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Mentors Set the Example of Success for Struggling Parents

Judge Patricia Crain
Mentor Channon Baker, shown meeting with a parent, says she can be tough on her clients because she's done everything they've done.

Photo: E.J. Harris/East Oregonian

A focus group at a treatment center for mothers with chronic addiction problems is hardly typical. Yet, this was the group that set the course of a new project for social worker Ruth Taylor.

When Taylor asked the mothers what would help them get clean and sober and do the things necessary to regain custody of their children, they told Taylor they wanted to work with people who knew firsthand what they were going through. They needed mentors who could show them how to negotiate the system and get the services they need, all the while helping them stay focused on treatment and parent training.

That, says Taylor, became the foundation six years ago for a successful parent mentor program in Multnomah County and two years ago in Umatilla County. The two programs are one version of various parent mentor programs being used in Oregon to strengthen families and quickly get children home, where research shows they are more apt to thrive. The work coincides with a statewide effort – led by the Oregon Commission on Children and Families, Department of Human Services, Oregon Judicial Department, Casey Family Programs and eight counties, including Multnomah – to reduce the number of children in foster care by 26 percent by 2011.

"I learned so much from them," Taylor says of the mothers who advised her. As the director of Parents Anonymous, which is a program of Morrison Child and Family Services in Portland, Taylor began with five parent mentors. She selected them based on the mothers' criteria: Mentors must have been clean and sober for two years and be committed to a life of recovery. They lost custody of children because of their addictions and then regained custody after learning to positively parent and successfully closing their cases with Child Protective Services.

Today the program in Multnomah County employs 10 parent mentors, who work part time and are supervised by Taylor and program supervisor Emily Root. The mentors work with about 150 parents. Two of the mentors were once clients. Another of the mentors is African American. One is African American/Puerto Rican. One identifies as Pacific Islander.

Mark Held, who describes himself as a lifelong addict, is the lone male mentor. He was in jail facing three felony charges in 2002 when he decided to change his life. Today he has been clean and sober for more than six years, is raising three children and has grandchildren who've never known him as a drug user. He's been working as a mentor, helping others turn their lives around and get their children out of foster care, for more than two years.

"I'm blessed to have recovery be part of my employment," says Held, who works exclusively with males and has up to 18 clients at a time. Male clients are tough, says Held, but they connect better with someone who can relate to their experiences as men and what they face as fathers in recovery.

When things get difficult, Held steers them back to the same question: "What are you willing to do for your children?"

Channon Baker, one of Held's counterparts in Umatilla County, says her part-time job "is a daily reminder of how far I've come and what I don't want to lose."

"I have six girls – I call them my girls – six moms I'm working with now," she says. "They're doing really good, but there are struggles. I'm pretty blunt with them because I've done everything they've done, and I know exactly what they're going through."

In 1995, Baker was living under a bridge, addicted to drugs and alcohol. She had, in her words, pawned her three children off on her mother, and they would later be placed in foster care. Today she is nine years clean and sober, a proud mother and grandmother. She is also one of three parent mentors employed by Eastern Oregon Alcoholism Foundation in Umatilla County.

"So many of these people have so little hope; they are so ashamed that they can't even try. The parent mentor is an immediate example of hope."
— Jay Wurscher, drug and alcohol services
coordinator for DHS

All of the mentors have been trained in motivating parents to engage in treatment and meet the requirements set by DHS and the courts. They coach parents to develop positive parenting and communication skills, and they help them find needed community resources. They work as a partner with DHS caseworkers and others in the case.

Jay Wurscher, drug and alcohol services coordinator for DHS, provides some training for the mentors and has nothing but praise for their work. "They can cut to the chase and tell (parents) there is a way out of this horrible mess, and they know because they've been there."

Wurscher recalls a case involving an angry and belligerent parent who mouthed off to the judge in court and was refusing to cooperate. A parent mentor offered the parent a ride home and began a conversation. By the end of the drive, says Wurscher, the parent was willing to cooperate and was using his cell phone to make the required appointments.

"So many of these people have so little hope; they are so ashamed that they can't even try,'' says Wurscher. "The parent mentor is an immediate example of hope."

That success, says Joyce Turner, DHS manager of child welfare programs in Umatilla County, makes caseworkers eager to have a parent mentor assigned to their clients. Additionally, the mentors are able to provide more personal support than caseworkers have time to offer.

Records in Umatilla County show that the approach is working. Since its inception in March 2008, 42 of their cases have been closed, says Julie Hanna, who oversees the program for the alcoholism foundation. In 27 of those cases, the children were reunited with their mothers, producing a success rate of 64 percent for the program compared to a 58.1 percent reunification rate in 2009 statewide. Of the children not returned to their mothers, nearly 30 percent were placed with other family members, including four fathers. Only in two cases were parental rights terminated by the state.

The programs in both counties survive on year-to-year Title IV-E federal funds. Taylor says additional and more stable funding would allow her to expand the program and train mentors for new programs, as she did in Umatilla County, and to better serve families of color.

Today, life is good for Baker and her family. She's happily married, working, and her three children are now part of an even larger family, with seven kids in total – and several grandchildren and step grandchildren in the mix.

If I would have had a parent mentor all those years ago, it would have been easier for me," she says. "Your parent mentor has your back, and you can rely on them."