Katelyn Leroux and Katie Seelen are this year’s interns at Kids First Center. Both in their first year of the University of Southern Maine’s Master of Social Work program, Katelyn and Katie are interning at Kids First for the entire academic year as part of their field education experience. Since August 2021, they have enjoyed learning the ins and outs of Kids First’s programs, helping design and facilitate Kids First for Kids groups, and being part of the impact that the agency has on families experiencing separation and divorce.
As Kids First Center enters 2022, Katelyn and Katie took some time to answer questions about their experiences and how it has informed their social work education. Check out their answers below!
Katelyn: I have always been fascinated by human behavior, society, and the well-being of myself and others. I first pursued a degree in criminal justice to understand and learn how to address deviant behaviors, but quickly learned that this was not the primary focus of a criminal justice degree. So, I started working towards a degree in psychology and was able to learn more about human behavior, but I had already started to learn about the history and realities of the US criminal justice system. I felt like I couldn’t walk away and continued with both degrees. I now realize this inability to walk away from the injustices I learned about in the criminal justice system was a sign I would end up pursuing a profession in social work. After graduating I started working as a behavioral health home care coordinator for a program that serves refugee, asylum-seeking, and immigrant youth and their families. This job exposes me to the many facets of social work, and I love every minute of it. When I thought about how to advance my career within this program, a degree in social work made the most sense. Part of me feels like I’ve always been pursuing social work without really knowing it.
Katie: A lot of factors led me here, but the turning point came when I was studying to become an elementary school teacher and found myself more interested in the students’ lives outside of the classroom - what challenges they faced at home or socially that affected their ability to focus and learn in school. That was the first time it dawned on me that I could support children in a role other than teaching. I first explored working in policy and grantmaking before deciding definitively on social work, particularly wanting to hone my direct service skills and gain a better understanding of the systems affecting vulnerable children and their families. So, here I am!
Katelyn: I looked for field placement opportunities outside of the world of case management due to my current job. When I learned about Kids First Center, I was initially intrigued by the group aspect as I had some group facilitation experience that I wanted to expand upon. After my first meeting with Susan Wiggin, MSW, our social work supervisor, and learning the need for education and support in the area of separation and divorce, I was hooked. I had no idea that so many families had parents who are separated, divorced, or never married. A placement with Kids First Center seemed too valuable to pass up.
Katie: I expressed interest in providing support to children and their families, as well as a desire to intern somewhere that is involved in more macro level systems work. Kids First seemed like a great fit because of its standing in the community and state and its commitment to using innovative and evidence-based best practices when working with families going through separation, divorce, and establishment of parental rights via the court system. I love that I get to simultaneously engage directly with Kids First program participants and gain understanding of systemic/advocacy work.
Katelyn: Separation and divorce looks different for every family, and there is a significant range of experiences. Regardless of the current stage in this process, parents benefit from learning how to create a new relationship as co-parenting partners. The group facilitators emphasize the importance of building a business-like relationship to effectively parent and prioritize the needs of their children. The group facilitators stress to all Kids First participants that the separation or divorce itself is not causing harm to the child, the conflict is. It seems like once parents realize the effects of their separation or divorce on their children, they are able to shift their focus from the conflict within their relationship to doing what is best for the children.
Katie: Every parent/guardian going through this process can only control their own behavior; they cannot control what the other parent does. This idea grounds all of Kids First’s co-parenting teachings, directing parents’ attention away from conflict with their co-parent and toward doing what is best for their children. Even if one’s co-parent is not effectively communicating or trying to engage in conflict, if they have shared parental rights then it is still their responsibility to do the best they can to communicate in a healthy manner centered on their kids’ needs. I have seen how this principle helps parents take a step back from the conflict and re-focus.
Katelyn: While I believe re-establishing roles within the co-parenting partnership is one of the most important parts of this process, it also seems to be very challenging for most families. It makes sense when this level of emotion is involved. I do not have children of my own, nor am I married, but I can see and feel the level of emotion that comes with the need to protect your children in each group participant. As a human being, I can also understand how difficult it is to move on from the past and focus on what is truly important. But this ability to shift the focus away from the past relationship and issues to doing what is best for your child appears to make all the difference.
Katie: There are really so many - I did not fully understand before coming to Kids First what a long, painful process it can be. One that stands out to me is the prohibitive cost of the process. Having good legal representation gets very expensive, having to take time off work and to find child care when in court/mediation, paying a Guardian ad litem, paying for therapy if needed… the list goes on. The compounded stress that the high price causes only worsens the situation. I think programs like those offered to co-parents at Kids First Center are important for so many reasons, but a major one being that participants may be able to reach agreement with their co-parents over parental rights and responsibilities much more quickly than the court process would yield. Expanding Kids First-like programs could benefit so many families who struggle to keep up with the separation/divorce-associated fees.
Katelyn: I agree with Katie, co-facilitating the Kids groups has been my favorite experience. Learning how to navigate group dynamics, planning engaging group sessions, and connecting the group material to the participants’ real-life experiences was challenging and fun. I am excited to run more groups this spring to use this experience to refine our group facilitation skills.
Katie: I have loved co-facilitating the Kids groups with Katelyn - one moment that stuck with me was a youth participant telling us that he loved learning how to meditate as a coping skill for when he experiences stress at home. He was very excited at the end of our time together to take this skill with him to practice on his own. It was a small moment, but it felt really impactful to equip this struggling adolescent with a tool to make him feel calm, safe, and happy when having a hard time with his parents’ divorce. That is exactly the goal of the group and his excitement was so validating for us!
Katelyn: I see myself continuing to work with children in my career. Where there are children, there are parents or guardians who all have different family experiences. Regardless of the work I do, assessing and understanding an individual’s history is essential to social work practice. So, this knowledge of different family dynamics as well as how to support children and their parents in their current stage of separation or divorce will benefit my ability to understand and support any and every client.
Katie: I echo so much of what Katelyn said. This placement has affirmed my love of working with children and their families as a whole unit. I want to become the most effective, inclusive practitioner that I can be when working with whole families that accounts for their unique experiences and dynamics. To add, separation and divorce are such common experiences for families and yet largely remain stigmatized topics that people feel uncomfortable talking about. I think it is a circumstance that will continue to come up in social work no matter what setting and population I work with - even if a family is not actively going through parental separation, understanding the dynamics of parental conflict and tools for conflict resolution/healthy communication will be helpful in a variety of contexts.
Katelyn: I am enjoying conducting intakes for the Intensive Co-Parenting Education (ICOPE) program. I am interested to see the progress of the co-parenting partnerships in the current session. This program requires a different type of group facilitation skills than the kids group, so the opportunity to observe this program is appreciated.
Katie: I am looking forward to observing the Intensive Co-Parenting Education (ICOPE) program in its entirety. We are halfway through a program and to see the huge strides that co-parents make in healthy communication is remarkable. The facilitators are so amazing at what they do - I have a lot to learn from them!
If you have questions about or would like to enroll your kids in the Kids First for Kids! Program, please reach out to Katelyn and Katie by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or calling Kids First at (207) 761-2709.
“I learned how important our behavior (verbal and non-verbal) is, and how it impacts our children. How I can rise above all issues, and just focus on my babies.”
“What I learned was that the best thing I can do for my kids is to say something good about their other parent!”
“I appreciated the focus on how many different relationships my/our kids are dealing with.”
“I learned I am in control of my behavior; I can’t control my co-parent!”
“I received validation; it helped to know that I’m not alone. I appreciated the section on preparing for court – that is coming up soon and I am scared.”