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Strengthening Families Summit: Getting parents to see DHS as a friend, not an enemy

Through partnerships with trusted institutions, DHS brings parents together to problem-solve, share stories, and receive assistance.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

“We got my three nephews because my wife’s youngest sister went on a drug binge. She came one weekend and said ‘could you babysit the kids?’ and never came back,” said Adan Rosario, a parent mentor for the Community Umbrella Agency (CUA) Northeast Treatment Center. Rosario has been helping parents become better at what they do through mentoring and connecting with them.

“It was eight months later [that] we finally found out where she was, and she says, ‘I don’t want them back.’ We were getting ready to get married, so we had to use all of our money to get things done, then we had to move out of the house. We lost the house we were going to buy. All of this happened all at once. You don’t expect this, so you got this new family.”

Recently, Rosario finalized the adoption for the three children, something he says has been a difficult process, but has gotten easier over time.

After a rough beginning trying to work with the CUA – six weeks passed before a visit, one month to get a bunk bed – Rosario said things have now improved considerably. There was a change of leadership “and everything just meshed and I saw the difference,” he said. He now works for the CUA himself.

Rosario, along with vendors, partners, and parents, attended an Aug. 15 event hosted by the city’s Department of Human Services called the Strengthening Families Summit. Philadelphia parents were invited to attend workshops and listen to speakers talk about resources for parents to make child-rearing a little easier.

Now in its fourth year, the event has increased its attendance by 50 people each year. This year, 300 parents were present.

Harriet Burton-Wilson, the Strengthening Families project manager, sees this kind of event as a chance to reach out to parents and let them know that DHS can help them.

“We just create an opportunity for parents to come together,” said Burton-Wilson. The emphasis is on assisting parents in dealing with problems and obstacles “that have prevented you from moving to the next level.” Part of this includes a partnership with the School District. DHS hopes to host Parent Cafes in all the schools.

The purpose is prevention. “Sometimes we see things and we ignore them until something happens, and when that something happens, sometimes it’s too late,” she said.

“I was “a kinship child myself,” my mom died when I was younger and my dad wasn’t in my life when I was younger. It kind of helps people to understand that we all go through the same things, no matter what. People don’t realize it until they go to the parent cafes.”

This is Bridgette Paris, another parent mentor who works with CUA, and helps organize the parent cafes, where parents are invited to “come by and talk about their issues.” Paris tries to help parents become more willing to ask for help and to let them know that they should not be afraid to use the resources available to them.

“There’s a lot of stuff the CUAs are doing. The cafe, I think, is what keeps it together,” Rosario said. “The cafe is there, and if you use that as a resource for the parent, then the parent starts to feel like they’re a part of the community. They’re understanding, ‘oh, these aren’t the people to come take our kids, they’re the ones to help us with our kids.’”

DHS, through the CUAs, works to make the cafes welcoming by creating partnerships with trusted institutions. They include, Burton-Wilson said, churches, synagogues, and recreational or community spots.

“We partner with them to see whether we can use their space. It has to be handicap-accessible. We’re going to bring the party to you,” she said. “We’re not asking you to pay for anything. We’re going to purchase the food. We’re going to provide the participants with childcare. We’re going to, if needed, provide the participants with transportation, whether it be tokens or whatever the case may be. We’re pretty much having a gathering just for the participants.”

One big issue that DHS is trying to help with in these cafes is getting parents to overcome the stigma of asking for help in a group. Generally, the cafes have up to 30 participants at a time.

“It may be they’re too embarrassed to ask a question because they feel as though people will look at them weird, so they keep it quiet, they keep it to themselves,” Burton-Wilson said. “A parent may have five, six kids, trying to figure out ‘how am I going to get clothes for these kids to return to school?’ I’m working, but my income doesn’t cover what my needs are. Too embarrassed, and if I’m being honest, too prideful.

“So when we get together and they hear other parents talk about struggles, they say ‘wow, OK.’ I’ve had parents come up to me saying, ‘normally I don’t talk to people,’ and I laugh because by the end of the two- to three-hour parent cafe, they are expressing, because we are giving them that safe environment.”

Mayor Kenney also addressed the summit, emphasizing the importance of the DHS and the work it is doing.

“When you have strong communities, you have less crime, less disruptions to families due to drugs and alcohol and abuse and neglect. You have stronger schools, thriving businesses and more opportunity for our young people,” Kenney said. “I congratulate the child welfare staff – who work alongside parents and caregivers – who help create foundations of healing, resiliency, and a safety net of resources for our families. And all this important work happens right in the parent’s neighborhood. It is about partnership and all of our collective efforts are making a huge difference in the lives of children, youth, and families in our city.”

The story has been updated to correct an editing error

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