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“Before I Met You, I Was Crying All of the Time.” Family Support Partners Help Families in Crisis.

It’s not uncommon for the family of a child in crisis to feel helpless. Finding services for youth who require a high level of care can be challenging in and of itself, and when multiple resources are required, or there’s a financial hardship or language barrier, or just a simple lack of knowledge, the situation can seem downright insurmountable.

Just ask Angela, the mother of a nonverbal and autistic teenager in Northern Virginia. Angela and her husband were facing the very real risk of losing their child to an out-of-home placement because of the child’s uncontrollable and sometimes violent outbursts.

“Before I met you, I was crying all of the time,” Angela said to Sonnja, her UMFS Family Support Partner. “I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t find a solution.” But Sonnja knew exactly what to do and how to find solutions, and now Angela and her family are no longer at risk of losing their child.

That’s what makes the Family Support Partner Program (FSP) so invaluable. Sonnja (pictured at top with her grandson) and the other FSPs at UMFS are uniquely qualified to help families in crisis because of personal experiences navigating the mental health system, among others. Simply put, FSPs connect families with services and teach them to self-advocate. It’s not an overnight solution, of course, but a sustained and intentional effort. “We help families understand the processes and that it takes time,” Sonnja said. “We help them express their needs. We help them speak up.”

Sonnja has been navigating the system for more than 30 years. She first learned to advocate when her daughter was diagnosed with autism and told, among other things, that she wouldn’t be able to earn a regular high school diploma. “She didn’t like that,” Sonnja said firmly. “She understood that she would need to perform at a higher academic level.” Sonnja, of course, didn’t like it either. “I became involved in the schools and helped her get to where she needed to be,” she said. Sonnja’s daughter is now 38 with a family of her own. She has both a standard high school diploma and a college degree. “She surprised a lot of people,” Sonnja said.

Sonnja’s advocacy continued after two of her grandchildren experienced trauma at a young age that resulted in a variety of diagnoses for both children, including oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Sonnja eventually took custody of both grandchildren, and in doing so she also took ownership of their challenges.

From Child Protective Services to the Department of Juvenile Justice to public schools, Sonnja said she learned the ins and outs of many systems. Through the years, she made countless phone calls and office visits and attended meeting after meeting. She took every step necessary and did everything in her power to ensure that her grandchildren would be able to overcome their adversities and become resilient adults.

And they did.

One of Sonnja’s grandchildren now attends community college full time and works part time as a cook. And the other grandchild? “He’s been in the Marines for the past three years,” Sonnja said proudly. Sharing personal details, Sonnja continued, helps her connect with the families she works with. “It helps them relate,” she said. “And it gives them so much courage to continue to advocate for their children.”

UMFS Family Support Partners (FSPs) provide care to families during the most critical times. Individually, FSPs have incredible stories of resilience. Collectively, their shared experiences are helping families in crisis connect with services and learn self-advocacy. Click here to read more about how Sonnja helped Angela and her family prevent an out-of-home placement.

 

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