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Ashley Martin

Focus on Foster Care: Improving Montana’s Child Welfare System (Q&A)

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In a recent interview on the Mother Love podcast, we heard from an incredible woman, Miranda Maxson, who was raised in Montana’s foster care system and has now become an advocate for Montana’s fostered youth.

Miranda was placed in foster care at the age of 8 and she is a survivor, through and through. In her episode, Season 3: Ep. 2, she shares her heart-wrenching but triumphant story. Now that Miranda is a mother and works incredibly hard to provide the safety and stability she never had, she explains that she’s had to face most of her parenting challenges by thinking of what happened to her as a kid and then doing the opposite. We talk about what it’s taken for her to build a life of peace and security for her and her family, about the importance of learning to accept help, and about the pieces of parenting that are often left out of the conversation due to stigma and shame but MUST be discussed. Today, Miranda is a fierce advocate for youth in Montana’s care system and works hard every day to ensure that they get to participate in decisions regarding their care. Miranda is giving kids the chance to speak because she knows the pain of being kept silent. It’s very much worth a listen.

Then, Miranda introduced us to another remarkable high school student, Alyssa Vancampen (pictured above), who has chosen to research the intersection and overlap of those who have been in the child welfare system while growing up. The rates are high and, although Alyssa knew from her own personal experience why that might be, she wanted to dive in deeper and have numbers and stories to prove how the injustices and traumas endured by this population impact their ability to do well in the world once they’ve aged out of care.

Since our mission at Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies – The MT Coalition is to improve the health, safety, and well-being of Montana families by supporting mothers and babies, age zero to three, we spend a lot of time focusing on prevention and trauma-informed care and we partner with organizations and people who are doing the same. Miranda and Alyssa are two of those people.

Alyssa took the time to share more about her senior project in the Q&A below. Clearly, she is passionate about the subject and is transforming her hardships into healing through advocacy. If you are someone who wants to know about the impacts of foster care and group homes on children in Montana and the measures that need to be taken to improve the system, keep reading.

  • Q (HMHB): 

What inspired you to focus on the connection and overlap of youth who’ve grown up in foster care and those who are incarcerated?

  • A (Alyssa): 

My experience as a youth in the foster care system has exposed me to the injustices of both the child welfare and legal systems as my circumstances unfolded into a series of events that left me traumatized, stigmatized, and feeling defeated. The trials of hopelessness that I encountered with no support as a dual-status youth became my inspiration to focus on the connection and overlap of youth in foster care and incarcerated. I was blessed with insight that now allows me to perceive the world from an unsheltered and authentic view. I have relentlessly advocated for my voice to be heard as the systems tried to silence me. Without fail, my strong-willed mindset was misguided as defiance labeling me as disrespectful and impulsive while I sought out freedom. Now that I am in a position of stability, sharing my experience and expressing my passion for advocacy could help those who are struggling alone. 

  • Q: 

Have you had personal experience with the criminal justice system in MT? If so, what was that like for you and how do you understand the reasons why you may have been involved with circumstances that led to those experiences?

  • A:

I tried to manage working and attending school but my priorities were different considering my circumstances. I dropped out of high school with the intent to get my hi-set through an alternative program, but I was not able to commit to that with everything going on. I picked up extra shifts at work but my tips would go straight into my gas tank just to ensure I would make it to Clinton and then back the next night. During this time, I was also struggling with addiction which heavily affected my sense of responsibility When I got off work, I would drink until I blacked out and then wake up hungover with only enough time to go to work. Eventually, I was partying so much that I would make up any excuse to call out. My boss and I mutually agreed that I could not work at the restaurant anymore. Once things got too complicated with my living situation at my friend’s place, I went back to couch hopping and living out of my car. I’d have rather suffered alone than ask for support and I was not capable of relying on someone enough to allow it. I felt hopeless and desperate to have control over my life, even if it meant ruining it. 

In this time of despair, on May 25, 2022, I was arrested for a violent offense and remained incarcerated for 8 months. I was in Missoula County JDC for almost 3 months awaiting my sentencing or release. They transferred me to Five County Detention Center in St. Anthony ID, on July 29th. I was given a plea deal and had to complete the rehabilitative program enforced at 5C to be released before I turned 18. I completed the program in roughly 5 months but my time in corrections was extended because I had nowhere to go upon release. I prayed that God had my best interest at heart and trusted that I would be released when he felt I should be. For weeks, Five County continued to get email responses about how I still had nowhere to go. Discouraged, I would fall to my knees in prayer, and in my vulnerability, He was there. I was released on January 19, 2023.

My experience in the criminal justice system was intense. For years I had run away from the traumas in my past that left me layered in defensive mechanisms and anger so raw it consumed me. Instead of addressing my issues, I tried to escape and ended up locked in a cell with them. The first two weeks were the hardest. Scenarios of endless time and nothingness would have me waking up in a state of pure panic. I had felt trapped all of my life so it wasn’t the confinement that tormented me, it was being a victim to my mind. The fear I felt was paralyzing but I still attempted to avoid and distract. Withdrawing from the substances that promised me just that, I had no choice but to read. I fell in love with reading as I let the stories absorb me into their pages. Anything opposed to thinking. 

