Stephanie Moreno says losing her children to Child Protective Services (CPS) back in 2015 was the hardest thing she’s ever had to deal with.
A family member called CPS on Moreno, accusing her of using drugs and knowingly allowing someone to sexually abuse her daughter. As it turned out, it was that same family member who was the person abusing Moreno’s daughter while Moreno was away at work. The mother of two had no idea.
Although Moreno was able to get the allegation cleared up in court, her kids had already been removed from her home and the judge told her that if she wanted to get them back, then she had to kick her drug habits.
As all of this was happening, Moreno went into a temporary state of homelessness and joblessness. But as luck would have it, she crossed paths with a Parents In Partnership (PIP) mentor – a mother who’d also lost her children to the system but who was able to get them back.
That relationship changed everything for Moreno.
“When I first met her,” Moreno said, “my attitude was outrageous; but, she supported me and wouldn’t let me give up.”
Since it started over a decade ago, mentors from the PIP program have offered parents like Moreno an important lifeline of support in the aftermath of their children’s removal by L.A. County social workers.
PIP isn’t affiliated with the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS). Instead, it’s a group of parents who have already successfully navigated the system and share their expertise with parents on the brink of losing their children to the system.
PIP staff collaborates with DCFS to help support, educate and empower parents who have lost custody of their children and are seeking reunification. The parent mentors provide everything from informational orientations to support groups to a non-emergency call line. Participation is 100 percent voluntary.
According to a 2016 study published in the Journal of Social Science Research, parents who have lost their children to the child welfare system were five times more likely to reunify with their children if they attended a PIP orientation, making a significant case that such programs are a viable way to support family preservation.
Pricilla Diaz, a countywide lead staff person for PIP in Los Angeles, has been a parent mentor since 2009. Her aim is to empower and educate parents like Moreno to succeed in their cases to regain custody of their children.
Diaz can relate to the parents she encounters through PIP – she’s a recovering drug addict, an ex-gang member and covered in tattoos.
“I almost lost my daughter to adoption,” Diaz said. “I was released from prison and didn’t know what to do.”
A cousin connected Diaz to a parent partner who gave her some advice on how to get her daughter back. She attended a PIP orientation and says it was that connection that led to her family’s reunification. “Today, I’m just here to help families,” Diaz said.
Diaz oversees three PIP offices in Los Angeles County, and her and her fellow parent partners do outreach in jails, rehabilitation centers, domestic violence shelters and family agencies.
“We give a run-down of DCFS in a nutshell,” Diaz said. “The do’s and don’ts. We go through the different things to help parents along with their cases.”
Besides a general orientation, PIP helps connect parents to resources such as parenting and anger management classes, and the parent partners’ support group gives participants a chance to vent their frustrations and concerns.
“The majority of the time,” Diaz said, “we help them to focus on the big picture of getting their kids back home.”
One challenge that mentors like Diaz face is parents not willing to give them a chance. Whereas PIP often sets up camp in the lobby of DCFS to better connect with parents, there’s a misunderstanding that the parent mentors work for the system.
“Some people think we’re in alliance with social workers,” Diaz said. “But once they see how we interact and talk with other parents – see that I’m the same as them – most of the time they open up and want to work with us.”
That’s what happened with Paul Amaya.
Amaya had lived the life of a gang member and had spent time in prison. To support his young family, he sold drugs, to which his wife became addicted. In 2016, he was charged with a failure to protect his children and DCFS came in and took his kids away.
“When they removed my kids from me,” Amaya said, “that did something to me. That hurt.”
Amaya had been taken away from his own mother as a child, and no one had fought to get him out of the system. He made the choice to fight to get his kids back and to provide them with a stable home. He quit selling drugs, struggled for a bit and eventually connected with PIP.
“They were people like me who’d lost their kids,” Amaya said. “People who’d go out of their way to make things happen for me. If there’s one person who believes in you, who are you to not believe in yourself?”
That one person to believe in Amaya was Diaz. As he was beginning to think he had no other options other than to return to his previous life and let his children grow up in foster homes, it was Diaz who ignited a fire within the father of four.
“She knew I loved these kids,” Amaya said, “and she wasn’t going to let me give up. She opened doors for me and saved my life. If it wasn’t for her and her persistence, I would never have gotten my kids back.”
Diaz helped Amaya get into parenting and anger management classes and connected him with a counselor and therapist. Earlier this year, he regained custody of his 1- and 2-year-old daughters, and the single father will go to court this week to try and get custody of his older son and daughter.
Amaya now acts as a PIP mentor and speaks to groups of parents going through the same thing he was going through last year, letting them know that they’re not alone and that it is possible to overcome their struggles.
“It’s a battle to get your kids back from DCFS,” Amaya said. “It ain’t easy and it takes a lot out of you. If I would have never met [Pricilla], this would be a whole different story right now. If it wasn’t for the program, I would have never become the parent I am today.”
Stephanie Moreno also feels like she’s a better parent today than she was before.
Thanks to the support of Diaz, she successfully reunited with her two children, moved into a new apartment and is applying for jobs. Her advice to parents dealing with DCFS? Connect with PIP.
“You may be angry and blaming everyone else for your kids being taken away,” Moreno said, “but in the end, everything PIP told me paid off. They got me through the hardest times in my case.”
Shane Downing is a San Francisco-based writer and a neighborhood editor for Hoodline. View Shane’s portfolio and follow him on Twitter @SCdowning.