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Thursday, Oct. 1, 2009 03:04 pm

Helping parents get their kids back

Leshonda Rogers saw a need and had an idea. She started Primed for Life.

The Primed for Life staff: Leshonda Rogers, Oneatnia Perkins, Cassandra Spicer (front), Luvenia Sirus, Jeremy Pratner, Regena Wilson (back row).

Stephanie Spain, 26, a Petersburg native now residing in Pawnee, is no stranger to the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS). Several years ago, her two daughters were taken from her due to neglect.

Spain, like all parents whose children are removed from the home, was given a plan of action, detailing a list of programs and services she needed to complete before her children could be returned.

After completing her action plan, DCFS added more programs to the list.  

“It’s ridiculous what they put you through. They tell you one thing, but do something totally different. It seems like the harder you work, the more they keep adding things for you to do. All the while, your kids just sit in the system,” said Spain, who as a child was removed from her parents and placed in foster care.

Tired of fighting what she deemed “a losing battle,” Spain relinquished her parental rights. Today, Spain’s adoptive parents are raising her daughters. “It was really hard. I was on my own. There was no one there to help me.”

In October, Spain once again found herself dealing with DCFS when her then one-year-old son was removed from her Pawnee home due to “environmental neglect,” meaning her home was deemed too dirty for a child to reside there.  But this time, rather than struggle through the system alone, she turned to  Primed For Life, Incorporated (PFL), a Springfield not-for-profit agency offering a series of programs designed to educate and empower individuals as they take the necessary steps of turning away from “at-risk lifestyles and behaviors” and moving towards becoming productive citizens.

Through PFL’s  Leadership, Engagement, Advocacy and Development program (LEAD), caseworkers for the agency worked with Spain for more than six months as she participated in a number of parenting, life skills and budgeting classes. Now married, Spain has had individual counseling, as well as family counseling with her husband. Today, she has completed her service plan and is awaiting her son’s return home.

A helping hand
For five years, Leshonda Rogers of Springfield sat on the sidelines at DCFS as her agency intervened in the lives of children whose parents were deemed abusive or neglectful. Although DCFS had made a commitment to reunify families within 18 months, it was clear to Rogers, then an assistant to DCFS’s chief of staff, that the department was falling short of its goal.  Rogers realized that timely reunification for many families was not going to happen without assisting parents as they struggle through the daunting bureaucratic system.

Not one to sit back and ignore a problem, Rogers used her free time to draft a plan identifying barriers and offering possible solutions to the process of reunifying families. Hoping DCFS would put her plan into action, Rogers submitted it to her supervisor, who informed her that while the plan looked good, DCFS did not have the funds to implement it. Determined to see her plan come to fruition, Rogers turned to her pastor, who passed it to the church’s program leader, who said that the church also lacked the funds to make it happen.

While most may have stopped there, Rogers took a leap of faith. She quit her DCFS job and directed her energy towards opening her own agency. The result was the birth of Primed For Life.  “Our role is to partner with clients and service agencies by acting as a bridge that ultimately leads to healthy, productive, self-aware and socially conscious citizens who have a positive impact on their families and communities,” explains Rogers.  And while Rogers and her staff work hard to help parents, she is quick to add that she will not support reunifying a family if it is not in the best interest of the children.

“Primed For Life really helped me learn to control my anger and frustrations. They’ve been there for me every step of the way,” says Spain. “I know that I can call them and they’ll be there to help me. The most important thing that they did for me was help me better understand the system.”

Understanding the system is a major obstacle for parents, particularly when they are struggling to regain custody, says Rogers, adding that judges and state’s attorneys don’t understand the barriers that the parents face.

“These parents are already overwhelmed. And in the midst of that, the courts issue a laundry list of things to do before their children are returned. They are often ordered to maintain employment, while participating in parenting and domestic violence classes, substance abuse programs and counseling, as well as appearing in court.” Many don’t even understand the stipulations which they have agreed to.  “I wish judges and state’s attorneys could actually spend a day walking in our clients’ shoes. They’d see that they are expecting things that are often nearly impossible to attain.”

Although PFL began with a vision to help parents like Spain regain custody of their children, the agency offers several other programs, including an ex-offender program, which helps former prisoners transition back into the community by referring them to agencies for assistance, and helping them complete job applications, write resumes and provide transportation to job interviews.
PFL, which opened its doors in 2007, also provides summer employment, life skills and preventive programs for youths ages 12 to 20. “We work with youths now in hopes that when they become adults, they won’t have their children taken away from them, and they won’t have to deal with the struggles of transitioning back to society after serving time in prison,” stated Rogers.

PFL’s meager budget is only enough to serve 80 families a year. However, not one to turn anyone away, Rogers says that the agency far exceeds its capacity. She has learned to stretch dollars to meet clients’ needs.

Currently, the agency’s LEAD program is the only PFL program funded by the state. But with many of PFL’s other clients facing some of the same issues as its LEAD clients, Rogers says she is able to offer some LEAD services to others.  She also collaborates with other agencies, organizations and churches to address clients’ needs.

With the economy in shambles, Rogers says securing social programs — particularly for parents fighting to regain custody of their children — has become increasingly difficult.

Rogers: “While the courts are ordering all of these programs that parents need to complete, the government is cutting the budget of the agencies that offer the services. This has caused many agencies to cut or reduce the very programs parents need, making them even more difficult to access.”

Nearly every day PFL receives clients who have been turned away from other agencies.  “We won’t turn anybody away. When people come here, they are going to get some help,” says Rogers, who, along with her staff, often covers expenses out of her own pocket.

As PFL attempts to help its clients pick up the pieces of their lives and put them back together, Rogers says politicians need to “stop playing political games with the state’s budget and do the right thing. Funding social service agencies is vital to healthy communities.”

Contact Jolonda Young at ladyj2066@aol.com.
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