That was until I got to Five County Detention. The freedom I was going to achieve from this experience was not materialistic, but peace. I engaged in therapy and felt validated as I reflected on the cause and effect of what I endured. I participated in Recovery classes including Drug and Alcohol (D&A) and Women’s 12 Steps Through Recovery. I graduated with Moral Reconation Therapy (MRT) which educated me on how to hold myself accountable by recognizing if I am being ethical or not. I took anger management classes and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) as well. As I attended these classes, I was able to appreciate the support I received while walking through the healing process. There were times that I felt misunderstood and hopeless, but I tried to count my blessings instead of my days. I was blessed to have 3 meals a day, a consistent shower, and books. I bittersweet reality was that I was the most supported while I was incarcerated. I do believe that my incarceration could have been avoided if my life did not have the “not your fault, but your problem” dynamic. For that, I hold the foster care system accountable because of the lack of support and sympathy I received as I was facing all odds of inevitable failure while still trying to succeed. As a child, the most important things are psychological needs (food, water, and shelter), safety, and a sense of belonging. Without a solid foundation that offers that, it became very difficult for me to not be angry at my circumstances. 

Now I no longer live with resentment and emotional turmoil as I learn to thrive in peace instead of accepting chaos. Although the way I perceive the world is still influenced by my past, I remain undefined. After release, I had a rough integration into the community as my living arrangement offered no stability. However, I was offered the opportunity to move to Bozeman, MT with someone I considered a mentor of mine. She was someone who had seen my potential and advocated relentlessly for my future. I was immensely grateful for the chance of a fresh start. At heart I knew the only way I could do that was if I left everything behind. Unhealthy relationships, unhealthy habits, and my hometown. Those who supported and encouraged me to accept this change in my life were the people whom I maintained relationships with. Communication and frequent visits help with the distance, but it does become difficult at times for me to manage. When I made the move, I started my senior year at Gallatin High School and intend to participate in the HI-SET program during my second semester. This ensures that I will graduate if I meet proficiency in all subjects without needing more than twelve required credits. I will still attend graduation and walk with my class, receiving my high school diploma. I am managing the Gallatin High School basketball team and spend most of my time prioritizing education as I plan to continue through college. I am now connected with a healthy support system of friends and family, disregarding my labels and achieving a future worth fighting for. 

 

  • Q: 

Do you have friends who’ve also grown up in foster care and group homes? What is that connection like?

  • A:

Through my journey in the system, I have encountered foster homes, group homes, treatment centers, and detention facilities. Transitioning into unfamiliar environments is difficult given the circumstances, but feeling alone is worse. I developed relationships during these times with people who were experiencing similar vulnerabilities; hoping to find strength where we felt weak. These connections were so raw and deep-rooted because of the intense setting they were usually created in. Exposure to trauma as an individual has damaging effects on emotional and social development, often making it difficult to cope. Being surrounded by other young women who were determined to heal and find strength in their hardships, was so empowering for me. We only grew closer as we bonded over our passions, and our faith in God, walking through sobriety, breaking down our barriers and ending the generational cycles that kept us captive. The difference about these relationships compared to others I’ve had, is they were never temporary or conditional. I’ve hit rock bottom while they risked their life to pull me out knowing I’d do the same for them. We fought together for the same thing; freedom. Freedom from our past, our trauma, our addiction and our mentality. We are living proof that the people you consider family do not have to be dictated by blood. I am still in contact with people I’ve met in over 25 placements as well as others I met along the way, and I am blessed to have had the opportunity to make so many lifelong friends. 

  • Q: 

What have you found to be most surprising and profound as you’ve conducted research for this project? What makes you feel hopeful? What information/stories have been the most important?

  • A: 

As I conducted research for this project, I encountered someone who I consider to be a remarkable person. He didn’t have a chance in the world; a world that labeled him broken and expected him to fail because of the circumstances he was born into. 

Steve Pemberton is a credited author, motivational speaker, philanthropist, and corporate executive who became successful despite overwhelming odds against him. He is remarkable because of his undeniable passion for advocacy against the disparities of the child welfare system and restorative perspectives that illuminate his resilience as he shares his experience with the world. 

Despite the discouragement of social stigma, Pemberton became an inspiration all across the country, and a voice for marginalized children dispirited by the harsh realities around them. As someone from a similar background to Pemberton, I admire the commitment, self-discipline, and advocacy that he demonstrated to achieve his successes. In his humble approach, he has been able to reach so many despondent hearts by finding strength in his vulnerability. 

