Have Car, Will Travel

The first rule in helping families stay together is meeting them where they are.

Janice_Janice Sanders is part of our family preservation team in New Hanover County | Wynona Benson Photography

It was a rash, inexplicable decision.

The 19-year-old single mother had no reliable childcare for her son while she worked. Sometimes she’d get help from the child’s father and his family, but when she showed up at their home one Tuesday morning, expecting to drop him off, no one would answer her calls or knocks on the door. So she placed the 1-year-old boy on the front porch, left a voice message saying he was there, and she drove to her job. A neighbor found the child crying in the yard and, on that day, history repeated itself. The boy was placed into foster care, just as his own mother had been years earlier.

Janice Sanders is part of our family preservation team in New Hanover County. She works out of her car, coaching struggling families in their own homes, and she talks about working with this mother:

These cases can be hard, but we start with the positives. This mother loves her son, and she wants to be a good parent. She has housing and a steady job in retail. But she struggles with staying calm and making reasoned decisions when she’s upset. She never learned to do that. As a child, she was neglected in a lot of ways. She didn’t get the basic bonding and parenting we take for granted, and she ended up in the social services system, bouncing between foster homes and group homes. In the process she missed out on some basic coping skills, and the only way she knew to respond was to lash out or push back.

Now that she’s a young parent, she can see how this behavior is costing her own child the stability he needs. It’s been difficult for her to learn these lessons now, rather than earlier in life, but I feel like she’s made monumental progress. We’ve practiced and role-played so that she’s able to control her emotions and work through problems with counseling. She counts before she responds to something she doesn’t like. She keeps a journal to track how she’s doing. We’ve also used some simple techniques to help her think through choices, to see the pros and cons before acting.

I’ve worked in this field more than 25 years, and experience has shown me there’s good in all of us and there’s always opportunity to get it right. For some, it takes longer. In this case, I see a young mother who is becoming empowered for the first time in her life. She still has to meet social services’ goals to get her son back, but she is learning to stay in control and take responsibility. With that, I am satisfied.

Since 2004, MHC’s family preservation team has helped 981 families and 1,440 children in New Hanover County:

• 80 percent of cases focused on keeping children in the home, with 90 percent success.
• 20 percent were more complicated reunification cases, with 70 percent success.

Family preservation services help parents build skills they need to prevent or minimize foster care placements for their children.

For information about family preservation in New Hanover County, contact program manager Kelly Campbell at kcampbell@mhfc.org.