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DHR part of unique study

When Jessica Spears’ son was just seven days old, the Department of Human Resources put him into protective care.

“He was taken away from me because of past issues with domestic violence,” she said. “It was up to me to decide whether I wanted him back.”

The young mother is part of a new culture at the Escambia County Department of Human Resources, one that encourages parents to be active participants in their recovery of their children.

“Before, they were just jumping through hoops,” said DHR Director Lynn Barnes of parents. “There was no internal change.”

In the past, a DHR case worker might tell clients exactly what they needed to do to get their children back — but although the steps might be taken, the parents didn’t necessarily learn, Barnes said.

Now, clients must take the first steps and design their own plans — whether that’s taking parenting classes at Hope Place or working on a budget or any other work necessary to show they can parent their children.

Changing how the case workers approach clients and involve them in their own cases is part of a three-county study by researchers at the University of Maryland, Barnes said. The DHRs in Escambia, Baldwin and Mobile counties are in the third year of a five-year study to change how they assess dangers to children and how they respond to families.

Initial data shows improvements in Escambia County — the smallest of the three — in terms of the number of reports of indicated abuse and neglect.

The study involves two major changes for case workers. First, when they investigate a report of possible abuse or neglect, they don’t just respond to that particular incident, Barnes said. Even if an incident does not reveal abuse or neglect, the caseworkers look at potential dangers to the children in the home and work to offer assistance to families.

“We may determine that an incident didn’t happen, but we may determine the parent needs our services,” Barnes said. “That curbs future reports. We’re using safety as the foundation.”

Case workers look at two types of dangers to children — present (for example, a child standing in the middle of the road) and impending. “Impending danger is just knowing something is not quite right,” Barnes said.

In the past, those are the cases “that come back to haunt us,” Barnes said.

The assessment is twofold. Regardless of the type of danger to the child — present or impending — if parents are in a situation in which their children need to be removed, they are asked to be active participants in their cases.

That means they choose how to overcome their problems.

In Spears’ case, that meant taking parenting and anger management classes, as well as studying for her GED.

“It was hard,” she said. “But it was my decision.”

Parenting classes taught her how to care for her baby, while other classes taught her more about how to handle her own issues.

“I did have a bad anger problem,” she said. “I had to learn different ways to deal with my anger.”

Spears said she also learned that her self-esteem had suffered because of her own upbringing.

“I learned that I have a lot of strength,” she said. “Despite what I’ve been through, I don’t give up. I’m a caring person.”

Spears’ little boy has been back with her full-time for a few months, an arrangement that happened gradually as she was taking classes and stepped up her visitations with him.

Now almost 16 months, he is “into everything,” she laughed. At first, she worried because she had “missed so much” of his infancy. But their relationship has grown.

“I’m so proud of him,” she said. “He knows if something’s on my mind and he comes to give me a hug. I know he cares about me.

“I’ve learned from my mistakes,” she said.