For the past several years, the Department of Children and Families (DCF) has researched models that promote family engagement with parent experiences in the child welfare system to effect change.

DCF explored many different models, and selected Iowa’s Parent Partner Model to adapt in Wisconsin because of its many potential benefits as well as for the ability for Wisconsin to contribute to the research base.

Parents Supporting Parents in Wisconsin

The Wisconsin Parent Partner Model, known as Parents Supporting Parents (PSP), is an evidence-based model aimed at empowering parents currently involved in the system through mentorship with parents who successfully completed their cases with child protective services (CPS).

Wisconsin is the third state to implement and evaluate this model. Specifically, Jefferson, Rock, Milwaukee, and Eau Claire counties have implemented the PSP program.

In Wisconsin, PSP operates at the local level within the county health and human services agency. The program has three main roles:

  • the coordinator who manages and supervises the team;
  • the Parent Partners who mentor families involved in the system; and
  • clinical support through a licensed mental health provider who facilitates monthly support for the local team of Parent Partners.

Although PSP delivers a direct service component, the goal is to create long-term system changes at both the local and state level. Each participating county has an advisory council for system change at the local level, and subsequently participates with a state advisory council for change at the state level.

Parent Partners

PSP is a voluntary program that matches parents currently involved in the CPS system with a Parent Partner who has successfully completed the process, had their case closed, and are no longer involved with services.

Specifically, Parent Partners are parents who for at least one year have been reunited with their children or who have resolved issues related to termination of their parental rights or other permanency decisions.

The heart of the PSP program is the trained Parent Partners. They listen and offer emotional support, explain how the CPS system works; share their story and what worked for them; encourage parents to identify their strengths and build support systems; provide a sense of hope and inspiration to parents; support a parent in preparing for meetings, court hearings, visits with their children; and empower parents to succeed through the CPS process.

In addition, Parent Partners support parents by:

  • attending team meetings, court hearings, or other appointments and services;
  • helping maintain connections between parents and their children;
  • assisting in the goal of reunification or appropriate permanency goal; and
  • collaborating with the team surrounding the family.

Parent Partners do not testify at court hearings, create case plans (although they can provide input on goals and progress), supervise family interactions, or transport children to or from services.

Clarice R. Ruehl headshot Clarice R. Ruehl, Marquette 1988, is a solo practitioner of Ruehl Law Office, LLC, in Waukesha County. She practices family, children’s, and probate law in Milwaukee, Jefferson, and Waukesha counties.

The Goal and Results

The goal of PSP is to engage parents more fully in their case planning, provide needed information to help navigate the child welfare system, and support parents in working toward reunification with their children.

Parent Partners work collaboratively with caseworkers to help ensure parents have access to a wide range of services.

The effectiveness of the PSP program has resulted in higher rates of reunification for participating parents, lower rates of reentry for children involved in the child welfare system, and increased participation in services and court hearings.

Jefferson County’s PSP Program

From my experience, having a Parent Partner assigned to my CHIPS parents is invaluable. Over the past three years, I have worked with the PSP program and their Parent Partners in Jefferson County. There is a noticeable difference in my cases and the level of engagement from clients when a Parent Partner is assigned to a case.

The removal of a child from a parent is an emotional and traumatic event for a parent. Often the removal is due to unaddressed mental health issues, addiction issues, and past unresolved trauma events that led to unsafe parenting. The removal of the child magnifies these issues.

When I am assigned to a case, the removal has already occurred. My first question for the intake worker is whether a Parent Partner is assigned to the case. When I connect with my client, one of my first questions to them is whether they are in contact with their Parent Partner.

The Parent Partner is an integral part of the court process, as they are the only person who has been in my client’s position.

The Parent Partner offers a realistic and unique prospective of the court process that I am not able to do as their lawyer. I can empathize and relate to some of the issues my clients are dealing with, but I won’t have that relatable connection with my client that the Parent Partner does.

All my clients assigned to a Parent Partner expressed the relationship as a positive connection and experience.

An Integral Part

As an attorney I believe that the PSP program and Parent Partners are an integral part of the legal system in the child welfare system. The court process heightens emotions for clients and difficult subjects must be discussed. The additional emotional support of the Parent Partner to clients during the legal process is invaluable.

As the success of the program continues in Wisconsin, perhaps the role of the Parent Partner can expand in its support to parents by accompanying them at the table in the courtroom and contributing at court proceedings.

On behalf of all the parents in the system, appreciation is given to DCF, PSP, and Parent Partners for all their hard work and effort toward making this program available for our parent clients and families in Wisconsin.

This article was originally published on the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Children & the Law Section Blog. Visit the State Bar sections or the Children & the Law Section webpages to learn more about the benefits of section membership.