 

Inspired by my dedication to this project, my foster mom reached out to Pemberton via email with no expectations as she shared our story with him. She expressed gratitude for his influence and credited him deeply for his admirable accomplishments. He responded with a heartfelt appreciation for her social media message and wanted to put together a virtual meeting. After emailing schedules back and forth, we were able to set a time. This interaction was so insightful and offered a change in my perspective. It was refreshing to understand the vision he had and how he made it happen due to his own perseverance. Something that surprised me was how I felt when I spoke to him. I expected the conversation to be difficult given that I was nervous about conversing with someone who had spoken in front of millions of people and wrote worldwide best-sellers; however, that was not the case. When Pemberton recognized my uncomfortable demeanor, he reminded me that he was only a person, the same as I was. Even more comforting was that he came from dysfunction too, and we shared an understanding that put me at ease for the rest of our visit. I am blessed to have him as a part of my village while he helps me further navigate the changes in my life.

 

Seeing someone come from tragedy and prioritize their triumph despite all of the odds against them; gives me hope. The world can label children who endured trauma, but they do not have the control to dictate their success.

 

  • Q: 

How did you become a part of the pilot project for youth engagement in permanency, cultural, and relational decisions? How do you think this program differs from efforts to improve the system in the past?

  • A: 

The legal team that I was assigned to as a ward of the state, forced me into a vulnerable position every time we encountered each other. This would usually be in meetings at DCFS where I was made into a puppet while they pulled my strings, listening to them speak about me like I was not in the room.  Except when I cut the rope, I was depicted as defiant and dangerous. I refused to allow someone else to use me as a pawn in a sick game of misused control and realized that if I did not speak up, they would win. That is what inspired my passion for advocacy, and influenced me to be a voice for those who are silenced. 

The Chafee program wanted me to join an advocacy panel made of foster youth and youth formerly in care. At this time, I was not stable enough to take on that kind of commitment, so I only reached back out to the organization and found out they were inactive recently. They introduced me to OIC-EY(Quality Improvement Center on Engaging Youth in Finding Permanency) because they figured that I could be of help to this newly forming establishment. I got connected with Child and Youth Engagement Coordinator, Mira Max, and was accepted onto this team of advocates after a few conversations with her. Although I have not been involved for very long, I can tell that it is evolving into something that will make a difference for generations to come. This program differs from efforts to improve the system in the past because of the experience we have going into the issue at hand. We have all had exposure to the injustices of the child welfare system and will continue advocating for change. 

Dr. Amy Stiffarm & Claire Larson

Native American Initiative Series on the Mother Love Podcast!

By Birth, Indigineous Maternal Health, Maternal Mental Health, Perinatal Mood & Anxiety Disorders, Uncategorized

November was Native American Heritage Month and, in case you missed our Native American Initiative Series on the Mother Love Podcast, we wanted to let you know all about it so you can check out some of the amazing conversations we captured.

Dr. Amy Stiffarm joined Claire Larson (our usual host) to help lead these conversations as she is an expert on the topic of Indigenous maternal health and had pre-existing relationships and friendships with our guests. She is also HMHB’s Native American Initiatives Program Manager and an incredible leader in her field. Plus, she’s super fun and engaging which makes her a great co-host on the show!

To listen, please visit our Mother Love webpage at: https://hmhb-mt.org/podcast/ or search ‘Mother Love’ on Apple, Audacy, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. Be sure to follow us so you never miss an episode.

The 5 part series consists of these episodes:  

  • Season 3: Episode 5 – Native American Heritage Month: An intro to our Native American Initiatives Series with Dr. Amy Stiffarm

  • Season 3: Episode 6 – Native American Initiatives Series: The Current State of Indigenous Maternal Health with Dr. Janelle Palacios (Amy guest-hosts!)

  • Season 3: Episode 7 – NAI Series: “Life’s Blessings”: A Culturally Immersive Event for Nurses w/Margaret Anne Adams & Mary Ellen Lafromboise + *Bonus* Episode Intro: Decolonizing Thanksgiving w/Amy & Claire!

  • Season 3: Episode 8 – NAI Series: Cultural Inheritance and Toddler Mayhem w/Indigenous Artist Rachel Twoteeth-Pichardo

  • Season 3: Episode 9 – NAI Series: Sweetgrass in the Psych Unit w/Chelsea Bellon

 

*A note on this final episode in the series with Chelsea Bellon- the list of resources and show notes we compiled is such a hearty one that we had to list it here on our blog instead of below the description of the show. Please do check it out!


Show notes/Resources from “Sweetgrass in the Psych Unit”

Chelsea recommends

Claire recommends:

And, if you’re just now hearing about our Mother Love podcast, here’s a little more info:

On Mother Love, you’ll meet a new guest (or sometimes guests) each week. They are here to speak honestly about what they know now that they wish they’d known before. They want to give voice to their experiences in ways they just couldn’t when they were right smack dab in the middle of them. We talk about the pressures we put on ourselves and how real parent life looks very different from fantasy parenting life. And, most of all, we share these stories because they prove that resilience is real, that joy exists right alongside anguish and that if our guests can move through the hardest parts of all, you can too.

If you have any questions about our Storytelling Program or would like to share your own story, please contact Claire Larson via email: claire@hmhb-mt.org.