Rut Silveira and her son, Alan, experienced homelessness for several months in Miami after she and her husband divorced. At the time, she sought help from the Division of Family & Children Services, but she said they could not provide her with what she needed. When she and her son moved to Georgia, she was met with a similar response.
Silveira said she developed substance use disorder after this period of homelessness, and in 2019 her son was removed from her home and placed with his uncle for about nine months. DFCS’ assistance wasn’t available to her until a case had been opened and her son was already removed, she said.
After she packed up the last of her son’s possessions to bring to his uncle, she slept in her car rather than face a home without her son, Silveira said. She wanted to get him back, but she needed help navigating the system and paying for the required classes. Silveira felt lonely and defeated without a community or support.
Gaps in the system
Sarah Winograd, program manager of Together for Families and a former Court Appointed Special Advocate, said she noticed that many of the children she worked with in the child welfare system just wanted to go home to their parents. She found families that were in similar situations to Silveira’s, where the parents loved their children and wanted to care for them, but were met with barriers caused by poverty.
Winograd realized there were resources and nonprofits for children already in foster care, but Cobb County was missing an organization that offered wraparound services to families and parents that would help prevent them from being separated from their children in the first place. As a result, she has spent the last few years creating Together for Families, a program that would begin to meet those needs.
“Our families are isolated, and so we want to come around them, and the community can come around them and that’s how the community can keep children safe, in the home, and out of foster care together,” Winograd said.
In April, Together for Families officially opened its resource center and provided Winograd a place to operate outside of her basement, she said. The resource center is in a sunny building with a cozy sitting room filled with books and toys. Homemade cards decorate one side of the wall along with pictures of people who have donated and brought supplies. The back rooms are stocked with any supplies a new parent might need, from diapers to beds to hygiene items to clothes for children all the way up to high school age.
People can donate items from Together for Families’ Amazon wishlist, they can donate money, businesses can run donation drives and companies can even provide services, Winograd said.
In order to qualify for Together for Families’ services, families must currently be in possession of their children since the goal of the program is to prevent family separation. They must be referred to Winograd through DFCS which ensures that the families are meeting DFCS’ requirements, she said.
For example, DFCS might create a safety plan with the parent that requires them to meet certain standards, like finding secure housing, providing a bed for the child or getting rid of roaches, Winograd said.
“So we want to make sure you’re doing what you need to for DFCS, and then you’re doing this part for DFCS, now let us handle poverty,” Winograd said. “Let us handle the poverty portion and self-sufficiency.”
Families who are referred to Together for Families can visit the resource center quarterly or receive a delivery of items they need to build a safe home for their children, Winograd said.
A community coming together
During her time as a CASA worker, Winograd said she was shocked to see how many children were put into foster care because their families were in poverty, not because of intentional neglect or abuse. She said she noticed that if the underlying issues of poverty were met, placing a child into foster care wouldn’t be necessary.
“I saw that this was a problem not just with this one family that I was working with,” Winograd said. “This was a widespread problem. There’s so many families that with some help, they could provide a safe home for their children without the need for the trauma of foster care.”
When Chelcie Griffith, an attorney in the Cobb County juvenile court, saw the passion Winograd had for families like Silveira’s, she offered to give parents who were struggling with poverty Winograd’s number. Her hope was Winograd could help provide them with concrete items they needed to create a safe home for their children as well as outside resources, Winograd said.
It started as a grassroots community effort. Winograd put notices on Facebook about her mission, and her neighbors responded with donations. Her first cash donation came from Together for Families’ current program assistant, Daniel Middleton-Remeika, she said. Other neighbors joined in, like Ingeborg De Brauwer who now volunteers as the resource center and inventory and quality coordinator.
“The reason for the name Together for Families is because that’s really how it started,” Winograd said. “It started with us getting together for the sake of families, to keep families and save families whose children are better served within their families than traumatized and removed from their families.”
What began as a group of neighbors and friends grew as more community members donated money, supplies, resources and time. As Winograd continued helping more families, her friend and president at Merit Financial Advisors, Kay Lynn Mayhue, suggested searching for a way to create a formal program out of it, Mayhue said.
Winograd decided to look for a pre-existing nonprofit to partner with, she said. She discovered Advocates for Children, a nonprofit that provides services to children and families who have been through neglect or abuse, and reached out to the president of Advocates for Children, Rachel Castillo.
“I thought [Together for Families] was very innovative and exciting and that it would enhance Advocates programming,” Castillo said. “Instead of doing a stand alone nonprofit and having to spend a lot of money creating systems and administration and things like that, [Together for Families] came underneath our umbrella so that more of the funds we raise can go to helping families.”
Mayhue served on the board of an adoption and fostering ministry and had seen the firsthand trauma that children experience when they’re removed from their families.
When Mayhue saw the difference that Winograd was making and the group that she had already brought together, she and her husband found an opportunity to financially support Winograd. She offered a generous donation to get the program running, and Winograd was able to officially join with Advocates for Children.
“If we as a community can get behind and meet those parents’ needs that they’re not able to meet themselves, whether that be beds for the kids to sleep on or proper car seats for the kids to be in or food to put on the table…” Mayhue said. “If we could prevent that trauma from that child being removed, it can be a game changer for that one child, and that situation is going to transform the community as well.”
Looking toward the future
In addition to the resource center, Winograd said she plans on launching a parent ally program and a Family Navigator program soon to help parents work toward self-sufficiency.
Winograd said that many families want a higher paid job, or to get a driver’s license or to open a bank account.
“And so that’s what sparked the whole idea of working with families toward self-sufficiency,” Winograd said. “A lot of the families that I worked with initially, just meeting immediate basic needs, we started working with them to make them self-sufficient.”
Additionally, a parent ally program would allow parents who have left the system and moved on to offer other parents help and support.
“Families who successfully navigated will be partnering with families who are navigating it now so that they can be an emotional support to them and provide some guidance to them and give them some hope,” Winograd said.
Winograd and Silveira’s friendship is an example of one of the program’s early successes.
Griffith gave Silveira Winograd’s contact information and urged her to reach out, Silveira said. Their relationship began with Winograd helping Silveira buy her son Legos for Christmas and a Christmas tree to decorate their home, and it grew when Silveira explained to Winograd how alone she felt, she said.
Winograd introduced Silveira to a 12-step support group called Celebrate Recovery. The program introduced her to people who really cared about her recovery process, her story and didn’t judge her, Silveira said. Even now, they still reach out to check up on her and tell her how much they miss her, she said.
“That is the point of the community,” she said. “You have to have a good community. The people around me, they helped me.”
Silveira also started volunteering at the Solidarity Sandy Springs food bank, and Winograd connected her with other Hispanic mothers who she could support and help, Silveira said.
Now, Winograd and Silveira are friends and Silveira recently dropped off a large bag of baby clothes at Winograd’s resource center and some toys her baby no longer plays with.
“[The clothes] are for other people. It is for other moms, it is for other babies,” Silveira said.
Silveira works hard to provide for her two sons and their cat named Panchies, which means hot dog in Uruguayan, she said. Silveira said she doesn’t want to be lumped into the same group as the parents who abandon and abuse their children, and she doesn’t want to be judged for her mistakes.
“These families have been overlooked and marginalized, and when you show them love and compassion, the same love and affection we all deserve, they do so well,” Winograd said. “Children love their parents, they want to be with their parents. And they don’t define their parents by their worst mistake.”