Despite the fact that family reunification remains the foremost permanency-planning goal for children in the child welfare system, reunification is not always successful and reentry into foster care is hardly a rare event due to parental unaddressed needs, stress, lack of supports, and resistance to engage with formal child welfare services. Strengthening parents’ support systems through the use of peer mentors, who are parents formerly involved with the child welfare system, can be a key strategy for supporting reunification. While there is evidence that peer-delivered reunification support services can promote positive outcomes, most of the existing and limited literature focuses predominantly on quantitative outcomes for families receiving support and not on the direct benefits and the nature of these benefits. Thus, this qualitative study examined parents’ experiences with peer support services in pre- and post-reunification and answered the following research questions:
- What types of supports did parents receive through the peer-delivered support services and how beneficial they were?
- What factors promoted parental engagement with the peer mentor?
Qualitative data were generated through semi-structured, in-depth, face-to-face interviews with parents in pre- and post-reunification (n=24). The sample consisted of Black/AA (54.2%) and Hispanic/Latina (45.8%) females. Interview recordings were transcribed and analyzed manually. The author assigned codes to the data to represent meaningful categories; identified major transcript segments relating to primary research questions; engaged in focused coding; developed data matrices to organize findings according to core concepts; and determined patterns, similarities and differences.
The findings suggested that the presence of a peer mentor remains a critical source of support for parents who were overburdened, under-informed, and socially isolated from stable social support networks. Peer mentors provided numerous beneficial supports: (a) emotional (validation, encouragement, empowerment, connectedness), (b) informational (resources/referrals, guidance), (c) instructional (navigation, communication, self-advocacy skills), (d) concrete (household items, etc), and (e) advocacy. Peer mentors organized and facilitated access to a network of parents; as a result, parents were able to create friendships and a reliable network of trusted peers. The following factors promoted parental engagement with the peer mentor: mentor’s shared experience (self-disclosure); personal qualities (accessible, friendly, open, genuine, honest; unbiased); and non-affiliation with the child welfare system.
Conclusions and Implications:
The findings suggest that parents involved in the child welfare system, who are frequently beset with numerous co-occurring problems and lack a support system, would benefit from peer-delivered supports. Parent mentors can fill the gap in services by providing varying types of needed supports in an engaging, relatable, and impartial manner. The efforts to ensure sustainable permanency outcomes should seriously consider the important role that peer mentors play as guides, advocates, and trusted confidantes to a population of parents in need of comprehensive supports.
Given the alarming rate of reunification failure, it is in the best interests of local, state, and federal child welfare agencies to explore and implement interventions that complement the existing services in order to address the needs of families, provide supports to parents, and ultimately achieve successful reunification and prevent reentry.