Changing Practice Through Shared Experiences

Taliah Drayak, parent advocate and trustee of Scotland’s Parent Advocacy and Rights (PAR), explains how PAR and PFAN have worked to ensure that the review did more than just hear individual parents’ stories but also understood the significance of parents’ experiences.

Q: Can you tell us the step-by-step process you took in order to present parents’ experiences to the Scottish Care Review and at further consultations?

DRAYAK: We ran parent focus groups in order to identify what our experiences had in common. Having the support of other parents empowered us to speak when many of us wouldn’t have on our own, and we were able to speak with a stronger, clearer voice and be heard more effectively because of the experiences we had in common. We used the material from our focus groups to present policy makers with direct suggestions of what was habitually going wrong, and because our organization is made up of parents and allies, our allies were able to lend weight to what parents were saying.

In order to recruit parents for our focus groups, we put out statements on social media, watched out for people who commented, and then engaged them in discussion. We also made email and phone contact available to all parents.

Less than half of the parents who made contact were able to share their stories. It wasn’t us trying to keep them out. Many were not in a position to participate. One mother called having had her baby removed just five days before, and she had quite literally been walking around the streets since then. She was distraught. Some parents who contacted us were suicidal. Others were thinking of going on the run with their children. In those cases, we had to go into crisis management mode and find ways to bring support to them.

For those who did participate, there were still many challenges, including the aftereffects of trauma, money, time, fear of repercussions and self-doubt. In our work, we try to enable parents to share regardless of where they are in their cases, especially because some cases stretch on for a decade or more, and some cases are opened and closed and opened again. Many if not most parents do not get the luxury of putting a large space of clear blue water between them and the child welfare system. Because of that, the experiences of many of the parents who took part in our focus groups were very raw. To prepare them, I met with each parent alone for at least two hours before focus groups. I tended to just open a space for them and let them be and do whatever they needed to do as they told me about their experiences with the care system. I listened a lot.

Toward the end of that time I tried to explain the specific topics that we would be covering in our focus groups. I tried to validate their many other areas of concern while also helping them start to think about how they wanted to participate in the focus group and what they wanted to achieve.

I also consulted with our legal team and they immediately said that doing things anonymously would help protect parents. Sharing their experiences anonymously helped parents say what they wanted to say.

Each of the focus groups were two-hours long. We had support on hand throughout focus groups so that any parent who became distressed could step out and have immediate support. Then I met individually with each participant for an hour or two after the focus groups to hear what the experience was like for them and help them process any feelings that came up during the groups. There are many parents who are able to convey remarkably well what their experiences have been without any help, but we also invested a lot of time to ensure that the experience was a positive and protected one for parents who participated.

Q: What was the impact on parents who took part in those focus groups?

DRAYAK: In spite of the fact that the focus groups were highly emotional, and parents were regularly breaking down in tears reacting to what one another said, there was almost unanimous opinion that it was a positive experience. Many kept in touch with each other or wanted to be available for other projects we were working on. I’m helping one woman now draft her story in a more research-oriented way, because she wants to put it together as a PhD proposal.

There are some parents who are keen to be involved in advocacy who don’t need much support, but it’s also true that many parents who want to be involved need ongoing support, and I’m only one person, so that’s been a challenge.

Still, when parents participate in advocacy efforts like these, it gives them a little bit of their humanity back. It allows them to take back a piece of who they are and what they lost in a child protection process that just crushes people.

Q: Since the focus groups, PAR has supported parents to tell their stories to the press and to speak about their experiences at conferences and other public forums. What steps do you take to try to protect parents from legal and emotional harm when they aren’t anonymous?

DRAYAK: When parents present their stories in person or use their names, I always encourage them to say, “I feel…” You can feel that something was unjust. But in this system, if you say, “The judge got it wrong,” it can cause harm in your case, because it suggests that you’re not respectful of the law, and now they can argue that you’re a threat to your child. It’s not fair. It’s not just. But it is how it is.  So I always encourage parents to start with, “I feel…” because it’s one small way that parents can protect themselves.

We also always make sure there is an ally who serves as a middleman between the parent and the journalist or the parent and the public. Again, it is not our goal to control what parents say, but to make sure that they say what they want to say safely.

For instance, I have had at least a dozen parents send me all their court paperwork, but in this country, you can go to jail for sharing those documents. I think sometimes parents do that because they want to say, “Nobody believes me. Believe me.” Our goal is to say, “I believe you.” We allow parents to be raw with us, and then we work with them to set boundaries, including their own boundaries. We ask them, “What areas are you not willing to discuss?”

Sometimes parents are also very hard on themselves. This is especially true with domestic abuse and substance misuse. They’ll say, “I’m really a very horrible person,” and that gets in the way of their advocacy, so it’s important to work through some of those feelings. For other parents, it’s about trying to help them recognize what gets them so angry that they begin lashing out. In so many situations, parents are right to be angry. It’s unjust that their anger is used against them. But we want to make sure that they are able to use their anger in ways that help their advocacy and don’t help others disqualify what they have to say. 

When parents speak publicly at a conference or some other public forum, we also always have support or general counseling services on hand to talk to parents when they come off the stage. Because standing up and telling your story to a large room of people never leaves you feeling less vulnerable, it’s really helpful to have someone take you aside and ask you how you are doing rather than having to make it to the back of the room to sit down by yourself and wonder if what you’ve said was even heard.

I also prepare journalists to know how to speak to parents. So many journalists want 15 minutes for an interview. I tell them to set aside two hours, because parents are going to tell you way more than you’re going to use and you have to be prepared to hear it. I also manage expectations on the other side, so that parents aren’t upset when journalists only use a few quotes from everything they’ve said. Lastly, I insist that journalists provide our parents a copy of what they’re planning to publish ahead of time so that parents are able to say no to anything that’s not OK to print. Thus far we’ve had really accommodating journalists.

Overall, I try to give parents the kind of support that I wish I had had when I first started speaking out about my experiences with the care system. The first time I gave a speech about my experiences, I had no one prepare me. I ended up crying. When I looked up, the whole room was crying with me. When I did my first interview with the BBC, no one prepped me for that, either. I walked into the studio so terrified. I’m lucky I worked with good journalists, but it was a roll of the dice. It would have been better if I’d had someone to guide me.

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