Season 2 / Episode 2
A Pivotal Moment For Parent Allyship with Gina WassemillerInsight on the impact of a legal clinic providing support and parent allyship for mothers at risk of being separated from their children.
As a parent who experienced the removal of her children as a result of her substance use disorder, Gina Wassemiller is familiar with the struggles of mothers at risk of intervention from Child Protective Services. Gina shares the importance of her work at F.I.R.S.T. Legal Clinic in helping mothers stay united with their newborns through parent allyship and legal advocacy.
Gina talks about her source of passion for her work. Gina and Matt dig into her background as a parent experiencing substance use disorder, domestic violence, and the removal of her children., and talk about the dichotomies of addiction.
“This is the reality of people suffering from substance use disorder. On the one hand, part of them does want to be with their families and participating in relationships. On the other hand, the way addiction works is that eventually using is really no longer a choice,” says Matt.
Despite her addiction and the separation from her children, Gina says “I never stopped loving my children.”
Gina explains the difficulty of asking for help while engulfed in addiction despite experiencing the removal of her children and other consequences of addiction.
In September 2009, Gina opened to her family about her addiction and began the journey to recovery.
As a parent ally at the F.I.R.S.T. Legal Clinic Gina engages pregnant women and mothers of newborns with substance use disorder at risk of CPS intervention. She connects with them through her experiences and offers medical and legal services to help them overcome their struggles and prevent removal of their babies.
Gina shares that the “opportunity for them to stay with their baby and not be separated is such a powerful and life-changing moment for those moms.”
Matt says “often the best way to reach a parent who is suffering from substance use disorder is to have another parent who has been in their position to join with them. And the whole idea of the F.I.R.S.T. Legal Clinic is just that.”
Matt shares his thoughts on a lesson for the system:
“[When we] approach a mother with judgment, we reinforce the shame and the guilt that she already has. What we need to do is start from a place of compassion and seek to understand what may have happened that led this mother to this. If we do that, I believe we have a better chance at avoiding separation.”
Gina and Matt give insight on leveraging compassion to help parents turn their fear of losing parental rights into hope. Gina also talks about the shame and guilt many mothers feel during this time in their lives.
Gina reflects on her journey as a parent and how important it would’ve meant to have someone like herself in her life early on.
Matt shares final thoughts.
- F.I.R.S.T. Legal Clinic
- Reunification Heroes: Gina Wassemiller | American Bar Association
- Birth Parent National Network | Children's Trust Fund Alliance
- Supporting Early Legal Advocacy before Court Involvement in Child Welfare Cases
- Resources for Families Coping with Mental and Substance Use Disorders
Matt: Hey everybody. This is Matt Anderson. And welcome to another episode of Seen Out Loud. This is the podcast where we bring you stories and conversations that recognize child welfare transformation starts by seeing families for who they truly are. So recently the Institute for Family produced a documentary film called Being Gina with Gina Wassemiller. And as we were putting that film together, I got to know Gina a little bit. And I learned about the work that she does at the First Legal Clinic in Washington state. So essentially the First Legal Clinic works with young mothers who are suffering from substance use disorder, and they have this goal of preventing removal of the child and supporting the mother and her desire to parent.
But before we get into how the First Legal Clinic does what it does. I want to introduce you to Gina, because she was one of those mothers who needed this kind of support. And her story is at the heart of why this approach is so important.
Gina: I always show up as the person that I wish I would have had. I feel like I was just a case number. Like nobody ever came to find me and see what was happening. And so I feel like I fell through the cracks. I do this work every day. So these moms don’t fall through a crack like I did, and end up in a deeper, darker addiction without rights to my child.
My methaddiction was 11 years. I was going to school at the time. So I used to do it just on the weekends. And then that grew into not being able to go the whole week without it, you know, like addiction, it just keeps manifesting into more until life becomes completely unmanageable.
Matt: And you were a parent at that time?
Gina: Yes, I was a parent when I started.
Matt: So Gina has three children and she eventually lost custody of all of them while she was in active addiction. When her first son was born, her parents stepped in and they helped to raise him. And when her second child was born, child protective services did get involved, but she told me even during that time, she really wanted to be a better mother.
