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Why we need advocacy for parents involved in child protection

    By Taliah Drayak, parent with lived experience of child protection, parent advocate and founder of Scots Mums Guide to Safeguarding and Child Protection and Andy Bilson retired professor of social work

    Parents faced with the child protection system feel powerless and alone. There is a growing evidence that shows “the importance of connecting families newly involved with the system to parents who have already experienced the child welfare system, who can mentor, encourage, and instill hope for the journey ahead.” Parent advocacy helps parents to respond to the complex, challenging and overwhelming system. It helps to bridge the power imbalance between social workers and parents. And it helps parents to engage more effectively with the system and self-advocate in it. Supporting parents to engage effectively is in the best interests of the child, parents and everyone involved.

    Andy’s recent review of research shows that well-designed parent advocacy programs can:

    • reduce maltreatment;
    • help parents to engage effectively with the judicial and child protection processes;
    • reduce entry to care;
    • increase the speed of reunification; 
    • help parents to overcome alcohol and substance use problems; and
    • change the culture and approach of the child protection system itself.

    But most of all advocacy helps parents at a time of crisis. Taliah has first hand knowledge of the importance of advocacy. An advocate helped her to regain the care of her child after falsely being accused of harming her daughter. She now provides advocacy for other parents caught up in the system.

    Here’s Taliah’s letter of thanks to her advocate which is a powerful message about the need for advocacy.

    Letter of Thanks

    There was a time when I didn’t know about advocacy.
    It was a foreign word.
    I thought an Advocate was someone who helped people sort out benefits and supported people with disabilities.
    I am not disabled. I didn’t want to apply for benefits.
    I thought an advocate was someone who helped people speak when they weren’t able.
    I have lots of words.
    Probably, too many.
    I take pride in writing a good letter. I don’t need help with communicating – I thought … wrong.
    What could an advocate possibly do to help me?
    When life falls apart, when your nightmares come true, when everything that you value is put at risk – you will find yourself facing systems and bureaucracies which you have never before encountered.
    At some point in everyone’s life, I imagine, they will face a crisis that turns their world inside out.
    It is scary. It is frustrating. It is humiliating. It is very dehumanising. It makes you feel stupid.
    It takes a horribly long time.
    And that wears you down to the very bones of your being. It scrapes away all the fight and all the hope you have ever had, until you are hardly a shell of the person you once were.
    By the time I sought Advocacy, I was past anxious, I was past hurting – I was broken.
    It took me a long time to pick up the courage to call the office, because doing so meant admitting that I was vulnerable. I had to admit, I needed help.
    I waited longer than I should, because I didn’t understand about advocacy.
    I thought I didn’t need it. What difference could it make?
    People do not go to advocacy early enough. Not by far.
    We need advocacy to be normalised enough that people can seek it out early enough to steer away from crisis situations before they happen.
    We need to inform everyone about advocacy so that those in dire need of help will actually know where to turn.
    People seek out advocacy at the stage five cancer phase in their life events, because they don’t know that there is life changing support available.
    Once you have this experience, who in their right mind would disagree that advocacy is not just a necessity, but that seeking out advocacy earlier would have been vastly better.
    There is a huge lack of understanding about advocacy. And I think it is important that we change that.
    I want to tell you about Advocacy and how reaching out to advocacy changed my family’s life.
    In the advocacy office, I was a real person again.
    Outside, everywhere else, I was less than human, even rocks weren’t as ugly or bad as I felt everyone looked at me.
    I wasn’t a real person.
    I was an unwanted, an undeserving, someone who was not worth anyone’s time.
    I needed help, but everywhere I turned, I found closed doors, unanswered calls, and looks of disgust.

    Advocacy protected my humanity.
    My advocate sat there like a front line knight and defended in everything he did, my right to be a human being. To be treated as a human being.
    Advocacy did not stop there.
    The advocates cared for, supported and protected my children’s right to a voice when I was, or at least felt like I was, disabled from doing anything to protect or effectively support them.
    Sometimes, the needs of too many adults get in the way of truly getting it right for every child. There are too many conflicting opinions, and as communication breaks down, adversarial trenches are dug.
    The people who are most hurt, most vulnerable, are children. My children needed support that was complex and situational.
    Advocacy never lost sight of that.
    While I crumbled, the advocates stepped in for our children and prioritised our children’s needs, safety and rights. While the professional struggled to respect my children’s rights and meet their needs the advocates took the most caring and professional approach to ensuring they got it right for each of my children.
    My children were safe, respected, valued and included because of advocacy.
    Advocacy isn’t just about having someone to help you speak when you feel anxious. It isn’t just about helping someone’s voice be heard.
    It is so much bigger than that. Advocacy is about helping restore and protect humanity to vulnerable people, people who don’t even realise they are vulnerable – nobody walks around with that identity label, everyone denies they are vulnerable, especially the most vulnerable.
    Advocacy protects and supports vulnerable people.
    Advocacy doesn’t cure situations, that isn’t the role. If we created an army of advocates with magic wands, it would be every bit as dangerous. – Mind you, what a fantastic fantasy.
    Advocacy helps mend problems and one of the ways they do that is through supporting real, effective communication and understanding, while guarding people’s dignity and helping them hold on to their identity.
    At some point in everyone’s life, there will come a day when your life is shaken by an event or long term situation, which leaves you vulnerable and needing advocacy.
    In a perfect world, communication would be simple, everyone would follow the rules, and everyone would be their best, most generous self.
    Real life is not like that.
    If you have a quiet voice, nobody hears you.
    If you are too cooperative, people will take advantage of you.

    Sometimes, no matter how much you try to resolve a problem, it takes time and a lot of other people to coordinate, and you may be trampled in the crowd.
    Advocacy is so much more than just ensuring someone’s voice is heard – but that is a really big part of it.
    Advocacy keeps people safe. It protects peoples’ rights. It enables vulnerable people to engage in their lives in a meaningful way.
    Advocacy protects individual’s humanity and dignity.
    I am proof that Advocacy does not make anyone more vulnerable. Advocacy empowered us, we were no longer alone in the dark.
    Our family is forever thankful for the support we received from Advocacy.