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Parents caught up in the child welfare system have to tell their stories to social worker investigators, lawyers and judges as they fight to keep their families together.

But what happens when they share their stories with each other?

A nationwide network serving parents who battle mental health challenges, substance abuse disorders and domestic violence shows regular participation in a support group may make all the difference.

The groups are run by the national nonprofit Parents Anonymous and provide participants with an outlet and coping strategies. In line with growing attention nationwide on preventing maltreatment rather than dealing with its aftermath, they are open to parents and caregivers with children in foster care — and those at risk of future involvement with the child welfare system.

“The child’s well-being is intricately linked to the parents’ well being, and those parents need support to dig down deep to deal with their own history,” said Lisa Pion-Berlin, president of Parents Anonymous. “We talk about being a trauma- informed field, but many of these systems traumatize people, and don’t help them and don’t believe in asking the question: How can I help you parents?”

Launched in 1969, Parents Anonymous is one of just five programs designated by a federal review panel as an “evidence-based” path to improving child safety. It is also the only reviewed program in the federal clearinghouse for child maltreatment prevention programs shown to do so while simultaneously improving parenting skills and caregivers’ mental health and substance abuse. The California-based organization runs hundreds of free, confidential two-hour weekly sessions with financial backing from local governments in California, Oregon, New Jersey, Washington, D.C., and the Northern Marianas Islands, a U.S. territory near the Phillipines.

More than 4.5 million parents, caregivers and their children nationwide have participated, numbers that have grown when the programs went virtual in 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

A Safe Space for Caregivers

Support groups led by Parents Anonymous were pivotal for Antonia Rios of Southern California. By the time she found out she was pregnant with her sixth child, she’d attended therapy, court-ordered parenting classes, Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. Her first five children had been taken into foster care, and this time she was determined to try, once more, to fight for her family.

Suffering from addiction, mental health struggles and the crippling effects of traumatic events over her lifetime, Rios, 45, learned of Parents Anonymous in 2007 from a rehab counselor.

Her 15 subsequent years of attendance in the support groups, she said, have been transformative. The group conversations are free of judgment, and with the highest stakes on the line — their children — participants commit to change and growth.

“I got not only the safe space, but the support to address my underlying fears and concerns and issues and trauma,” Rios said. “I got all of this from Parents Anonymous that I had never gotten from anywhere else.”

Three years later, Rios managed to bring her children home from foster care, and has since taken in a disabled niece to care for as well. Rios also now serves as a senior parent partner providing support and mentorship to fellow group members navigating child welfare cases, and chair of the national and California Parent Leadership Teams.

Embedded in Landmark Child Abuse Prevention

The origins of Parents Anonymous date back to 1969, when a struggling California mother identified as Jolly K. was attempting to reunify with her child who’d been in foster care. Desperate for resources to help her succeed in keeping her family intact, she organized a parent support and advocacy group with the help of her social worker. Within a few years, the group caught the attention of then-U.S. Sen. Walter Mondale, according to an account published in the journal Pediatrics. At the time, the now-deceased Mondale was helping craft the nation’s landmark 1974 Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA).

At Mondale’s invitation, Jolly K. testified before Congress, helping to shape the policy and get the law passed. The senator-turned vice president Mondale would later say that Jolly K.’s testimony taught him “what child abuse was about.”

CAPTA mandated federal funding for Parents Anonymous, the only program mentioned by name in the final version of the law, as noted in a 2014 report by the federal Administration for Children and Families.

As Parents Anonymous has grown over the decades, its support group members have pursued local, state and federal advocacy and policy work. Parent participants also help facilitate research projects, including a recent study conducted by the nonprofit research and consulting foundation Casey Family Programs.

The group is currently conducting a randomized controlled study of the Parents Anonymous model, aiming to upgrade the evidence base in the federal clearinghouse from “supported” to the highest level, “well supported.”

Work That Is ‘Deep and Real’

Each Parents Anonymous meeting begins with meditation.

The lights are dimmed, and participants close their eyes as they’re encouraged to “drop into their bodies” before the conversations on a monthly theme begin.

The meetings are led by ​​a participant-appointed parent group leader, and each gathering includes a group facilitator with a master’s degree in social work, psychology, early childhood education, or other behavioral science field. The facilitators offer clarification and interpretation as the conversations unfold. Both group leaders and facilitators receive 40 hours of training and shadow other support groups before heading up the discussions.

Before joining the support groups, parents are interviewed about their challenges, goals and needs, as well as their families’ strengths and protective factors, such as social connections and support networks. Accounts of adverse childhood experiences and substance use are kept as anonymized data.

Serving a child welfare system that is overwhelmingly populated by low-income groups and people of color, the organization describes its work as an “anti-racist, anti-sexist, and anti-classist approach to helping others.”

