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For Myrta Bowen, a long battle with addiction, homelessness and the loss of her children turned into catalyst for change in her life and in the lives of others.
Today, Bowen is a volunteer with the Parent to Parent Program sponsored by the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services’ Child and Family Services department.
The group’s third annual reunification event was held June 28 at Evergreen Park in Bremerton, and local officials and families helped by the program gathered together to celebrate the positive work done through the program.
During the celebration, parents who have been helped by the volunteers spoke about the positive impact the program has made in their families and thanked volunteers for their help in bringing their families back together.
For Bowen, the event was a reminder of the darkness in her own past and the evidence of the bright possibilities of change the program can offer.
In 2004, Bowen and her family found themselves homeless and couch surfing in Bremerton. Bowen was addicted to methamphetamine, the family fell apart and the authorities became involved.
Child Protective Services asked Bowen to give the state temporary custody of her oldest son and within a week she had lost custody of all of her children, with her two sons sent into foster homes and her daughter placed with her own biological father.
Confused and afraid, Bowen found herself in a system she did not know how to negotiate.
“It was hell, I had never been without my kids for more than a night,” she said.
In the absence of her children and with all of the turmoil in her life, Bowen said she could not find the way out of her addiction.
“I was lost and angry and did not know what to do, and I lost myself further in the drugs.”
Offered assistance with her addiction and the problems in her life, Bowen said she did not take advantage of any opportunity to seek help and continued using drugs until a social worker explained she might lose her children forever.
“The social worker for the youngest [child] laid it on the line for me,” she said. “That kicked me in the butt, and I knew I had to change something.”
Bowen entered a 28-day recovery program at Prosperity House in Tacoma and became involved in any and all services and classes offered, such as parenting, recovery, relapse prevention and nutrition.
“If they offered it, I got involved with it,” she said.
Bowen graduated from the program on March 15, 2005, but said it was not the end of her struggles with addiction. She remembered sitting on a friend’s couch on March 17, 2005, a haze of methamphetamine smoke hanging in the air between herself and a picture of her children playing. It was this tableau, so indicative of her troubles that separated her from her children and the possibilities a better life, that she said became the true turning point in her life.
“March 17, 2005” she said. “That was the last day I touched meth.”
Not immediately forthcoming about her relapse, Bowen said she had learned enough in her program of recovery to know that any meaningful change in her life had to begin with being truthful.
“I kept it a secret for as long as I could until I finally got honest in my program of recovery,” she said.
She said she was helped into a two-year program by workers involved in her case, and in October of 2005 her hard work and newfound honesty convinced social workers to return her boys.
“They saw all the work I had done and they were on my side,” she said. “By Halloween, I had both of my boys back.”
Glenda Totten-Hatch, Clinical Services Supervisor with West Sound Treatment Center in Port Orchard, said it was not uncommon for addicts to need more than one program of recovery to find lasting sobriety.
“This is a chronic disease and like any other chronic disease people have relapses,” she said. “People often have to go through treatment more than once.”
Even though Bowen’s daughter remained with her biologic father, by 2006 all cases involving her children were closed, and she lived the next year just enjoying her children’s presence in her life.
“I just wanted to spend all my time with my kids,” she said.
In 2008, Bowen said she was offered an opportunity to help others through her own experiences when then CPS supervisor Lynne Greenwald approached her to become involved in a mentoring program for parents who were faced with addiction and the loss of their children.
Greenwald said other parents could benefit from the experiences Bowen had made it through and the changes she had undergone to win her children back.
“In May of 2008 I did that and we started the Parent to Parent Program,” she said.
Since that time, Bowen and other volunteers who have overcome addiction and other problems and regained their children began to work to help other parents struggling with the loss of their own children.
She said volunteers with the program attended CPS hearings with parents and offered classes on dependency and explained the process the parents were about to go through with CPS involved in their lives.
Volunteers work with multiple families in an effort to help families change their lives for the better.
“We offer support from someone who actually knows what they are going through,” she said. “There is a connection once they find we have lived it.”
Jennifer Martin, the Parent to Parent Program Supervisor with the Kitsap County Juvenile Department, said the program was often instrumental in helping to reunite families.
“It is invaluable for bridging the gap between parents who have had their kids removed and us as professionals,” she said.
Martin said parents who have lost their children due to addiction or other issues are often angry and the veteran parents are able to talk with them and help them understand the process needed to return their children safely to them.
“The goal of the process is to reunite families. But to do it in a way that is safe for children and families,” she said.
Martin said the volunteers help in many ways besides the classes and attending hearings by helping parents to take notes, sometimes offering rides to appointments and simply being there for the parents.
Totten-Hatch said parents seeking to recover their children and their lives need as much support as possible. She said it often takes collaboration between doctors, mental health therapists and chemical dependency professionals and anyone else who can become involved in a positive manner.
“The more support you can get for a person, the better their recovery odds become,” she said.
Ursula Petters, Area Administrator for the Department of Child and Family Services, said the volunteer parents have helped many families to negotiate the often confusing intricacies of the system and helped CPS with their goals of protecting children and reuniting families.
“It can be a very complex system,” she said. “When we have veteran parents working with other parents, it helps them to understand what they need to do to reunite their family in a more timely fashion.”
Petters said the program can also help parents recover one of the most important things lost in the process.
“They can tell their story and give the other parents hope that they can have their kids returned to them,” Petters said.
In June, Bowen was able to regain custody of her daughter Britany.
Britany Bowen said it had taken time to understand all of the changes and challenges her family had gone through.
“It was hard when it happened,” she said. “I didn’t understand at the time because I was so young. As time passed I started to figure stuff out. I understood I was taken away for a reason.”
Britany Bowen said she had seen her mom face her challenges and was proud of who she had become.
“Mom is a better person now,” she said. “She has changed for the better and stopped doing the things she was doing. She is more like a normal mom.”
Bowen said the process of fully reuniting with her family was a difficult one, but one she felt also offered hope to others.
“I may not be proud of who I was,” she said. “But I am proud of who I’ve become.”