Gina: I never stopped loving my children. And I never stopped thinking about my children. Like when I was in active use, I, you know, would get them gifts and stuff. Like I was going to go to Christmas and I would buy gifts and I would never make it there to actually hand them to them and watch them open them.
I was always high, so I didn’t have to feel it and really feel where my life is. You know was, and what I had become,
Matt: This is the reality of people suffering from substance use disorder. On the one hand, part of them does want to be with their families and participating in relationships. On the other hand, the way addiction works is that eventually using is really no longer a choice.
And I think for those of us working inside the system, we tend to approach people suffering from addiction. With a lot of judgment and we can actually create a lot of shame. So as Gina’s, addiction worsened, her life grew more and more chaotic. Her husband at the time was a drug dealer, the domestic abuser, and they had frequent run-ins with law enforcement.
And Gina told me that when she was pregnant with our third child, her daughter, the cops seemed to be on her doorstep all the time.
Gina: We were raided six weeks in a row and nothing was stopping. It just continued. And when I think back and I look at that time of my life, and I think here I am pregnant, and I’m going through these drug raids. Like, none of that was enough for me. Like stop.
Matt: Why not? Do you think, because there’s so much happening over these years, right? Just in, in your life and around you, but also you as a mom and two of your kids are not with you and you have your daughter on the way, but the use continues. How does somebody that doesn’t understand addiction really understand what’s happening?
How does this continue to carry on. In light of all of these consequences that are happening because of your use. How do you make sense of that? As you look back on it?
Gina: I’m having a moment of clarity when you asked that and I’ll tell ya, growing up, everything was so put together for me, everything matched, everything was, you know, ribbons in my hair with the ruffles on my socks, that matched, like everything was always so put together in addiction.
Everything’s really ugly and messy. So why not? Probably because not everything looked okay. Like I was raised, it was supposed to look. And so it was easier to stay in a messy place than ask for help because I was supposed to have everything together. And so when my life wasn’t together, I didn’t know how to ask for help.
Matt: One night soon after her third child, her daughter was born. Gina’s father met her outside of her apartment.
Gina: And I think about my dad. He was always somebody that I could talk to that could understand. And you know, it was September, 2009. And I looked at my dad and he said, I’m here to do a welfare check on Dorina because you’re not going to put her through what you’ve put your other kids through. And it was the first time that anybody in my family, and it was my dad, tell him I’m using methamphetamines and I need to stop that.
I need to go to treat. I felt like this huge weight had been lifted. Like I finally told my truth and he looked at me and he said, okay, you need to get in treatment. And you’re going to get the help that you want. Like, that was like just a piece of surrender and willingness that I hadn’t had.
Matt: Wow. What was the, what was the truth that you referenced in that moment?
Gina: In that moment? The truth is I could finally use my voice and speak where my life was and what I needed to get the help that I needed to turn my life around.
Matt: It sounds to me like in that moment, you were willing to say, I don’t have it all together. I’m not perfect. It’s not the bows and the hair matching the. It’s all of this that’s been going on for so many years and it’s time to, to be seen for that and accept it on some level and say, I need help. And I’m open to help.
Gina: I agree. I was finally seen.
Matt: Gina did get help. Then she’s been sober now for several years today.She’s an important figure in the parent ally movement, which brings us to our current work with the First Legal Clinic.
Gina: So I’m the parent ally at the First Legal Clinic in, I get to work with a couple of different populations of moms. One of my roles is working with pregnant moms. I get to call moms that are pregnant and in a place that I wish I would have gotten that phone call.
And I get to call them and share a little bit about my story and then ask them if they’re interested in doing an intake and, you know, having an attorney that will be along the side of them, as well as me as their parent ally, to help them engage in services or if they need, or just help them overcome the struggles that they’re having.
The other population that I work with. Oh, it’s so dear to my heart, there’s a mom, that’s just given birth at the hospital and they want to enroll in the First Legal Clinic program. And so often times they meet with their attorney first. And then I come in afterwards.
I love those moments walking into the hospital room oftentimes right, where they’ve given birth and coming in, as they’re holding their babies. And explaining who I am and what my role is, and just, um, witnessing those moms in those moments when their postures up and they have some hope and they know that they’re not alone and that there is opportunity for them to stay with their baby and not be separated is such a powerful and life-changing moment. For those moms.