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The program is voluntary for more than half of participants, and the length of participation varies. Some parents attend as a result of court orders in child welfare and custody cases, or they’ve received referral through the juvenile justice system or divorce proceedings.

Whether or not a court official has ordered a parent to attend the groups, Pion-Berlin said, “they still have to decide they want to go on this journey.” They must be present and fully engaged over the two-hour sessions, she added: “We’re not a rubber-stamping program.”

On average, parents attend meetings for roughly three to five months. Hundreds of caregivers are on lists, waiting for a spot to open up. While their parents meet, children can attend similar groups designed for their age group — focusing on social-emotional learning, identifying emotions, breathing techniques and self-regulation strategies.

Prior to the pandemic, the support groups were held in community centers, churches, schools, shelters, mental health clinics, drug and alcohol treatment programs, military installations and prisons. Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, meetings have been held over Zoom.

Understandably, the conversations are heavy. So each support group ends with an uplifting activity, like giving shout-outs or sharing self-care activities planned for the week ahead. In between meetings, participants are encouraged to call each other or the group leader if they need extra support.

“What parents are doing here is deep and real — not skipping around what the real issues are,” said Pion-Berlin, who has led Parents Anonymous since 1992. The organization also manages a helpline for parents and children that just received $4.7 million from the recently passed California state budget.

‘Supported’ by Research

The national clearinghouse of foster care prevention programs ranked Parents Anonymous as “promising,” the second-highest rank on a four-point scale evaluating its evidence base.

California’s statewide clearinghouse rated the support groups “promising” in their effectiveness preventing child abuse and neglect.

The most recent study of the support groups was funded by Parents Anonymous and conducted by researchers at Arizona State University and Evident Change, a research firm that produces risk assessments for child welfare systems. Using county data, researchers compared more than 200 Parents Anonymous participants with similarly situated parents in the child welfare system who did not attend the support groups.

The 2021 study found that within one year, parents who did not participate were twice as likely to have new allegations of child maltreatment substantiated against them. Participants were also far less likely to be the subject of abuse and neglect reports. The study looked at the rate of subsequent removals into foster care between the two groups as well, but found no statistically significant difference.

“The findings are important for the child maltreatment prevention field because Parents Anonymous offers a cost-effective, easily scalable approach to reducing child maltreatment,” the authors concluded. They noted that given the prior history of the parents studied, the results were encouraging.

But they stated that more study is needed: “The findings suggest that participation in Parents Anonymous may have a positive, long-term impact on improving child safety among parents involved in the child welfare system.”

Earlier studies show other promising results. As early as 1978, a published study found that in questionnaires of participants, 19% of parents reported physically abusing their children “almost every day,” before attending Parents Anonymous support groups. Immediately after participating, that number dropped to 1%, although it is unknown how long the effect may have lasted.

Additional studies published in 2010 and 2011 found that participation for six months “significantly decreases certain risk factors in parents, such as parenting distress, parenting rigidity, psychological aggression toward children, life stress, intimate partner violence, alcohol use, and drug use.” Participants described an “increased quality of life,” greater emotional and social support, and an improved sense of competence as parents.

Preventative Intervention

Maggie Vega first found Parents Anonymous in 2019 when she was isolated with two small children at home, battling postpartum depression and navigating a turbulent time in her marriage. In an interview with The Imprint, she said she found herself resenting her youngest daughter, and riddled with guilt for those feelings. In certain moments, she had even contemplated self-harm.

But at the time, reaching out for mental health care was fruitless: She was put on a waitlist for the rare psychologist in Rialto, California who accepts Medicaid, and is still on that list four years later.

One day, she broke down to a neighbor, who pointed her to Parents Anonymous. The first time she shared in the group, she sobbed. But the other moms cried along with her, she recalled, and offered comforting embraces.

Vega, 36, said the group not only became her community, but helped her avoid losing her children to foster care — a direction she fears she was headed toward had she not received such support.

“It was a prevention for me and my children, to avoid getting taken away,” she said. “Because if I didn’t get this support, this mutual support from parents, I would have probably gone into postpartum psychosis. I was at my lowest point.”

Both Vega and Rios said their children, too, have benefited from support groups run by Parents Anonymous, and their participation has been instrumental in improving family dynamics. Sharing what they each learned after meetings helps to reinforce their new skills. The kids communicate their needs more effectively, even when there’s conflict or uncomfortable topics arise, both moms said.

Now, Rios shared, “I have an open relationship with my children that their feelings and fears can be addressed. They can come to me and tell me: ‘You make me feel like this,’ and it’s not blaming and shaming — it’s communicating, and we’re working through it.”

This article was originally published on The Imprint.