Childhaven serves children who are either at risk for or have experienced abuse and neglect. The agency's goal is to end the cycle of abuse by providing a safe, nurturing place for children to heal and learn while teaching their parents how to parent
Jennifer Harthoorn did not appreciate the social worker who removed her infant son from her care when she was suffering from postpartum depression, a physical and mental condition that, in her case, was exacerbated by the stress of caring for her dying mother.
Nor was she happy about all the things Child Protective Services (CPS) required her to do before she could regain custody of Cooper.
And she had a distinctly negative reaction when CPS ordered her to go to Childhaven, where caseworkers evaluated her interactions with her child.
“In the beginning, I was very, very resistant and extremely reluctant,” said Harthoorn, 30, of Kent. “I thought, ‘Who are these people and why do I have to do what they tell me?’ “
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Now, two years later, Harthoorn has her son back. He’s happy, healthy and ahead of every developmental milestone.
She’s no longer required to go to Childhaven’s Auburn branch, but she does so voluntarily.
During the time she spent at Childhaven, Harthoorn soon learned the people there weren’t trying to be bossy or mean to her. Instead, she realized, “they were trying to help me stabilize my life.”
What she’s learned at Childhaven, she said, has changed her whole life for the better.
The nonprofit — which serves children who have an open case with Child Protective Services and educates their parents and caregivers — is one of 13 organizations that benefit from The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy.
Childhaven serves children who are either at risk for or have experienced abuse and neglect. The agency’s goal is to end the cycle of abuse by providing a safe, nurturing place for children to heal and learn while teaching their parents how to parent.
The children are treated with individualized care, as well as art, music, physical and occupational therapy.
Parents and caregivers, who often come with their own scars, participate in a 16-session parent-education program.
The course includes home visits and video feedback in which an educator videotapes the interaction between caregiver and child and then replays it, asking questions, pointing out what works and explaining the social and emotional needs that drive a child’s behavior.
In an article last year on Childhaven, The Times featured Barry Jackson and his daughter, now 2 years old.
Jackson, 41, had been clean and sober for about three months when he learned of Mariah’s birth. He immediately fell in love when he first saw her, but he recognized that he didn’t know how to take care of an infant.
He embraced the structure imposed on him by CPS and family court and welcomed Childhaven’s help, calling it one of the great “blessings” in his life.
Since then, Jackson has become a mentor to other parents who are working to regain custody of their children and was named “Father of the Year” by Divine Alternatives for Dads Services, a local faith-based support network for fathers.
He’s now enrolled at Seattle Central Community College, where he’s pursuing a degree in social work.
He sees the social-care system not as an enemy, but as an ally. He says Mariah is “shining” because of the support that was available to him.
“A lot of people want to fight the system,” he said. “They say ‘no, no, no’ and want to clear their names. Instead, they should be saying, ‘What can I learn from this? What can I do?’ “
Harthoorn said she has come to see it that way, too.
When her son was born, she was working full time at a job she’d held for seven years, commuting by bus, taking care of her ailing mother and, she thought, her son.
But when Cooper lost more than 10 percent of his birth weight, a hospital employee reported her to CPS and a case was opened.
To regain custody of her son, who was placed in a relative’s home, Harthoorn had a battery of tasks to complete. She had to get mental-health treatment, take random drug tests, attend parenting classes and participate in Childhaven’s programs.
“I thought it was absurd,” she said. “And sometimes overwhelming.”
Then, something happened. She stopped fighting and started learning. She began to understand that postpartum depression is real and common, but that it’s the kind of illness that can sneak up on people.
“Even when I was in it, I didn’t recognize it,” she said. And, she said, she realized that “there’s nothing wrong with needing help and getting it.”
Where she had dreaded being “forced” to go to Childhaven before, she began to spend extra time there.
Soon, her Childhaven caseworker, Mary Kahler, saw that Cooper was showing a marked preference for being with his mother over any other caregiver, an important sign of bonding.
Harthoorn started to feel that Kahler was an advocate and a coach. When she felt overwhelmed or discouraged, she said, Kahler would encourage her, saying, “Your focus is Cooper. Stay focused on Cooper.”
Harthoorn was ecstatic when Childhaven was able to find funding for Cooper to remain at the day care even though the family’s CPS case was closed. “There’s no better place,” she said.
In a playroom at Childhaven on a recent afternoon, Harthoorn easily coaxed Cooper out of a bad mood with a song and gentle playing. His cries are no longer mysterious to her, Harthoorn said. She can tell when he’s hungry, tired or needs a little down time.
When she has questions, she knows she can call her Childhaven team any time day or night.
When she sees new parents come into Childhaven, she’s amazed to look back and see how far she’s come.
“It’s interesting to see them come in here and act like I did,” she said.
Childhaven’s success record is exemplary among child-welfare agencies. Last year, 97 percent of its child clients did not experience subsequent incidents of abuse or neglect.
Nevertheless, not every parent blooms like Harthoorn and Jackson.
Rather, theirs are the success stories that show other parents what’s possible and keep caseworkers going.
“Even with the best intentions, there are limits to what we can do,” said Jackson’s caseworker, Hillary Winslow-Simpson. “But to see Barry and to be a part of his success is very encouraging.
“It’s been great to be a part of it.”
Christine Clarridge: 206-464-8983 or email@example.com