Matt: So I just want to linger on this for a moment. You know, addiction is a difficult thing to understand. It can be maddening to see somebody destroying themselves, their relationships hurting people they care about. But I think often the best way to reach a parent who is suffering from substance use. Is to have another parent who’s been in their position to join with them.
And the whole idea of the First Clinic is just that perhaps there’s a moment when someone like Gina has a unique opportunity to help a mother parent her child. This is where I think we as a system have a lot to learn. What we have to learn is that when we approach a mother with judgment, we reinforce the shame and the guilt that she already has.
Which I think makes it far less likely that we’re actually going to be helpful. What we need to do is start from a place of compassion and seek to understand what may have happened that led this mother to this. If we do that, I believe we have a better chance at avoiding a separation.
Gina: So oftentimes, you know, these moms that I’m working with when they’re in the hospital, they don’t have any supports.
And if they do have supports, usually those supports are an active addiction themselves. So I feel like that weight that I walk into and that I witnessed. It’s like the weight of the world and fear just sitting on these mom’s shoulders.
Matt:What is the fear?
The fear that these moms have is that they’re not going to be able to have their baby and that they’re going to lose their baby. And CPS is going to take their baby. A lot of these moms have an opioid addiction. It’s not like they can just go without anything without being sick. They don’t know how to ask for that help. We have to teach them how to ask for that help and how to get those resources. They know how to get the stuff on the streets. And being in that room and giving them, you know, a clearer picture of how I can help them. Kind of just uplifts that fear and changes it into hope and support.
Matt: So the moms that you all are working with, right. Just to kind of recap that a little bit. So these are moms that are pregnant and using substances or their moms who’ve just recently given birth and their child is substance exposed or a test positive at birth, I suppose.
Then, of course as really should be, I guess. Um, now there’s the potential of CPS removing that child from the mom at birth. That’s what could happen. Right? It’s possible that CPS gets involved at that moment of the report and they could remove that child, that infant. Placed them in foster care, separate from the mom.
And then the mom has left sort of to her own devices to figure out what to have happen. Right? So that’s a, that’s a scenario, but what you all are doing, the first legal clinic is stepping in at the moment that you can have that first meeting with a mom who’s pregnant or just given birth. And now you’re going to be this, this ally as opposed to a case manager, but also the attorney gets involved as well.
Is that right?
Matt: And for me, this is where the lesson really lands. This is what’s possible. When we approach people who are suffering from substance use disorder with compassion, the first legal clinic really builds on that fundamental principle and the success hinges on having someone like Gina with lived experience.
Gina: I think a lot of these moms feel a lot of guilt and shame holding their babies. You know, when they’ve just given birth in their mind, they’re thinking about how their addiction has put them in this place. And now where their, where their child is. Because of it I think we’re probably holding a lot of their shame and guilt for them at that moment and holding their path and they just have to suit up and show up for where we’re leading them to.
Matt: It’s a tenuous moment, right? And this, this mom is sitting in a position where, you know, they could go in and either, cause it is fight or flight, I think that’s, I think about that a lot. And so they’re in this spot of, okay, where do I, where do I go? What do I do with all of this? Right. And what I’m hearing you describe about how the First Legal clinic approaches. The work is, you know, let’s, let’s start from a place of trust-based relationship based approach, right? And that’s you coming alongside and saying, here’s who I am. Here’s where I’ve been. Here’s how I can help you. You’re seeing the wholeness of this person. And coming from a place of strength and trust.
And I dunno if that all makes sense to you, but to me, that’s what I’m hearing in all of this, that then creates the opportunity for the next steps to happen first for a mom to kind of move in a, in a direction where she can start heal to recover to parent ultimately.
Gina: Right. And I really believe that, you know, when we’re talking about building trust with these moms, because of course these moms, haven’t trusted, you know, people outside of their, their own selves for a while. And so letting somebody in at that most vulnerable moment, that’s why I really feel that the attorney word is really a safe place for these moms to share.
Matt: And so can you just say a little bit more specifically, like, what is the attorney actually doing? Like, like the goal is to keep mom and baby together, right? What is the attorney actually doing?
