Mentors Help Parents Navigate Child Welfare System

Last Updated on May 9, 2014 at 1:17 pm

By Laura L. Acosta

UTEP News Service

The University of Texas at El Paso is one of two Texas universities selected by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) to launch the Texas CPS Parent Partners project, a yearlong pilot program with Child Protective Services (CPS).

With the support of a $100,000 grant from DFPS, faculty from the Department of Social Work in the College of Health Sciences are training three mothers — who successfully regained custody of their children after they were placed with CPS — to serve as role models for 65 parents whose children are currently in foster care.

UTEP has received a $100,000 grant from the Department of Family and Protective Services to train peer parent mentors who will offer guidance to parents whose children have been placed in foster care by Child Protective Services. From left, peer parent mentors Marline Romo and Melissa Vizcaino join UTEP faculty members Sam Terrazas and Candyce Berger. Photo by Laura Trejo / UTEP News Service

UTEP has received a $100,000 grant from the Department of Family and Protective Services to train peer parent mentors who will offer guidance to parents whose children have been placed in foster care by Child Protective Services. From left, peer parent mentors Marline Romo and Melissa Vizcaino join UTEP faculty members Sam Terrazas and Candyce Berger. Photo by Laura Trejo / UTEP News Service

“The idea is to use peers who have similar experiences and knowledge specific to having children removed by CPS,” said Samuel Terrazas, Ph.D., assistant professor of social work and the program’s principal investigator. “Our parent partners will go into the home and essentially support the family to navigate the child welfare system and help them work through the barriers to various referrals, programs or services that they are required to participate in to get their children home.”

Terrazas acknowledged that when clients come into the CPS system, they may not be overly optimistic about the outcome of their case. But a peer parent mentor who understands the process from personal experience can help parents get access to services and reduce the amount of time that children spend in foster care. Parents also begin to see the benefits of complying with the CPS service plan.

Four years ago, Melissa Vizcaino’s two children were placed with relatives for nine months. In order for her to regain custody of them, Vizcaino had to comply with a series of tasks outlined by CPS in her service plan, which included attending parenting classes, enrolling in a substance-abuse program and finding a job. Going through the system was a struggle for Vizcaino, who didn’t know where to find these services in the community or who to turn to for help.

“If I knew there was this kind of program, I probably would have gone through it because I needed someone to show me the way,” said Vizcaino, who has been hired as one of the program’s peer parent mentors. “That’s what I want to do is to show someone how to (navigate through CPS) and give them that hope to get out of the system.”

Vizcaino, Marline Romo and Cynthia Monzon are being trained as peer parent mentors by Vivian J. Corral, a licensed master social worker, who is the program manager at UTEP.

Corral is teaching the mentors about the skills, knowledge and values of social workers. They are also learning about case management, crisis intervention, healthy relationships and how to establish rapport.

“They’re learning the difference between being objective and subjective,” Corral said. “In the interviewing process, they need to be objective and not be emotional. They need to leave emotions outside the door and be prepared to face whatever it is that they need to face.”

The training has given Romo a preview of her future career as a social worker. Romo went through the CPS process two years ago when her four children were sent to live with family.

Even though the situation was hard, Romo took the time she was away from her children to work to become a better person and a better mother. As a peer parent mentor, she hopes her clients will follow her example.

“Instead of crying about (the situation), take that time to grow and to get to know yourself so that you can to be the best person that you can be,” said Romo, who regained custody of her children after nine months. “Love yourself enough so you can be there for your children.”

Romo’s experience with CPS has motivated her to pursue a bachelor’s degree from the University of Phoenix. She plans to graduate in 2016 and apply to the Master of Social Work program at UTEP. Vizcaino expects to get her associate degree in social work from El Paso Community College next year. She also has plans to earn both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work from UTEP.

Their experience as peer parent mentors will put Romo and Vizcaino ahead of the learning curve when they receive their undergraduate degrees and enroll in graduate school.

“A lot of students who come in (to the Bachelor of Social Work and Master of Social Work programs), they have had that drive to help other people but they haven’t had access to the professional skills as to how to help them,” said Candyce Berger, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Social Work and the program’s co-investigator. “So (the peer parent mentors) will actually be coming into these programs with much stronger skills and better prepared.”

The grant also has provided Terrazas and Berger an opportunity to conduct research. They will assess the process that they’ve developed to train peer parent partners and look at the program’s outcomes.

“The Parent Partner project will serve our community by encouraging parents who are involved in the CPS system to develop a healthy network of support, strengthen their parenting skills and utilize the parent mentors as positive role models who can provide them with strength, guidance and hope,” said Diana Barajas, CPS regional director. “Healthy families build healthy communities.”

Funding for the Texas CPS Parent Partners program is the second grant that UTEP has received from the DFPS in the last year.

In October, UTEP was awarded $683,000 from DFPS through the Title VI-E program to fund the Child Welfare Training Project in the College of Health Sciences. The grant also will fund technical assistance and staff development training for caseworkers, investigators and child protection social workers at CPS offices in Region 10, which includes El Paso, Brewster, Culberson, Hudspeth, Jeff Davis and Presidio counties.

The social work department has also hired several faculty members who have an interest in child welfare services and the child welfare field, Berger said.

“I see (child welfare) as a growing focus in our program and so you have the academic piece, you have the research piece, and this (parent peer mentor program) brings in the practice piece,” Berger said. “It’s congruent with where we’re moving as a department with child welfare being one of our major areas.”

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