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Breaking a cycle of generational trauma: Swimming Upstream

caption: Sean holds Vay, 5, as they wait for the school bus on the first day of school on Monday, September 12, 2022, outside of their apartment complex in Lynnwood.
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Sean holds Vay, 5, as they wait for the school bus on the first day of school on Monday, September 12, 2022, outside of their apartment complex in Lynnwood.
KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

A couple temporarily lost custody of their daughter after sinking deep into drug addiction. But an unanticipated event prompted them to turn things around.

This is Part 2 of KUOW's three-part series, "Swimming Upstream." This collection of stories details the mental health-focused journey of one Seattle-area family through crisis. KUOW is not using the shared last name of the father and children, to protect the children's identities.


ynnwood couple Tynikki Arnold and Sean became parents to their two children without much of a roadmap, if any.

Now, they’re working to break the intergenerational cycles of trauma that scarred their childhoods and seeped into adulthood.

Tynikki says she spent her early years living with a grandmother and sometimes with an aunt, due to instability in her family. She describes none of those homes as happy ones for her, but she asked to keep the details private to avoid any new stress with her parents.

She first tried heroin in her teens.

Tynikki keeps her mom at a distance, but she’s buoyed by a recent reconnection with her dad.

“He was really disappointed in me, and he closed me out of his life,” she says. They reconnected when she graduated from drug treatment last year, and for the first time in a decade, Tynikki heard her father say that he’s proud of her. It brought her to tears.

Sean, on the other hand, calls himself a mama’s boy. They tend to talk on the phone daily, and she often helps out with her grandkids or other family support. She’s “mom” to Tynikki, too. Growing up, Sean says his mom raised him and his two older brothers alone, often working several jobs. “She was never there,” he recalls. “I give it to women who can do that, raise three kids alone. But that seems impossible.”

Home with his brothers, he remembers seeing people shoot up or overdose on the couch at their home in Granite Falls, a small town about an hour north of Seattle. Sean refers to it as “the meth capital of the world at the time.” He's careful to say his mom is not to blame; they hid the drug use from her.

For Sean, the drugs started painfully young: meth at age 10. When he and Tynikki met, he says he’d stayed clean for more than a decade until the relapse that derailed them both in 2019, when their daughter Vay was nearly two.

For Tynikki and Sean now, they view certain friends and family members as unsafe for them to be around — they can tell someone is using by how they behave, or by a familiar, burnt smell. It’s a trigger. And Sean, at least, doesn’t trust himself — not yet.

“It’s everywhere,” Sean says, motioning toward the shopping complex next door. “You're never out of danger.”

“Oh it scares me on a daily basis,” Tynikki chimes in. But now, she’s got a strategy to get through any big fears or stresses: she’ll call or text someone on her support team and tell them “I need you.” It’s often enough just to know someone is listening.

Swimming Upstream: a three-part series

‘We lost everything’

Before Vay was born, in Tynikki and Sean’s early years together, they loved spending time outdoors camping and fishing. They lived in Everett and sold vacuum cleaners door to door together as a team. And they helped each other stay clean, until they didn’t.

When Vay was about 18 months old, the addiction started again and moved swiftly to fentanyl pills. Eventually, they lived with Vay in a “trap house” apartment where other drug users would come to get high. They convinced themselves that they could keep Vay at a safe distance — the drugs would never be in the same room as her.

caption: Vay, 5, rides a scooter on Friday, July 15, 2022, outside of the family's apartment complex.
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Vay, 5, rides a scooter on Friday, July 15, 2022, outside of the family's apartment complex.
KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Their last hours in that apartment hit like a thunderstorm, in September 2019, when Vay was about 2.5 years old. Tynikki says a woman who was supposed to be watching Vay locked herself in the bathroom with the girl. When Tynikki broke through the door, she says she found them in a bath together, Vay crying, and a meth pipe nearby.

Tynikki pulled her daughter away and placed her in the bedroom with Sean.

Then, Tynikki’s fight came out, fueled by fear and suspicion of what happened behind that locked door. The woman was left with a swollen black eye and bruises. Tynikki was later charged with fourth degree assault, but the case was eventually dismissed.

