by Marilee Jolin
Mahogany Villars is a force of nature. She stands in the lobby of the Rainier Community Center greeting parents and inviting them to join us in the meeting room. She absolutely radiates charisma. She’d be a great saleswoman with her magnetic smile and easy laugh. But instead of hawking encyclopedias or vacuum cleaners, Mahogany – a social worker with the Division of Children and Family Services – has harnessed her power to educate and empower parents in South Seattle.
I’m here today to attend the Martin Luther King Jr Children’s Administration Office’s first community dialogue entitled, “Can I Spank My Child?” Mahogany, along with other concerned social workers, has put together this experience to “bridge the gap” between Child Protective Services (CPS) and parents. They hope to de-mystify the process of CPS involvement, correct some myths about CPS and equip parents with knowledge and resources to build and maintain healthy families.
Before the event begins, we take a jaunt down the hall to visit the toddler gym. Rainier Community Center, a sponsor of the event, provided meeting space and waived the usual fee for the gym making it easier for parents to attend. Children happily play there: enjoying the bouncy house and scooters – monitored by nannies and social workers.
Back in the meeting room, those in attendance exchange tentative smiles and names, sipping coffee from Starbucks and sampling snacks donated by PCC. The participants seem hungry for the information about to be shared and anxious to see these meetings spread further. Before it even begins, people are asking where future meetings will be held. One attendee mentions 3 different community centers and gathering places in great need of this event. Danielle, one of the social workers, takes note of all her suggestions.
As the conversation commences, I am struck by how different the social workers are from the stereotypical image of them: good-hearted and hard-working but overloaded, exhausted, underpaid and world-weary. Instead, the social workers sharing at the meeting are enthusiastic, passionate and motivated. Here they are on a Saturday morning eager to talk with parents, energized by their work and compelled by their belief in CPS’ ability to positively impact families in Seattle. It makes me wonder how much of the social work fatigue/burnout could be helped by these kind of preventative experiences; offering social workers the chance to connect and influence families before they are in difficult situations.
In addition to their passion, I am also pleased to note that the social workers are not intimidating at all – as is often associated with CPS – but are warm and welcoming, engaging and relatable. It doesn’t hurt that we start off with a little silliness, expertly led by Mahogany. The opening ice-breaker is a laughter-filled exploration of such important questions as “coffee or tea?” and “toilet paper roll over or toilet paper roll under?” We are all laughing and being real together more quickly than I’d thought possible. There’s nothing like a little toilet paper talk to break down barriers!
As these passionate, not-intimidating social workers begin to share about their work with CPS, I realize that this organization has a more positive mission and more growth opportunities for families than I’d expected. They speak of the CPS mandate to keep families together and their commitment to making resources available in every stage of CPS involvement with CPS such as family counseling, housing, drug treatment and other services to empower parents and enable families to make their home a safe place for their children.
Additionally, powerful personal stories are related by two attendees who speak of their own involvement with CPS. One woman, with tears, recalls her experience being removed from her parents as a child calling it “the best thing that could have happened” to her at that time. She says this removal – while difficult – was essential to the positive trajectory of her life and she is grateful for CPS’ involvement. It is a moving story that clearly touches the social workers in the room; it is so beautiful to see the human connection between the often vilified CPS workers and the grown woman thanking them for taking care of her when she was too small to care for herself.
Dana Dildine also shares her inspiring personal story with CPS: how losing her parental rights was the catalyst for her to finally seek addiction treatment – which literally saved her life – and was ultimately able to regain custody of her five children. Dana is now the Parents for Parents Coordinator with King County Superior Court. She spends her time working with parents involved with the court, encouraging them with her own story and challenging them to stop “fighting CPS” and instead to “fight the issues that got you involved with CPS”. Dana’s compelling presence and powerful story speak volumes to us all.
We spend some time discussing the legal parameters of spanking. To my surprise, the social workers at the event emphasize that spanking is legal for parents and, done correctly, is fine to be one of the tools in a parenting “toolbelt”. It shouldn’t be the only means of discipline and it cannot become “excessive force” which is one of the measures social workers employ to determine if spanking has become abuse. That determination is made by social workers after allegations of abuse have been raised. It is based on many different factors, judged within the context of a family and made through careful consultation with the parents and children involved.
As we talk about these nuances and the social workers share directly and personally about their process of making these determinations, I feel connected to them in this work. I feel I can trust them because I’ve heard and seen them as real people who really care, instead of thinking of them as a monolithic, frightening, inhuman bureaucracy.
And that’s what made this meeting so revolutionary – the opportunity to connect with CPS social workers as humans. It is far too rare an opportunity for us to meet, talk and bond with social workers before any allegations of abuse are raised. But it is a beautiful thing. It is a beautiful, empowering, community-building thing.
At one point the phrase, “it takes a village” comes up in the discussion. I look around the room and realize that just such a village is being built there that day. To be honest, when I’ve thought of that phrase before, I understood it to be entirely separate from governmental agencies. Something along the lines of “we need a village, we don’t need government interference.” But today I experience the amazing possibility that it needn’t be that way; that we would all be stronger together. Indeed, I see how CPS is an essential part of that village.
So much is possible when we see each other as humans and seek teamwork and partnership. So much is possible when we acknowledge our need for help and our need for one another. We can become better parents, we can seek help when we need it, we can truly come together for the betterment of our common family.
I now see that the better of our common family is precisely the goal of Mahogany, Danielle and the other social workers from the Martin Luther King Jr. Children’s Administration. In order to do so, they know we need education, resources and each other. And that’s what these meetings are all about.
The day ends with lively discussions between attendees, partner organizations and social workers. Free diapers are handed out as well as toys, ready to be wrapped up and enjoyed this holiday season. The energy and connection in the room is palpable as everyone revels in the possibilities of continuing to come together around these important issues.
The Martin Luther King Jr. Children’s Administration Office intends to continue these community dialogues throughout South Seattle. If you are interested in hosting an event in your community or helping to plan one, please contact Mahogany Villars at VILLAMH@dshs.wa.gov