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The Mentor Father

Hilary Kushins
Drug Court and Training Programs Manager,
Dependency Advocacy Center

Summary: The Mentor Parent Program is designed to provide guidance to parents facing drug and alcohol addiction who, as a result, have had their children removed or are at risk of having their children removed by the Department of Family and Children Services.

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Leo had been in and out of jail since 1989 when he was 16 years old, primarily due to drug-related offenses. While in custody, he would commit to getting clean and starting a new life, but every time he was released, he repeated the vicious cycle of drugs and incarceration. While serving time in 2007, Leo was informed by the Santa Clara County Department of Family and Children Services that his four children had been removed from the mother due to her substance abuse and placed in foster care. He spent that day crying in his cell, feeling helpless. On that day, and in that cell, he resolved to stop using. He resolved to begin a new way of life. He resolved to be a father who was available to his children.

Soon after, Leo was transported to court for his first dependency hearing and was appointed an attorney. He remembers his attorney and the judge asking him many questions about paternity. Are you the father? Are you sure? Were you at the hospital when the children were born? Did you sign the birth certificates? Could there be anyone else who is the father? He couldn't understand why everyone was asking him these questions; it almost seemed as if they did not believe he was actually the father. The legal terms thrown around—presumed, alleged, merely biological—caused him to feel as if his right and commitment to be involved in his children’s lives was being questioned.

When Leo was released from custody, he began engaging in his court-ordered services immediately. He volunteered for Drug Dependency Treatment Court (DDTC), a problem-solving, collaborative court process that involves various agencies working together to best support parents in maintaining their sobriety and to reunify with their children. While some attorneys and service providers had their doubts about whether Leo would succeed given his long criminal history, Leo began showing the DDTC team that he was serious about making changes in his life and being a father to his children. With the support of the mother, who was now clean, sober and had reunified with their children, and with the support of the DDTC team, Leo maintained his sobriety, excelled in his court-ordered programs and ultimately joined the mother and their children in the family home.

Leo attributes his success to the encouragement, structure and support of the DDTC team. He says that even when he didn't believe in himself, the team did, and that consistent support was invaluable to his success. Leo notes that the judge's words and their dialogue during the DDTC hearings were particularly powerful and motivating. This experience was very different than all his other past experiences with judges and the judicial system as a whole. Leo felt heard, he felt his actions were praised, and he actually looked forward to coming to court.

Leo graduated DDTC, and ultimately his dependency case was dismissed. He had overcome enormous obstacles and shown all of us that with willingness, with proper support and with the therapeutic model of DDTC, success is possible. Fathers reuniting with their children is possible. Leo is living proof and is truly a success story.

Furthermore, Leo benefitted from having a mentor father in DDTC, which he also attributes to his success. The mentor father is part of the Mentor Parent Program administered by Dependency Advocacy Center (DAC), the nonprofit organization that represents indigent parents in Santa Clara County in their dependency cases. In general terms, the Mentor Parent Program is designed to provide guidance to parents facing drug and alcohol addiction who, as a result, have had their children removed or are at risk of having their children removed by the Department of Family and Children Services. The mentor parents are themselves parents who have had their children removed due to substance abuse problems, entered Dependency Drug Treatment Court to address their problems and have had their children returned to them and their dependency cases dismissed. The Mentor Parent Program is a public-private collaboration administered by DAC and funded primarily through grants from three agencies: Social Services Administration, Department of Alcohol and Drug Services and the Department of Mental Health.

While the Mentor Parent Program was established approximately eight years ago in Santa Clara County, it wasn’t until recently that DAC hired its first mentor father. Prior to 2009, DAC had employed six mentors, all mothers. In January 2009, DAC hired its first mentor father. Following the dismissal of Leo’s case in March 2009, DAC hired Leo as the second mentor father. Both mentor fathers are assigned to fathers in DDTC and family wellness court (FWC), the other problem-solving, therapeutic court focusing on substance-abusing parents with children ages 0-3. The mentor fathers have been a huge success. There has been a significant increase in the number of fathers applying for DDTC, and an increasing number of fathers are actively engaging in FWC as well. The mentor fathers relate to the fathers involved in the dependency system and demonstrate the importance of connecting with others in the recovery community to maintain sobriety. Most importantly, they act as role models for clients, showing them that they too can be clean and sober fathers.

The mentor fathers not only have helped the fathers involved in the dependency system themselves, they open the eyes of judges, attorneys and service providers to the disparity in services that exists for fathers and mothers in our service delivery system. They also challenge our basic beliefs about the role of fathers in the dependency system. These mentors have increased our awareness about the importance of engaging fathers early and often. They challenge us to ask why, unlike the expectations placed on mothers, we are so surprised when a single father participates in services and reunifies with his children. They cause us to question why a residential drug treatment facility exists for women and their young children but not for men and their young children. They have helped us see the need for specific services for men and to identify resources in the community focusing on fathers.

Because of the impact of these mentor fathers, we have begun to develop some resources targeted to men and their children. For example, transitional housing units (THUs), clean and sober homes in the community where individuals can go with their children while participating in outpatient drug treatment services, had only been open to women. If a man needed a THU, he could not go there with children. Last year we opened the doors of one of our THUs to men and their children. It has been an incredible resource for the fathers. This only adds to the involvement of fathers participating in both FWC and DDTC.

The mentor fathers have shown clients and professionals alike the importance of engaging fathers in the dependency system. They continue to raise our awareness and challenge our assumptions. And we are all the better for it.

 

Editor’s Note: The author represents fathers and mothers in Santa Clara County dependency court. She also oversees the Mentor Parent Program. For more information, contact Hilary Kushins or Mentor Program Manager Julia Maestas.

 

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