Parents Making Policy: Alise Morrisey
In just a few years, Alise Morrisey, director of Family Impact for Children’s Home Society of Washington, went from being a parent with a child in foster care to organizing child welfare-affected parents to champion system reforms at the state level.
It was only when she became pregnant with her second child, however, that Alise was convinced that policies which support children and families need to be created first and foremost outside of the child welfare system.
When I gave birth to my daughter, she was immediately placed in foster care, partly due to the 7-year prison sentence I was facing for committing property crimes to fuel my addiction. I was blessed with the opportunity to go into treatment instead of prison. It is an opportunity many judges might not have offered me.
Still, during the first 11 months, I did not receive any visits with my daughter. My caseworker said that it was unlikely I was ever going to change and the best outcome would be to allow my daughter to be adopted. When I heard that, I was terrified—and my belief that I was worthless penetrated to the core of my being.
Fortunately, I had support—from my mother, my attorney and the social worker who worked alongside my attorney. Their uplifting messages allowed me to believe I could be the parent and advocate I’ve become.
When my case closed, I began mentoring parents, literally the next day, through the King County Parents for Parents program. All of the pain of my past could now be used to help change the trajectory of other parents facing tough circumstances like I had.
Collaboration Was Key
After a few years, I began working as the advocacy lead for the Children’s Home Society’s Washington State Parent Ally Committee (WPAC), which mobilizes child welfare-affected parents to advocate for policy change on the state level. It’s powerful if you can imagine a room of parents like myself who’ve been through intense personal pain—and now we’re on the other side, changing the trajectory of the parents coming behind us by identifying opportunities to raise up parents’ voices at the policy level.
During the years I spent as advocacy lead, what I thought we needed was to flip child welfare upside its head, and have it be a place where families could call and get assistance.
During that time, PAC helped pass over 20 state legislative items and budget reform efforts. We wrote our own bills and followed them through to the implementation stage.
An early bill was about background checks to make it easier to place children with relatives. Another was to give incarcerated parents more time to reunify with their children. A bill instituting Family Assessment Response (FAR) changes how investigations are handled so that parents facing more minor allegations aren’t met with a terrifying investigation. Through a bill passed in 2015, the Parents for Parents program was funded by the state with a goal of expanding to every county by 2021.
Collaboration was a big key to our success. As parents working in the system, we had to strive to model professionalism. We had to deal with disappointment. We would go to these amazing meetings with leaders who were being exposed to best practice, and then see how that looked dramatically different when it trickled down to the workforce. We had to deal with really hard things being said and done to us, and we just had to keep reminding people that love conquers all and that parents really can spearhead a movement in the name of their children.
Dreaming Outside the System
My vision changed about a year and a half ago when I became pregnant with my second child. When I was pregnant, my question became, “If I needed help, would I call 1-866-END-HARM to get that?” And my answer was “Absolutely not.”
I was really scared to give birth. I had five attorneys lined up in case the hospital social worker walked into my room, read my past history and made a call. Instead my nurse said, “I’m no different from you.” And my doctor had the biggest smile on his face when he gave me my baby Mia. Holding her for hours restored my humanity.
I’m now the director of Family Impact for the Children’s Home Society of Washington. As a community advocate watching the rollout of Family First*, I’m hoping states are going to be super proactive with ensuring that what’s happening at the ground level in child welfare is less punitive.
But I also ask myself, is the child welfare really going to be able to change? Because when you’re trying to reform child welfare, there are so many barriers.
I’ve gotten to the point where I think we need to build something new to wrap around communities in need so they are not exposed to further adversity, fear and trauma. I have a friend who is opening a law clinic in the same hospital where I gave birth. He’s there to help parents understand their legal rights before their babies are born, and to help them identify a plan to keep their babies if the need arises.
I’m also hoping to partner more with youth that went home or wanted to go home, because we have a shared vision. I just heard from a youth a couple of weeks ago. She was on a panel. Everyone else said how horrible life was. She was the only one who reunified, and she said, “Sorry, but my life is great.” We have to get lawmakers to hear that. We have to build a common shared narrative. We have to identify “Alises” that were jailed but got the support they needed and didn’t come into the system.
Family First gives us a great mechanism to think outside of the chaos, and to ask ourselves, “If we could dream, what would the system look like?” Family First is still just focused on secondary prevention. It’s the primary prevention piece that I’d like to address so that families never come into the system.
This interview was adapted from Rise Magazine.
* The Family First Preventive Services Act is legislation passed by the United States Congress that for the first time ever requires the federal government to reimburse states for funding preventive services to keep children out of foster care in the same way that it reimburses state spending for children in foster care.
You can read more about the Family First Act at familyfirstact.org.