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How the power of storytelling can change lives in child welfare cases

Fellowship Story Showcase

How the power of storytelling can change lives in child welfare cases

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This story was reported with the support of the Fund for Journalism on Child Well-Being and the National Health Journalism Fellowship, programs of the USC Annenberg School of Journalism.

Other stories in the series include:

Judges are using brain science to help babies caught in the court system 

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Nora McCarthy is a natural narrator.

Even popping popcorn in a microwave down the hall from her modest office on Manhattan’s West 27th Street, the blond 40-year-old, wearing a white eyelet shirt, light pants and blue sandals, is preternaturally calm and methodical: “Huh, that was just three pops. I’m going to reset the timer… This bowl isn’t quite big enough… Hmm, how about this one? Okay, that sounds done.” An ability to put the world into a logical order with a beginning, middle, and end is something she doesn’t take for granted. Teaching that skill has become her life’s work.

“I write my story to change my life,” reads one postcard over McCarthy’s desk. Another says, “Your story matters to me.” Founded by McCarthy in 2005, Rise has a deceptively simple mission: the group publishes a tri-annual print and online magazine by and for parents in the child welfare system. “Writing about the process of getting kids back—answering questions like ‘What are you trying to say?’ and ‘How does this connect?’ or ‘Why is there no future in your story?’—lets parents make connections they haven’t made in their lives,” says McCarthy. “A lot of editing is figuring out what your story is. When people say they hate writing, they mean they fear thinking. When you write, you see connections.”

A graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, McCarthy began this career editing a citywide newspaper written by New York City teenagers, and then a magazine written by youth in foster care. In realizing the therapeutic value of the process, she was onto something profound: research suggests that narratives, especially ones with a theme of redemption, can be powerful motivators. Dr. James Pennebaker, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, has written on the surprising benefits of telling one’s secrets on the page. Business books quote the Harvard study in which the 3% of a group that had written goals ten years later was earning, on average, ten times more than the other 97% of the class combined.

With Rise, McCarthy brought writing workshops to parents accused of abuse or neglect. About 200 parents, about one man for every ten women, as young as 17, have written their stories for Rise, and some 40 parents contribute each year. Many write story after story.

Typically, parents come to her writing groups via community or advocacy organizations or foster care programs. “On the first day there are usually 5-8 parents in the group,” says McCarthy. She asks them, “Why would you write? What would be your goal? Who do you want to hear your story?” Then the group brainstorms ideas. They try to sum up their ideas in one sentence. As the workshop evolves, they work on writing scenes. The process is slow and methodical, at a rate of typically a paragraph or two per two-hour session. Writing one story takes 16 weeks.

“I ask a lot of small questions,” says McCarthy, “and there’s usually a point when we look at it and say, ‘Okay, we’re veering away from what you talked about at the beginning. What are you really trying to say?’ Usually we pick out one sentence to encapsulate the story. Then we often put that sentence as the headline of the story and that makes it possible for people to stay focused. The hardest part is really writing the ending. Either people feel hopeless and can’t write an ending they feel is positive enough, or they’ll say ‘Now it’s all better!’”

Rise writer Jeanette Vega, 35, of the Bronx was a teenage single parent when she was arrested for hitting her two-year-old son with a belt. She was baffled to find herself in jail, she says, because of how she’d grown up. “I used to get my ass kicked left and right,” says Vega, wearing a black Mickey Mouse shirt, a pleated denim skirt, and black sneakers, her hair pulled back into a neat bun.

“After my son came home I still didn’t understand what went wrong—why they took him, or why it took three years. Writing helped me cope with the situation. I went through finally releasing the words of what happened, writing about how I will be a parent to my son and put rules and discipline in his life without it being considered abuse.”

McCarthy says that in the past the child welfare system saw children’s and parents’ needs as in conflict.

More recently, she says, new research on attachment and outcomes has led the agency, at least in New York, to focus more on reunification. She is part of a growing argument for the dyadic treatment of a family—parent and child, rather than parent versus child. And yet, “there’s a big push-pull,” says McCarthy. Across the country many jurisdictions are moving in the opposite direction. In recent years, parents accused of using drugs have faced especially severe new laws, with mandatory jail time in some states.

“It’s so anti-child,” says McCarthy of criminalization. “You don’t have to care about adults’ rights. You can just come at it from the child’s perspective. They don’t want their mom in jail; it’s not good for them.”

Especially distressing to those who work in the system is the cycle. Family court judges describe seeing the same people they saw as foster-care children back in their courts as parents whose children are in danger of being removed. Though there are no good numbers, some experts say a large number of foster care alumni go on to have their own children removed. One of Rise’s writers, who asked not to be named because she has an open case, cries describing her daughters’ removal in connection with a domestic violence complaint: “As a mother who was in care yourself, you feel it 10 times more when they come to your door.”

“People who don’t feel confident about anything in their lives may have trouble,” says McCarthy, “with this thing—parenting—that can be stressful even for those of us who have a lot of resources. If you’re well-to-do, you’re allowed to show ambivalence and fear about parenting. Not if you’re poor.” One of Rise’s goals is to share parents’ stories with child-welfare workers and policymakers, so the groups can better understand the effects of their involvement; another is to give parents a safe space to talk to each other about what they’re going through. (McCarthy is not a mandatory reporter the way hospital workers and social workers are.)

