Stephanie Andrus had her son taken away by Clark County’s Child Protective Services just as he was about to turn 5 years old.
There were domestic violence issues in her home, Andrus said. Her boyfriend at the time was violent.
It took her about a year to regain custody of her son, who is now 16. Her biggest struggle while navigating the complexities of the child welfare system was a lack of resources.
“I really didn’t know where to turn after that happened,” the 41-year-old mother said Friday morning.
Andrus, who overcame her obstacles with the child welfare system, is now one of two peer-parent advocates who help families get through the system and reunite with their children.
The peer-parenting program was started in 2012 by East Side Family Services, a nonprofit that provides support to needy families. But it wasn’t until the program was revamped in July that it started to see more success, said Jessica Barris, assistant manager at East Side.
The program is funded by a three-year, $100,000 federal grant.
The two peer-parent advocates handle a maximum of 20 cases and work with the families from six months to a year, Barris said. The most common needs that the families have include housing and employment.
Since July, the peer-parent advocates have helped reunite almost 30 families with their children.
“We are seeing a lot more referrals from the judges and from the caseworkers,” she said.
Caseworkers with the Clark County Department of Family Services are able to provide referrals. Clark County Family Court judges began to provide formal referrals about a month ago, Family Court Judge Frank Sullivan said.
Sullivan believes the key to the program is the mentors’ “credibility.”
“They’ve been there,” he said Friday morning. “They’ve walked the walk. They’ve talked the talk.”
The peer-parent advocates provide mentorship, support and advocacy to the families they work with, he said.
“They enhance the parents’ capabilities to provide for their children’s needs,” he said. “We already see the difference.”
Judges want to be able to provide referrals right after the 72-hour preliminary protective hearings, Sullivan said. Those hearings are to determine whether the child should go home or remain in protective custody.
Nicole Huber, is the second peer-parent advocate in the program. She lost custody of her three girls, who are now 7, 9 and 13 years old, seven years ago because of substance abuse and domestic violence issues.
But she regained custody of her girls, which wasn’t easy.
“It was very much of a struggle,” the 31-year-old said Friday morning.
That experience gives her the tools to help other families who are now in a similar situation.
“They understand my story, and I understand their story,” she said.
Huber has helped 45 families since July, and 15 of them were able to regain custody of their children. Andrus has worked with 48 families since July and was able to help 15 reunify with their children.
There are plans to grow the program in the future, Barris said.
Reporter Yesenia Amaro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0440.