child and guardianship of her oldest child. We talked about it being OK to have those conflicting feelings, because that is part of life – so few things are just cut and dried, one way or the other.

Ms. Young and I exchanged a hug and thanked each other for the time we had spent together before we say goodbyes that day. Looking back, it was an amazing and a pride-filled moment for me to see her at the place she was at, with her feeling confident and having achieved what she ultimately wanted for her family.

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