A group of parents who at one time had an open case with children services – calling themselves Primary Parents or Parent Partners – has come forward to support child protection caseworkers with their current caseload, both as parent advocates and as voices to improve the system.
Some of these primary parents had their rights terminated, and their children have been adopted by other families; others worked their case plans and have been reunified with their children. Most have overcome addiction, mental illness and their own history of trauma to become spokespersons for the importance of community and government services that strengthen and stabilize families in crisis. Ohio has developed a rich array of Parent Partner activities:
- Succeed: Support groups for current children services-involved parents are led by trained parents with lived experience with resolved child protection cases. Those parent leaders complete a curriculum in leadership and facilitation skills followed by ongoing observation and coaching. This effort is supported by the Ohio Family Care Association with funding support from the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services and Casey Family Programs (via PCSAO).
- HOPE (Helping Ohio Parent Effectively): Public children services agencies engage and prepare caregivers with lived experience in partnering with caseworkers on open cases. Activities include co-trainings with caseworkers and foster parents, orientation sessions as part of parenting classes, and service as family advocates in Family Team Meetings and Team Decision Making meetings. This work is supported through Casey Family Programs funding via PCSAO and staffing support at ODJFS and county agencies.
- Family Peer Mentors as part of Ohio START (Sobriety, Treatment and Reducing Trauma): Families involved in children services due to the parent/caregiver’s substance use disorder are connected with a parent in recovery. These peer mentors complete significant preparation through both Ohio START training and the Peer Mentor certification process at the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services.
Primary Parent Profiles
Julia Burns is a past recipient of Rising Up and Moving On awards from both Trumbull County Children Services and PCSAO. Julia and her siblings became involved with children services at a young age due to their mother’s addiction problems. Initially, she was in and out of kinship placements. At age 12 she entered foster care, followed by residential treatment and group home care. At 18 she aged out. But that is not the end of Julia’s story.
Today with her husband Julia is busy parenting three young daughters and providing kinship care for her sister. Additionally, she supports, motivates and inspires foster youth in Trumbull County through HOPE, Helping Ohio Parent Effectively. She also provides the foster youth perspective throughout the state at conferences and speaking engagements.
Through HOPE Julia co-facilitates support groups for youth in care and is a mentor to primary parents when their children enter care. She believes the groups provide relief to the youth in care, as they feel heard by someone who understands what they are going through.
She is excited to mentor her first family. She recognizes that parents feel overwhelmed. She helps them to see how they can be successful by following their case plan. Through sharing her experience, she helps them to understand their children’s feelings and the importance of maintaining their relationship with their child as they work toward reunification.
Doreen Britt is a mother of five with over 14 years of personal and professional experience in child welfare. Individually, her children were adopted, emancipated, reunified and placed in kinship care. Following the experience of her family with children services, she became a peer mentor with Beech Brook’s Parents Helping Parents program. As a professional advocate, she received the Advocate of the Year award from Cuyahoga County Children and Family Services. Additionally Doreen provides training to caseworkers and foster parents throughout the state.
She has been featured in training videos produced by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Ohio Child Welfare Training Program and Public Children Services Association of Ohio. A tireless champion of parent engagement, she continues to serve as a primary parent partner member of the Helping Ohio Parent Effectively (HOPE) workgroup and as an advocate with HOPE in Cuyahoga County. She has also assisted Stark County HOPE with orientation sessions for primary parents.
Doreen is gratified by presenting during the orientation sessions, increasing primary parents’ knowledge of the child protection system. She notes how often the parents enter the sessions angry and defensive but leave with a positive attitude as they gain a better understanding of the system, the process and the steps they need to take for success.
She stills finds advocating and supporting primary parents the most rewarding. This is best llustrated by a recent case working with the father of a 16-year-old who came into care as a result of a serious injury at a friend’s home while her mother was in a nursing home in the last stages of cancer. The father did not have a home for his daughter and was unemployed. However, getting into a shelter with Doreen’s assistance allowed him enough time to secure housing and employment, leaving him able to care for his daughter. Stories like this keep Doreen dedicated to the work.
Karen Ezirim is a woman whose life story exemplifies the power of faith and hope in changing lives and overcoming trauma and adversity. This mother of 10 beautiful children survived generational addiction, physical and sexual abuse, the loss of her children within the child protection system, and years of struggle with her own addictions.
Completing her 12th year in recovery from her addictions, she is a fierce advocate for her children, and a mentor and coach for other families faced with trauma, loss and addictions. She is actively involved with programs that strive to engage communities to strengthen families. Her affiliations include the Ohio Family Care Association, Ohio Primary Parent Advisory Counsel, Family as Faculty at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, Parenting Pathways, and the HOPE Program (Helping Ohio Parent Effectively).
Her mission is to share her story of hope and healing to educate and encourage others to reach out and embrace those who are broken and to help them heal. Karen has inspired a wide range of professionals and families as a motivational speaker, trainer, life coach and mentor. She has survived and thrived despite her traumatic past. It is her heart’s desire that her story of hope and healing will touch people’s hearts and motivate them to be an active part of the village that it takes to raise a family.
Note: Sadly, Karen passed away Oct. 26, 2020. She is missed.
Rhonda & Jeffrey Mays
Rhonda Ezell Mays and Jeffrey Mays are advocates, mentors and trainers for Cuyahoga County Children and Family Services (formerly DCFS). Their path to working with the agency began with personal experience in the system. Their three children were placed in foster care due to their addiction to drugs and alcohol. At the time, more than a decade ago, Jeff was virtually ignored during the reunification process, receiving only those services he was able to find for himself. The couple was ultimately reunified with their children and maintained their marriage during the recovery process. Because of their success, the couple was asked to participate in foster parent training, presenting the birth parents’ perspective.
Rhonda became a professional mentor and advocate in 2005, working for the Parents Helping Parents program of Beech Brook in partnership with DCFS. In this this position she worked with families who were at risk of losing or already had lost custody of their children. She helped support each family by working through their case plans, managing their court dates and providing outside resources. She trained and facilitated a variety of workshops and groups such as Building a Better Future, new caseworker training, peer support groups and many more.
Jeff is passionate about supporting fathers, ensuring fathers’ rights are upheld in the children services system. He has worked with Cuyahoga County’s Fatherhood Initiative and is also a Family Consultant with the Capacity Building Center for States, providing subject matter expertise on multiple child welfare topic areas such as family empowerment, substance abuse, and fatherhood engagement.
Rhonda and Jeff were awarded the Hearts of Hope award in 2005 for their work with the Parents Helping Parents program. In recent years, Rhonda has been interviewed by Rise magazine and was the featured cover story for the Northeast Ohio Catholic magazine.
Rhonda and Jeff continue their work with Children and Family Services, participating in listening sessions, conferences, and ongoing trainings. Working with HOPE (Helping Ohio Parent Effectively) as parent partners, they continue their journey in helping parents and families one step at a time.