The police response to that incident kicked off a rapid spiral. Child Protective Services placed Vay in a foster home, where she stayed for a few months before landing with Tynikki’s sister. For Vay, through this time, the risk of harm from toxic stress or adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) ticked up. Foster care or separation from a parent is often counted as an ACE. Living with parents who have substance use disorders is also an ACE.

RELATED: Reporter's notebook: tending to childhood scars in a pandemic, both old and new

Soon after the fight, Sean and Tynikki were evicted and homeless. Through the next year, they slept under a bridge, in the woods, and behind a pizza restaurant. They were allowed supervised visits with Vay until a court case could ultimately decide their parenting rights. “I finally hit rock bottom, I lost everything,” Tynikki says. “My world was gone.”

You lose everything when you’re using, Sean adds — “your life, your family, your freedom.”

They saw themselves as failures, an image they say was often reinforced by how others treated them — both on the street when people passed with negative looks and comments, and also when they interacted with certain family, or social and child welfare workers. They still looked forward to visits with Vay, but Tynikki remembers how some people involved in their custody case would speak down to them, or dismiss them as if they’d already lost.

They saw no way to turn things around, until a social worker named Lisa Beck tracked them down. Beck works for the Washington State Office of Public Defense and assists poor or indigent families in custody cases.

It caught Beck’s notice that even in active addiction, Tynikki and Sean kept showing up for the supervised visits with Vay.

“I got to see her react to them, and I got to see the love and bond that they had with their daughter, and I'm like, okay, they deserve the chance and the opportunity to be there,” Beck recalled. “Let's figure out what's causing their addiction…most of the time, it's mental health, or it's something else behind it.” Beck kept showing up, too, slowly building trust with Tynikki and Sean and proposing options ahead with the court case or drug treatment.

RELATED: For moms in recovery, these home visitors offer a lifeline

After about a year on the streets, their world turned. Tynikki discovered she was pregnant and told Beck she was ready. Beck recalls Tynikki saying to her, “You told me you'd pave the way for me. I'm ready to go get clean. I want my baby.”

This next child's name, Messiah, was also no accident. His arrival helped them save themselves, and their family.

“For Tynikki, I think she's shown everybody wrong,” Beck said. “She was finally given a chance, and she finally had her team behind her…and she just blossomed in front of us. “I get goose bumps and I could cry. If I could just have shown you who they were when I first met them compared to who they are now, it is just night and day.”

caption: Tynikki Arnold hugs Cheryl Bruno, parent ally mentor at YWCA Seattle-King-Snohomish, at the Homeward House on Friday, September 23, 2022, in Everett.
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Tynikki Arnold hugs Cheryl Bruno, parent ally mentor at YWCA Seattle-King-Snohomish, at the Homeward House on Friday, September 23, 2022, in Everett.
KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

A sober family

Lisa Beck, the social worker from the Washington State Office of Public Defense, who saw a chance for Vay to reunite with her parents;

Cheryl Bruno, a YWCA parent ally mentor who’s been on Tynikki’s same road to sobriety and through the child welfare system;

Toni Gardner, case manager with the three-year home visiting program, Parent-Child Assistance Program;

These three women form the pillars of a support network now for Tynikki and her family — a network that pieced together during crisis. When Tynikki was ready to get clean, Beck and Gardner tackled systemic obstacles, like advocating for them at court or finding drug treatment facilities for both parents. Bruno offered steady guidance, as a mom who’s more than 15 years clean.

The Parent-Child Assistance Program provides the scaffolding for Tynikki to recover the pieces of her life, and perhaps one eye-opening piece of Tynikki’s story, is the expansive time and devotion it takes to level the ground beneath her again. Also eye-opening is the sheer fact that she’s got this opportunity before her — that Gardner is with her for intensive case management for up to three years, as the family rebuilds.

The Parent-Child Assistance Program was developed at the University of Washington in the early 1990s, based on earlier research with mothers who had used cocaine during pregnancy.

In a two-pronged approach, case managers work with community partners, like Bruno and Beck, to address any barriers to basic needs, including housing, childcare, parent education, mental health counseling, and other services. The second prong is to work directly with the parents to help them build the skills to manage their lives and become independent.

