By the time a Wisconsin Family Ties Parent Peer™ Specialist (PPS) first connected with Ann, the feelings she’d developed for her son’s elementary school ranged from “hopeless” to “disgusted.” She knew her 8-year old was a sweet and wonderful child, but his ADHD presented challenges during the school day that were met at school with force, seclusion, intimidation, and punishments designed to “manage” his behavior. Over time she watched him become a “scared, depressed, and angry” child, all the more troubled at school.
According to Ann, her renewed hope began with that first call from her PPS.
“She listened, supported, met with me and school representatives, and helped me take my power back,” she wrote, relating her experience. “I felt stuck like I was in a nightmare, [but my PPS] was so supportive, always checking in on us, offering to do whatever we needed. I would not [be doing as well as] I am today without her.”
For a parent peer specialist (PPS), the process usually begins with a call to a stranger, never quite knowing what they might hear on the other end of the line. It might be about aggressive behaviors that have led to school suspensions or involvement with law enforcement and the legal system. It could be about traumatic events and circumstances, like homelessness, domestic abuse, or drug addiction that now engulf an entire family and their way of life. Or it might be as brief as the one or two-word answer that someone nearly broken by what they have been dealing with has the courage and will to share.
Besides a phone number and brief notes from a referral by the child’s case manager, a PPS often doesn’t have much to go on other than their own lived experience of what life might be like on the other end of the call. Not surprisingly, they can make the sort of personal connection that someone without lived experience simply cannot.
I’m reminded of how powerful parent-peer support can be to a family in crisis every time I receive a report from the field by one of the sixteen PPSs Wisconsin Family Ties has across the state or feedback from parents like Ann.
“Without Wisconsin Family Ties, I do not know where we would be,” one of those parents recently wrote. “Not very many people in the world really understand the pressure a parent of a child with special needs faces. Having someone in your corner [that] truly understands and supports you means the world.”
Implicit in that statement is something that too often is missed or underappreciated by more traditional, clinical approaches to serving children in crisis. That is, it’s the family, as much as the child that benefits from that deep level of care and support. That holistic approach is authenticated by a PPS’s own experiences of having been through the same or similar circumstances. Because of that, it usually doesn’t take long for them to translate their familiarity and understanding into the hope and trust needed for progress to begin.
Lived experience doesn’t just make a PPS unique. It makes the services they provide uniquely effective. Research is beginning to show how vital PPS services can be. One study conducted by the Medical College of Wisconsin asked individuals who had received multiple services to rank them in order of importance. By an overwhelming margin, survey respondents identified peer support as the most important service (41%), higher than more traditional services like special education (12%), case management (12%), psychiatry (13%), and psychotherapy (17%).
Earlier this year, WFT surveyed families and found that 86% of respondents indicated that their child’s life was better because of PPS services. When it came to the parents, 100% indicated their lives would have been more challenging without the support PPSs were able to provide.
That same survey also suggested the importance of PPSs in keeping families together. Respondents indicated high rates of likely psychiatric hospitalization for the parent (28.6%) and child (23.8%) had it not been for Wisconsin Family Ties’ PPS services. Avoiding hospitalization reduces the financial burden for families and public mental health systems, supporting the assertion that WFT decreases state and county expenditures.
Perhaps most importantly, the survey also suggested how WFT contributes to saving lives, as 9.5% of parents indicated a belief that their child would have had suicidal thoughts or made suicide attempts without PPS services.
The importance of the authentic connection that often develops between a PPS and the families they serve cannot be overstated. While it may not happen on the first, second, or even fourth or fifth call, it’s that relentless persistence and empathy a PPS brings to the mix through lived experience and enhanced by essential training, that is so vital to breaking through the mistrust and sense of isolation so many families feel after having to navigate complex, confusing, and at times contradictory systems on their own.
PPSs know what it’s like to want nothing more than to protect and care for their children. Perhaps that best explains why they’re so committed to never letting go of the hope that they share with the families they serve.