Learning to Really Hear Birth Parents

Earlier this year I was asked to set aside a spring weekend to participate in a SaintA Community Building event for birth parents involved in the child welfare system. It was to be a two-day group experience for birth parents who are committed to reunification. I was asked to attend “in case” someone had an emotional breakdown … send in the therapist.

Katy Golden
Katy Golden

That weekend, I found myself spending two days inside our office while the outside weather was perfect for canoeing. Sitting in a circle, a group of 20 women (19 birth parents and myself) with four facilitators, we talked, and talked, and listened to one another. We also sat in silence for long periods of time. The facilitators told us this was a process that is always unique for each group that comes together.

I still wasn’t sure if Community Building was right for birth parents, I wondered what was the goal, what were the expected outcomes? I was a skeptic.

I do know one outcome: I was changed. I left touched and humbled by this group of women. I was supposed to “help” them if they had a mental health need. Yet, they helped me, simply by accepting me, not as a representative of child protective services that removed their children, but as a person who set aside this time and was present with them. NEVER in over 43 years of child welfare work have I heard, really heard, how much these women have suffered and how deeply they love their children.

I challenge our workers: Who among us can hear these stories, their stories? Can we hear and not judge? While I’m certainly not suggesting we put a child in an unsafe setting, can we set aside evaluating “safety of the child” for a moment to hear the parent/adult story? If we hear their pain, if we accept them, how might that impact our work? Part of listening requires absorbing some of this pain. Can workers afford to do that? How might that impact the worker’s own well-being?

I watched the group learn to listen. It took a lot of redirection from the facilitators, subtle redirection, but effective. By the end, everyone had really listened to one another. (Yes, I was redirected, too, and I learned, and I was humbled!) I watched women, deftly and with the skill of a seasoned master therapist, hear one another, share, and gently nudge one another toward seeing how their own behavior led to their children being placed out of their homes, how their actions could help this change. They enlightened one another.

Recently I was asked to consider how we, as administrators, can assist workers to “engage” with their “clients.” I don’t think there are any techniques or trainings that will help us to engage with clients if we view them as “clients,” versus experiencing them as people we are asked to help. That is what these women gave to one another, as well as to me.

The challenge that remains is, how can we, as workers, hear and absorb the pain and take care of ourselves?

I bumped into one of the participants recently in the reception area. I felt a connection and so did she. We chatted. I think I know what Community Building is about now. The outcome: connection.

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