When I began practicing law, lawyers were required to take on a number of cases for those who couldn’t afford a lawyer. Most were Department of Social Services cases involving children who had been removed from the custody of their parents. My job was to represent the parents seeking to regain custody.
Some parents seemed resigned to having lost their children, but others desperately wanted to be reunited. To show that reunification was appropriate, parents had to meet the requirements of a treatment plan, designed to ensure that children were returned to safe, stable environments. The plan required, among other things, that the parent have a stable job and attend parenting courses and that the home was safe with sufficient beds and rooms for the number of people living there.
Every person I represented was in a bad financial situation. Most were single parents who didn’t have their own transportation and lived with family, often with many in a home. I quickly realized that these treatment plans — while they sounded reasonable — were almost impossible for my clients. How does a single mom, with no transportation, work a full-time job and also make it to regular parenting classes, visitations and court appearances (which do not accommodate a work schedule)? How does she, with a minimum-wage income, find a larger home?
There were other challenges: First, these parents were themselves in a bad environment, with no family to turn to or family and friends who pulled them back and held them down. Second, my clients facing addiction simply didn’t stand a chance. It is a serious challenge to beat addiction on one’s best day; much more so with the challenges of the treatment plan, demands of the job and added struggles.
And in my clients who wanted reunification, I could sense a crushing desperation. While trying to meet these challenges, they were never able to think of anything else but their children. The parents felt anxious and guilty. And they felt depression and loneliness as they returned home from their low-wage jobs and looked at the empty beds.
When I later learned about The Family Effect, I was stunned. Years before I knew about the problem, people had begun crafting this solution, finally giving parents struggling with addiction a chance. The mothers still meet the requirements of DSS, but they can do so in the safe, encouraging environment of Serenity Village. There, they take classes on parenting and life skills. They are surrounded by people who encourage them. And, most importantly, the mothers can do all of this while living with their children. This is essential for the mother, but also vitally important for the children who, rather than being placed into the DSS system, separated from those they know, are instead brought into a safe, stable place. These kids grow up to be different people than if they’d had to deal with the trauma of being taken from their parents and raised in an underfunded DSS system.
I read an obituary recently, written by a father in New Hampshire whose daughter had lost her children to state custody after she developed an addiction to opioids. Overwhelmed by her challenges, she dove deeper into addiction and died of an overdose. He used the obituary to encourage enhanced funding for programs like The Family Effect. “Because, as one would guess,” the woman’s father wrote, “once the mother is separated from her children, desperation sets in, even with the brightest and most determined of mothers.”
Jay Anthony is an attorney in Greenville and a board member of The Family Effect.