The program’s description online sums up a foundational and guiding insight:

“Dr. Therese Grant, a member of the research team, believed that some of the most important lessons were those learned in conversations with the mothers. She heard stories of deeply ingrained family dysfunction that were ‘just the way it is’ for the mothers. The women talked about how they wanted to be good moms, but they were instead giving their babies the same kind of upbringing they had experienced as children. They didn’t know any other way.”

Nearly all of the mothers enrolled in the Parent-Child Assistance Program also grew up with a parent who abused drugs or alcohol, and a majority of them experienced abuse or neglect. Now, their own children are at increased risk for trauma, toxic stress, adversity, and repeating this intergenerational cycle.

“[The Parent-Child Assistance Program] really exists to help mothers achieve and maintain recovery and avoid having any future children exposed to drugs or alcohol prenatally,” said Susan Stoner, Director of the Washington PCAP program and a research associate professor in the University of Washington Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences.

The Parent-Child Assistance Program intervention model shows clear outcomes — from 2015 to 2021, 88% of mothers who exited the program had completed or were in progress with drug or alcohol treatment, and only 10% had a subsequent alcohol- or drug-exposed infant within three years. The majority of mothers also advance their education, retain or regain legal custody of their child, and obtain well-child care, according to a 2021 report Stoner provided to state funders.

The program currently has capacity for 1,463 clients across Washington, and Stoner sees mounting evidence for a need to scale up resources like this one. “Opioid overdoses have increased sharply with the increasing prevalence of fentanyl, not only as an adulterant in street drugs, but also now as a sought after drug of choice,” Stoner said.

More than 2,000 people in Washington died from drug overdoses in 2021 — a 66% increase from 2019, according to state data. In the state’s child welfare system, intakes of newborns affected by substance abuse have more than tripled in the past decade, up to nearly 1,000 a year in 2020.

caption: Toni Gardner, lead case manager for Sound Pathways, at her office on Friday, September 23, 2022, in Everett.
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Toni Gardner, lead case manager for Sound Pathways, at her office on Friday, September 23, 2022, in Everett.
KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

As for the Parent-Child Assistance Program demand, Stoner shared this note from staff at the Snohomish County program, where Tynikki's case manager Toni Gardner works: "We are way over on a waiting list and cannot keep up with demand. [It] is very disheartening to know that we have to put someone off, who we will probably not be able to find in a couple of months when a space may open.”

Most of the program's $10 million annual budget comes from federal and state funding, and studies show millions in cost savings down the line. That includes fewer infants born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, which alone has an estimated lifetime cost of $2 million for each child.

During Tynikki’s first year in the program and in recovery, she leaned heavily on Gardner and the rest of her support team. In this time, Tynikki transitioned from inpatient to outpatient drug treatment, gave birth to Messiah who was born with health complications that required surgery and feeding tubes, moved with her baby to a shelter for homeless mothers, then eventually settled in her transitional housing at a YWCA apartment. Following this progress, the court allowed Tynikki to bring Vay home after their nearly two years apart.

In the early months, Gardner recalled spending roughly 20 hours per week with Tynikki, including a daily stream of texts and phone calls. By the middle of year two, the visits wound down to maybe one hour per week. But Tynikki likes to keep up the habit of pinging Gardner’s phone with photos of the kids in pajamas, a healthy dinner she prepared, or fancy braids and buns she fashions in Vay’s hair.

caption: Vay, 5, and Messiah, 1, in their family's room at Motel 6 following a fire that tore through their apartment complex, on Friday, August 26, 2022.
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Vay, 5, and Messiah, 1, in their family's room at Motel 6 following a fire that tore through their apartment complex, on Friday, August 26, 2022.
KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Initially, Sean mostly moved in stride through the same recovery program, but when Tynikki got into housing, it came with restrictions. So Sean spent the days with her and the kids, and nights often sleeping in his car. And he faltered. His relapse was brief, then he started over again. Six months into his recovery, in July, he was cleared to move into the YWCA apartment with his family.

It will be the first time Sean, Tynikki and their two young children make a home together, under one roof.

Read the next story in KUOW's "Swimming Upstream" series.

Liz Jones is a 2021-22 fellow with the Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism. This story is part of a project focused on solutions for childhood adversity and trauma connected to the Covid-19 pandemic. If you have a story you’d like to share, please email her at

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