Innovative Peer Mentoring Program Supports Success for Parents in Recovery

Annalisa Chung AnnaLisa Chung, Executive Director, Dependency Advocacy Center, San Jose, CA

Summary: The author shares a lesson learned during the early days of the Santa Clara County Dependency Drug Treatment Court—peer mentoring works. A Mother Mentor program evolved into the Mentor Parent Program which is administered by the Dependency Advocacy Center and has proven to play an important role in parental advocacy and outcomes.


In 1998, Santa Clara County established one of the nation’s first therapeutic drug treatment courts designed specifically for the child welfare population. While innovative at the time, the cost effectiveness of therapeutic drug courts and the recognition that parents with substance abuse problems need a more responsive program is now well documented, and over 300 similar court programs exist throughout the country. In the last 15 years, our dependency drug treatment court has evolved and expanded to better meet the needs of the families we serve, but the first and arguably the most valuable lesson we learned was one that came early—peer mentoring works.

Despite the benefits and advantages offered by dependency drug treatment court (DDTC), early participation levels were low. Parents entering the child welfare system were understandably reluctant to take on more services and endure the increased court monitoring and accountability that DDTC required. While the professionals devised ways to more effectively market this voluntary program, a woman named Barbara, DDTC’s first successful graduate, began informally sharing her experiences and successes in the courthouse waiting room. She wasn’t a judge, a lawyer, or a social worker—she was simply a mother in recovery who had reunified with her children and, therefore, someone with whom the parents could relate. It quickly became clear that having a graduate of the program speak informally with potential applicants was the best way to increase involvement in DDTC and thereby increase the probability that parents would complete treatment and reunify with their children. In 2000, Barbara was hired as the first mentor mother in the pioneering Mentors for Moms program administered by the law firm that then represented indigent parents in Santa Clara County. In 2008, administration of the program was taken over by the current legal services provider, Dependency Advocacy Center (DAC), and the program’s name was changed to the Mentor Parent Program, reflecting a new commitment to serving both mothers and fathers.

As its effectiveness became increasingly apparent, federal and local county agencies began lending financial support to expand and sustain the Mentor Parent Program. With ongoing funding from the Department of Alcohol and Drug Services’ Mental Health Department, and an allocation by the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, the program has grown steadily in the last 13 years to include six Mentor Mothers and four Mentor Fathers. Providing peer support for our clients is now an ingrained and critical component of Dependency Advocacy Center’s holistic legal services representation for parents.

Substance abuse is a factor in over 70% of the cases filed in Santa Clara County, and each new petition is reviewed and flagged for allegations relating to drug and/or alcohol abuse. If a parent is involved in one of these cases, a mentor will be present in the courthouse on the morning of their first hearing to make an initial contact and introduce the concept of our drug treatment court. Parents who participate in the newly renamed dependency wellness court (DWC) will have a mentor working with them for the life of their case—providing guidance, modeling sobriety, and offering hope. Many choose to keep in touch with their mentors long after they have reunified with their children and moved on from the child welfare system. It is not unusual for DWC graduates to ask how they can become mentors themselves and most point to their mentor parent as having influenced their decision to apply for DWC.

As our therapeutic drug treatment court has evolved to bring more partners to the table and expand the services available for families impacted by substance abuse and addiction, DAC’s Mentor Parent Program has also evolved in ways that were both unexpected and profoundly satisfying. While supporting our clients through the legal process and their path to recovery is the core service provided, the mentor parents are now valued system educators who are regularly asked to train social workers, child advocates, and other service providers who work with the families we represent. This opportunity for professional growth was an unintended consequence of the program’s success and has given the mentors—our former clients—a sense of pride and confidence in their own abilities to have and maintain a life much different than the one they had when they first entered the child welfare system. Consider Marcie’s story. Marcie has been a Mentor Parent with DAC for over 5 years and is a daily inspiration to the women whom she mentors and the professionals with whom she works. In the last year alone, Marcie presented at national and local child welfare law conferences and in January 2014, she courageously spoke alongside Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye in support of Access to Justice for California’s communities. Modeling humility, poise, and an unimaginable strength for our clients, parents like Marcie are the reason why this program works.

Editor's Note:
Read Marcie's Story

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