ASCI Presents: A Lived Experience Story ft. David Panella
Each month, A Second Chance, Inc. shares the voices of our kinship families through Q&A-style discussions. We are an agency that strives to provide a safe, secure, and nurturing environment to children in the care of relatives or close family friends—formally called kinship care. Our goal is to truly understand our kinship families by listening to the irreplaceable insights that the lived experience of caregivers, birth parents, and children can offer to make the narrative authentic and programming more meaningful. This month we had the pleasure of speaking with a former birth parent in care and current ASCI worker, David Panella.
Tell us about your journey and being a birth parent in the child welfare system.
My kids were about 5 and 6 years old. Their mother was struggling with mental health and addiction issues. She was deemed a flight risk then she conveyed to the courts that she was going to take my kids and run. Being that she was deemed a flight risk and had a history of running from the law, they believed her.
Even though my children were perfectly safe with me, they were removed from my custody and placed with my sister. I was upset that my kids got taken from me with no actions or anything on my part. I had a lot of resentment against CYF, the child welfare system, and the legal system. It took me a long time to come around before I was willing to even work with CYF or the courts.
After a few years, I decided to start working with CYF and the courts to go through the process of getting my kids back. The reason why it had taken a few years was because me and my sister are very close, so it was almost like they were still with me.
They wanted me to go through parenting classes to get my kids back, which I did. I ended up getting my kids back briefly. They were returned to my sister because I suffered from mental health challenges and some of the same addiction issues that their mom was suffering from. So, I wasn’t mentally or physically fit to take care of them anymore. They stayed with my sister for about 5 or 6 more years. They were about 13 and 14 years old with lots of behavioral issues.
I began to take all the steps that I needed to do to get my mental health and my addiction back on track. The more I cooperated with CYF and the mental health corp., the more they all stepped in and supported me in doing what I needed to do to appease the agency, CYF, and the juvenile court judge, Judge McCrady.
Judge McCrady was the last juvenile child welfare judge that my kids were involved with. Me and Judge McCrady had an excellent rapport over the past 6 months when my kids’ cases got closed. I never had any issues with Judge McCrady.
After I went through the mental health corp, I became a peer support person and they knew that I came to not only recover but then to work in recovery. The whole picture of me changed. That’s what made me want to work in social services and in the child welfare system. My own experiences through the criminal court system are what made me want to become a peer support person. My own experiences with my children and the child welfare system are what made me want to become a child welfare case worker.
I understood that I’m not the only person that had their kids taken from them for reasons that weren’t within their control or necessarily their fault. If my sister wouldn’t have taken them in, I would’ve lost them completely. She became a kinship caregiver through ASCI to my kids, eventually closing to Subsidized Permanent Legal Custodianship (SPLC).
What does kinship care mean to you?
Kinship care means that someone is going to be taking care of children that already know them. Kin looks different to everybody. You don’t necessarily have to share blood to be kin or to be family. Obviously, if you do share blood then that means you’re kin and family. A lot of times, non-related people become so close that they’re like family. To me that’s what kinship means, you’re not with a stranger, you’re with someone you’re comfortable with. Kinship means you’re with someone that is an extension of your close friends or family.
While you and your family were in the child welfare system, what support systems did you have?
I had support from my dad and sister and outside of them, there was no one, it was just CYF and A Second Chance.
What is your relationship with your children and your sister now?
We’re all still super close. My kids live with me now. My oldest daughter just had a baby who is one month old so I’m a grandparent now! Me and my sister are still super close.
How does being involved in the child welfare system help you do your job here at A Second Chance?
It gives me a very keen perspective to know what it’s like to be in the birth parents’ or the caregiver’s shoes. It gives me a different understanding and a different perspective. I think you really can’t truly empathize with someone else unless you can begin to understand what they’re going through. Because you can never fully put yourself in someone else’s shoes. But, if you take the time and put in the proper effort, you can begin to understand their situation and you can understand even more if you’ve been through something similar.
My lived experience with the child welfare system, it gives me a different perspective. I think the families I work with can pick up on that. They can tell I care, I’ve been through this, and that I have special compassion.
What advice would you have for birth parents entering the child welfare system?
Utilize every support you can and don’t believe in the stigma that the system will fail you or that the system only breaks up families. I believed that stigma and stereotype in the beginning, and that’s what prevented me from getting my kids back for a few years.
I was finally able to realize that these people don’t just tear families apart. From my experience, the people in social services that are assigned to help you, are going to work hard for you.
My advice to birth parents in the child welfare system would be to trust that you have the ability within yourself to get your kids back.