Birth parents fighting for custody face uphill battle

SEATTLE -- In Washington’s child welfare system, reuniting children with their birth parents is the top priority. Yet according to the state, just half of children taken out of their homes make it back to their parents within two years.

For birth parents, regaining custody is a daunting task.

Alise Hegle and her 9-year-old daughter Rebekah are inseparable, but that wasn’t always the case.

"Giving birth to her and holding her for about 30 seconds and then her automatically being removed from me was the scariest day of my life," Hegle said.

Hegle was facing seven years for crimes she had committed to fuel her meth addiction. When the state ripped Rebekah from her, she was lost.

"I spent that next month wandering the streets of Seattle until literally the bottoms of my feet were gone," she said. "I had no hope."

She got picked up by police for her previous crimes but instead of locking her up for good, one judge gave her the chance to turn her life around.

"I think they could see that in her eyes she had trouble," Rebekah said. "I’m pretty sure they said to her that she has to clean up her life otherwise she can’t be my mommy and I could not imagine that at all."

Hegle completed every court order and at 17 months old, Rebekah came home to her mother.

"When people look at me today, what I hope is that they see the potential," Hegle said.

It's the potential that Alise sees in other birth parents. As a peer mentor for Washington’s Parents For Parents program, she helps other birth parents work through the child welfare system with the unique perspective of having been in their shoes.

"I remember just looking at you like, I don’t trust none of these people, but I trust you," Ashley Albert told Hegle about her time at dependency court.

It was not the first time Albert had seen Hegle. They first met when they were both behind bars.

"People that counted me out said I would never change," Albert said to Hegle. "Because of you and seeing where you’re at today gave me permission to do that."

Albert now works alongside Hegle at Children’s Home Society of Washington, working to expand the Parents For Parents program across the state and the country.

Like Hegle, she’s turned her life around after years of criminal activity. But unlike Hegle, she never got her three kids back.

"I have clothes and teddy bears where I smell their clothes and I sleep with them sometimes," Albert said. "It's almost like somebody died but they're not."

After fighting for custody for years, Albert said her own counsel and the state advised her to avoid trial and sign an open adoption agreement.

"They said, 'If you don't sign this, Ashley, you'll never see your kids again,'" she recalled.

But since she signed that agreement in 2016, she’s been allowed to visit her kids just once. When Albert was still fighting to keep custody, she admits she didn’t think she had the skills to succeed.

"What would have helped you get those skills in that moment?" Q13 News Correspondent Simone Del Rosario asked.

"If someone was looking at me as that child that came out of the system instead of that parent coming into the system," Albert replied.

Yes, Albert is a former foster child herself, a product of loss, trauma and undiagnosed mental health issues.

Her story and countless others highlight the need to provide wraparound services for birth parents and break the cycle. Wraparound combines professional services with a person’s natural support group, like family and community.

"What happens is we're raising up another generation for untreated trauma in children who are going to be parents coming back into the child welfare system losing custody of their kids," Albert said. "So we have to meet them at the level where they're at, we have to give them what they need."

That’s what Parents For Parents aims to do: Wrap around birth parents so they can wrap around their children.

"I can’t imagine my life without her," Hegle said about Rebekah. "She’s just the most precious beautiful human being. I want other families to be able to heal and be loved on."