Rise magazine now reaches 20,000 parents and child welfare workers nationwide; some ACS agencies now use Rise’s stories in agent training. On a recent Monday at noon, a few members of Rise’s leadership team, writers for the magazine who have been through the child welfare system, were gathered around a table. On it were set a pitcher of water, a bowl of grapes and bananas, and McCarthy’s laptop. In this generic three-windowed office space surrounded by desks with a few Macs, a printer on the fritz, cardboard boxes full of magazines, and mismatched desk lamps, they collectively composed a follow-up letter to the child welfare commissioner, who had paid Rise a visit the week before for a two-hour discussion during which the Rise members explained ways in which parents don’t always understand their rights and offered recommendations for projects that would make a difference. “Also to thank her for coming,” says McCarthy.

Robbyne Wiley, 57, who sports short, bleached blonde hair, a blue tank top, and a Bluetooth in her ear, is part of the group’s leadership program. She wrote her first story for McCarthy in a 2002 workshop, and her most recent one two months ago. Growing up in Harlem, she became addicted to crack during the epidemic of the 1980s, during which time some 50,000 children entered the New York City foster care system. “I got hit by a car in 1980,” she says. “It made me really depressed. Sitting around smoking, no one would see how I walked. No one would ever know.”

The first of her two child welfare involvements came, she says, when there was a knock on the door. “I’m like, ‘Why are you here?’” Wiley recalls saying when the welfare agents came in. “They said I was selling drugs from my home. That’s something I’ve never done. No one can ever say Robbyne introduced them to the drug. They ended up taking my children that day. I was upset, but within the hour I realized I didn’t have to worry about my kids catching me getting high.”

And yet, she made it to drug treatment and was referred by a child welfare advocacy group to the Rise program, which operates on a $225,000 annual budget with support from the Child Welfare Fund, Pinkerton Foundation, New York Women’s Foundation, North Star Fund, and contracts with the NYC Administration for Children’s Services, and the foster care agencies Graham Windham and Sheltering Arms. At first, she was reluctant to share her story with McCarthy. “My dad was prejudiced against white people,” says Wiley. “He didn’t even want us to watch Elvis Presley. Nora seemed sweet, but I still heard my father: ‘She’s white. Is she here to help or to get in my business and get me in trouble?’”

Finally, she risked it, and wrote a story that’s become one of the program’s most popular. It’s about how after her youngest son was taken from her at birth, in 1991, and then when he came home at the age of four, she felt like they barely knew each other. Wiley has four children, 12 grandchildren, and one great-grandchild. She says child-parent therapy helped her and her son understand each other better, and to help her with yelling and him with lying. That boy is now 24, and she boasts that he works in a salon and as an actor. She says telling her story through Rise helped her make sense of what they’d been through, and gave her a sense of purpose, because she felt like she was helping other parents in the system.

When Vega met McCarthy more than a decade ago through another non-profit, she was still, she says, consumed with hatred for the child welfare system, and suspicious of McCarthy’s motives.

“I didn’t want people knowing my business,” she says. Eventually, though, she found herself reliving scenes on the page, like when her son was being driven away from her while pounding on the inside of the glass calling, “Mom!” while she ran down the street after the car. “Writing helped me relieve stress,” she says. “I got it out. I’d been holding it in.”

Writing also helped Vega see things that had never occurred to her before. McCarthy asked if she could write about what she thought other people saw when she got angry. Vega had “gotten into it,” she recalls, with child welfare workers, and at one supervised visit assaulted her child’s foster mother, whom she thought wasn’t keeping her son safe. Before writing that story, she says, she hadn’t realized that her anger with the system made others afraid for her child. “It took me the longest time to realize that everyone thought that because I got violent with the foster mother I would be like that with my son,” said Vega. “I told Nora, ‘But I hate her. I don’t hate him.’”

Vega says the case against her was closed when her eldest was five, in 2003, and that he tells her he doesn’t remember any of it. (“Thank God,” she adds.) Vega has since received an associate’s degree, and her son is graduating from high school this year. She has a stepson and three younger sons, including a smiley six-month-old named Joseph who spent one recent Rise meeting cooing and being passed around.

One study found that the vast majority of stories we hear about child welfare are “horror stories” about evil parents doing ghastly things. And yet, the vast majority of child welfare cases stem from neglect, not abuse. Common causes of parental neglect include drug abuse, mental illness, and domestic violence. Poverty is often a factor.

“I love Rise magazine’s work because the writers there tell stories that depart from the accepted narrative and show us that they’re not the stereotypes.” says Matthew Fraidin, a professor at the University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law, who recently gave a speech to lawyers in which he described the traditional story of child welfare as “one of brutal, deviant, monstrous parents, and children who are fruit that doesn’t fall far from the tree.” He adds, “Nora is calm and genuine, and she doesn’t see herself as being an agent of empowerment or—god forbid—‘providing a voice’ for other people. She gets out of the way, which is a sign of complete respect.”

At the Rise meeting, McCarthy played with baby Joseph while Vega took notes, but after a while, Vega said he looked tired. She nestled him back into the crook of her arm while she continued writing. Within minutes, Joseph had fallen asleep. “Look,” McCarthy narrated. “You knew just what he wanted.”

[This story was originally published by Fusion.]

Photo by Elena Scotti/Fusion.