Understanding parent-to-parent advocacy, peer support, and family advocacy

Above: an ATD capacity-building session for activists with lived experience of poverty. Tammy Mayes is fourth from the right, wearing yellow.

‘There’s a big difference between parent-to-parent advocacy and peer support.’

– Tammy Mayes, ATD activist

Four times a year, ATD runs regular residential sessions for senior activists with lived experience of poverty. These sessions are part of the inclusive governance approach of our Giving Poverty a Voice programme. The above remark by Tammy led us to focus one of these sessions on defining the differences between:

  • parent-to-parent advocacy
  • family advocacy
  • informal peer support
  • and non-formal peer support.

Forms of advocacy

According to Mind, advocacy means “getting support from another person to help you express your views and wishes, and help you stand up for your rights”. The person who supports you in this way is called an advocate. Having someone there to be that extra set of ears — listening to your conflicts, concerns, and inner thoughts — ensures that you have the best chance of standing up to injustice. It enables people who might feel unable to speak up  to develop their voice and be heard.

There are different types of advocacy and support, each powerful in its own right.

Parent-to-parent advocacy

This kind of advocacy is a formal arrangement supported by local authorities who recruit parents who have interacted with Children’s Social Care and who later receive referrals to support other parents going through similar situations.

Nikki Hewson is an ATD activist who spent five years as an unpaid parent-to-parent advocate for Lewisham Council in London. She says:

“As someone who has been through the system myself, I can offer sympathy and empathy to parents. Professionals have not been through the system in the same way. I can tell parents that I’ve been through the system and come out the other side.”

​​Some local authorities offer training to parents with lived experience of children’s services so that they can provide support and solace to other families going through care proceedings. These parents can use their knowledge and understanding to inform parents of their rights, educate them about the child welfare system, and guide them to the right resources. Overall, they are perfectly placed to provide meaningful, experience-based moral support.

Nikki adds: “Another part of my role as an advocate is meeting with parents before and after they meet with professionals. I might visit them at home, or in a cafe so they can feel more relaxed. I make a list with them to write down everything they want to remember to say in the case conference so they won’t forget in the heat of the moment. And if they’ve received an official letter, we can read it together to make sure they understand it and have a chance to talk it over. The professionals who chair case conferences have always said that things go better when parents have a parent-to-parent advocate.”

An infrastructure to support parent-to-parent advocacy

Although some councils provide training, most do not pay advocates or offer them support for secondary trauma. This is something that needs to change. PFAN (the Parents Families and Allies Network) states: “research shows that well-designed parent advocacy programs can: reduce maltreatment; help parents to engage effectively with the judicial and child protection processes; reduce entry to care; increase the speed of reunification;  help parents to overcome alcohol and substance use problems; and be instrumental in changing the culture and approach of the child protection system itself”. To ensure advocates can effectively deliver these benefits to families, they need to be adequately remunerated and supported.

To learn more about Nikki’s experience, please click here. Camden Council runs a parent-led Family Advisory Board that has an ethos similar to Nikki’s. To learn more about FAB, please click here.

In this interview, the director of children’s services in New York City gives examples of why he thinks parent-to-parent advocacy is important. He adds: “A public child welfare agency needs to be more conceived of, and staffed by, and led by the people it exists to serve. It needs to provide the kind of services that more affluent people can access easily and take for granted. If I have material wealth and I’m connected to people in power, I can enter the Betty Ford Clinic; I can hire a nanny; I can send a child to boarding school; I can access quality psychiatric care. Those are the things that need to be more accessible to people with less, money, power and influence. One way to do that is to put people with that kind of life experience in charge of public agencies.”

Family advocacy

Family advocacy is when an organisation supports and works alongside a family to look for the root causes of a situation.

Andrew Hayes, a member of ATD UK’s core team, explains: “Sometimes, families come to ATD saying ‘I’m in a mess, can you help me?’ It can be helping people fill in forms, accompany them to meetings, working out how much they need to pay to pay off debts (budgeting), etc.”

Part of ATD’s ethos behind family advocacy is to focus on the positive steps taken by a family that are often overlooked by others, as well to engage in non-judgemental problem solving.

Murielle Double, who is part of the support group for ATD’s National Coordination Team, says that when she attends a meeting with professionals she is sometimes “the only one who has something positive to say about the family, whereas [the others only see] the family as ‘not engaging with rent’, etc”.  As a family advocate, Murielle can highlight the unseen.

Working together with an advocate from an organisation provides families with additional support on certain issues. It is also beneficial for professionals interacting with the same families who may learn something along the way too. Murielle adds: “lots of professionals come to work with the family based only on their own expertise; but there is no intersection, no good communication”. Family advocacy can act as an avenue towards fair and effective communication. It assists people through a holistic, non-judgemental approach. Trust is built, as problems are solved collaboratively.

Peer support                                        

Lived experience activists enjoy the grounds of Frimhurst Family House during a residential session.

People living in poverty regularly offer one another informal peer support. This happens naturally when friends meet up for a chat over a pint or a cup of coffee. The late Moraene Roberts, a long-time ATD activist, used to say to parents who had recently lost a child into social care:

“At 3 am, if you dreamt the baby was crying but then woke up to remember that the baby is gone, you can phone me. I’ll always answer your call because I remember how wrenching that feels.”

Non-formal peer support is just as natural, but it takes place in a context that has been organised to promote positive relationships. One of ATD’s key aims is to strengthen the network of support of families and individuals in poverty so that they do not feel isolated in times of crisis. We bring people together for ‘Cuppa Chats’, well-being activities or outings, and also for residential sessions that take place in Surrey at Frimhurst Family House, where we offer respite from poverty, discrimination and social exclusion.

Both advocacy and peer support are invaluable

Both of these tools help people to develop a different outlook to and feel that there is light at the end of the tunnel. By providing confidential and caring spaces for people to let out emotion, advocacy and peer support open gateways to discover one’s own solutions.

Both parent-to-parent advocates and family advocates perform an invaluable service in providing additional support to people facing difficult circumstances. Their lived and learned experience allows them to uniquely understand the position of those they advocate on behalf of; and it is of utmost importance that their expertise and skill is valued.

Ultimately, sometimes people feel they lack the power to have their voice heard. However, through different modes of advocacy — as their opinions are respected and listened to — they can find their voice. Humanity has a natural need for community and belonging, and advocacy ensures this in moments of vulnerability. Everyone has an inner strength. but sometimes people need a bit of extra support to allow that strength to shine through.