by: Carol Hammond
The Quality Parenting Initiative (QPI), a strategy of the Youth Law Center in San Francisco, is an approach to strengthening foster care, refocusing on excellent parenting for all children in the child welfare system. Interested in creating positive change within the foster care system in Minnesota, St. David’s Center launched the Quality Parenting Initiative Minnesota (QPI-MN) in October 2017 in partnership with the YLC and private foster care agencies of AspireMN. Today, QPI-MN is a statewide network of counties, agencies, and individuals working together to improve foster care for the children and all caregivers involved (birth, relative/kin, foster).
Mikala’s story, below, is one example of the positive outcomes that result when all involved parties come together to redefine caregiving with the best interest of the child at its center.
Mikala has an open, expansive presence; she speaks with an unflinching frankness that reveals the stark realities and emotion-laden events that led her to this point in her life. Three years ago, Mikala found herself in a dark place – physically, mentally, and emotionally – entrenched in a cycle of substance abuse and domestic violence that led to the removal of her children Aviannah and Ambria, then ages three and one, by Child Protective Services into out-of-home placement. “My rock bottom was my kids getting taken away from me,” she states soberly. “I was literally losing everything and hitting that rock bottom.”
Leah and Kyle, parents to four biological children of their own, were relatively new to fostering, with one previous placement, when they got the call from Carole, a Carver County child protection social worker. Leah recalls, “[Carole said] ‘I have this amazing young woman and her kids need to come into care. She is so sad, and she’s had a lot of really hard things happen in her life, but honestly, I think this is the hardest thing that she has ever gone through. Are you willing to meet her and have her kids come with you and stay with you?’”
Ultimately, all of their lives intersected in a life-altering meeting in a parking lot. “That’s a hard day to think about without crying,” remembers Leah. “Bria was sleeping, and we transferred her in the car, and Avi [had her] eyes wide open, just staring. Now that I understand fight, flight or freeze, she was definitely in freeze mode.” For Mikala, the pain was unimaginable. “I remember I cried outside of the car so they wouldn’t see me cry,” she says. “I got down on their level and I just explained to them, ‘You’re going to go here for right now, but you’re going to be really taken care of and you call mommy at any time.’ And everything was going to be OK.”
In retrospect, Leah reflects, Carole’s kindness and compassion set the tone for the seeding of a positive relationship between Mikala and Leah and Kyle from the outset, with the children at its center. “It makes sense to start relationships early,” she affirms. “It felt so right for something that felt so wrong.” Mikala agrees, crediting this nascent relationship with allowing her to willingly release her children into the care of Leah and Kyle. “The moment I saw them, they reassured me that they were going to take really good care of my kids. And I just let them go because something was telling me my kids are in a good place.” Echoes Angie, a Carver County foster care social worker, “What you did in that parking lot that day and meeting each other is an example I have used time and time again because it is the prime example of what we want to see happen. It is the best when birthparent and foster parent can meet right away to establish that connection.”
This was, according to Leah, very much a reciprocal relationship from the beginning, one that began in that bleak moment of transfer in the parking lot with Mikala making the decision to entrust Leah and Kyle with the girls’ care, followed by a willingness to allow the girls the freedom to form attachments with Leah and her family. “She let them love us,” she says simply. “That’s putting the girls first.” Says Lynn, a Carver County child protection social worker, “Attachment is a positive thing – it’s a positive for the girls to have other adults they can trust, and you (as a biological parent) can trust if you ever needed them.”
And while the girls were in care, Leah made sure that Mikala was an integral part of the girls’ lives, recording and sharing milestone moments with her. At a certain point, Leah suggested that Mikala start visiting the girls in their home – a natural progression of the relationship they had established, and one that was best for the girls. “The kids were just wanting to intertwine their lives,” states Leah. “Avi just got so much comfort when she saw Mikala and I talking. She loved that because our two worlds were coming together.” Adds Mikala, “We always work together. We were always on the same page.” These exchanges exemplified the notion that shared parenting supports reunification, which, according to Lynn, was always the goal.
For Mikala, it was a hard-fought goal. “I didn’t really know my self-worth; I didn’t think I was worthy of anything. I struggled with believing I was a good mom because of what happened. My willingness to fight and just working with everyone – that’s what brought my kids home,” she asserts. “It’s just not giving up and just doing. I had to do so much from the time I woke up to the time I went to sleep. I was always doing something to bring those girls home, whether it was visits, supports groups, then treatment.” In the midst of it all, she also started college, with support from Leah.
Despite the monumental struggle, Mikala, for her part, is “very grateful for this experience.” She elaborates, “When you are in the situation, you want to hide from everybody and I was forced to let it out because it was the only way I was going to get them back home. It was scary because it was up and down. They were at permanency and we discussed permanent options; I even had them tell me ‘You are not going to get your kids back. You exceeded your time.’ And I said, ‘I am going to get them back.’ And it happened.”
Her hard work paid off. Now reunified with Aviannah and Ambria – and with the latest addition to the family, one-year-old Heaven Lee – Mikala is ready to share her story in the hope that it may help others see that successful, relationship-based non-relative placement can happen, with a “village” of support working together towards a common goal of reunification. Says Leah, “Mikala’s story is just so awesome and her willingness to want to help other people. Watching things go from the darkness into the light and how beautiful it is when you just own it – I’m just so happy that she’s in a healthy enough spot to be wanting to share her story to help other people, because that’s what we’re here for, right? Our lives are not ours to live alone. And we love her girls.” Adds Mikala, “Complete strangers is how we got through this. Those are your kids, too.”
To Mikala and her girls, Leah, Kyle, and their kids have evolved from complete strangers to an extension of family, due to a relationship and network of support that has continued post-reunification. As social worker Angie describes Leah and Kyle’s interaction with Mikala, “You still talk, you still see the kids, you still work together with those girls. It didn’t stop. You have an ongoing relationship and that’s another part of why the reunification is successful – because that support continues.” And according to Mikala’s daughter, Aviannah, this continuing relationship is a natural part of her family story. “It’s fun when we go to Leah’s house with my mom,” she says. “We have fun.”
Now that the girls have been reunified with Mikala, Leah reflects on how the experience changed her, as well as offering some advice for other foster parents. “Be open to the relationships with the families,” she says. “I am more willing to be uncomfortable than I was before, and I understand that a little bit of ‘uncomfortable’ can lead to something really beautiful on the other side. I didn’t realize how much you really champion for them, and the relationships that you make afterwards are just really neat. And that was a total gift.”
Mikala’s parting words of advice to other parents struggling with out-of-home care carry the weight of one who has lived through the experience and made it successfully to the other side. “From my perspective, being the parent, I would just let them know that that everyone is here to help you and they’re not against you. Remember to always think about the children, because this is where it all comes to play, and the huge priority is the children’s safety and getting them home. Accept that you made a mistake – everyone does – but you just really have to think about your kids and what’s best for them. And that’s everyone being on the same page, getting along and coming together to bring them home.”
On June 25, we celebrate Family Reunification Day in the State of Minnesota – a day designated to celebrate the state’s effort to keep families together, even when children must be separated from their parents or guardians by court order.
For more information on QPI-MN, go to www.qpimn.org.
For information on St. David’s Center Foster Care program, go to www.stdavidscenter.org/fostercare.
Jun. 30, 2022