Gina: So the First Legal Clinic is a prevention program. If there’s any court involvement or a petition is filed. Our program is no longer, you know, working with this mom. So we are all prevention, so we’re not representing them in any court structure. Like this attorney does not go to court for them after a petition has been filed.
Once the department says that they’re filing First Clinic stops.
Matt: The attorney is supporting this mom to prevent a petition being filed. Where then the child welfare system starts to get involved. And so you’re, you’re helping to prevent that from happening so that you can really just focus on keeping mom and baby together.
Matt: Right out of a pre-filing situation.
Okay. So. When CPS does come, they’ll have an attorney that will be with them during that first initial interview with a CPS social worker and they’ll have me by their side. And oftentimes during that time we’re building, what’s called a social bio. So we’re building up a notebook showing, you know, all their clean UA’s, their OBGYN appointments.
Their First Clinic support, group participation, you know, just building their journey and their resume of their pregnancy. And so when they go into the hospital, they have this binder showing, you know, whoever may come in, “Hey, this is what I’ve been doing. And this is where I’m at today.” And. You know, it’s so rewarding on Friday afternoons at three o’clock in the First Legal Clinic support group with these moms that have had the opportunity to leave the hospital with their babies. And now their babies are two years old and one years old and, and seeing these little babies and these moms connecting and, you know, their children growing up together, it’s creating such an amazing impact for these moms and babies. And just the hope and glow that these moms have and how happy their babies are. Just fills our cup every Friday to continue the work that we’re doing
Matt: Today, Gina is active and involved in the lives of her children. Her oldest son is 27 years old. Her second son was adopted by her in-laws and her teenage daughter is still living with her. So I asked her to reflect on all that she’s been through.
Gina: Today when I think about my addiction, I think about all the lost time that I missed out on parenting my children and being a present mother in each of their lives, you know, that I come out of it with some happiness and joy in my thoughts because I am a present mom today in my children’s life. I am a present member in my families life.
I do this work every day. So these moms don’t fall through a crack like I did, and end up in a deeper, darker addiction. Without rights to my child. And I don’t know where life would have been if I would had somebody like me, but I can say that I deserved to have somebody like me during that time in my life and I didn’t.
Matt: You did deserve to have somebody like. And you are worth it. You had to go through what you went through. The reality of life is we don’t get to undo the past, but here we are. Right. And here you are giving this gift to so many other moms and making a real difference in people’s lives, in a place where most people don’t want to go.
And we need people to go there. These moms need people to go there and you are well-prepared to be that person. And so I just, I just thank you for doing that work and for sharing it with our audience and hopefully inspiring others to do more of the same. So thank you.
Gina: Thank you. This has truly been an honor and my wish, hope and dream is that somebody hears this, that it will help them have a successful outcome and a change in their own life.
Matt: That’s it for today’s episode. And before we wrap up, let me kick it over to Isaiah for some end credits.
Isaiah Strozier: Thanks, guys for tuning into todays podcast. You guys can watch Gina’s documentary film “Being Gina” by visiting our website at SeenOutLoud.com or by clicking the link in the show notes. This episode was made possible because we have team. Our Executive Producer is Michael Osborne, mixing and mastering bu Ean Herrera and sound designed by Morgan Honaker. Our composer is Christian Haigus and our creative team mebers are April Dillon and Candice Kearse. I’m Isaiah Strozier and I just want to say thank you so much for tuning into todays episode, and i will see you guys on the next one.
Featured short film: "Being Gina"
Gina Wassemiller is a mother of three and a passionate parent ally. In the short film “Being Gina” she shares her evolution from being a parent struggling with substance use disorder, abuse and losing her children to now being a leader at the F.I.R.S.T. Legal Clinic (Family Intervention Response to Stop Trauma), an organization that supports new mothers experiencing substance use challenges with legal advocacy and other services to prevent CPS removals. Gina is also a contracted Social Service Specialist with the Office of Public Defense Parent Representation Program. Gina has been actively involved in local and national organizations and support groups, including Snohomish County Parent Ally Committee, Washington State Parent Ally Committee, and Birth Parent National network.