Fathering Court in Washington, D.C.-DC Public Safety Radio

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Radio Program available at http://media.csosa.gov/podcast/audio/2013/05/fathering-court-in-washington-d-c-dc-public-safety-radio/

[Audio Begins]

Len Sipes: From the nation’s capital, this is DC Public Safety. I’m your host Leonard Sipes. Ladies and gentlemen, today’s show is on Fathering Court, and let me tell you I think the Superior Court of the District of Columbia has done an extraordinarily good job in terms of their Fathering Court. They are showing real reductions in recidivism, and they’re also showing real leadership, not just in the District of Columbia but throughout the country. Our guest today, back at our microphones, is the Honorable Milton C. Lee, Jr., the presiding judge of Fathering Court. Judge Lee, welcome to DC Public Safety.

Honorable Milton C. Lee, Jr.: Thank you so much for having me once again.

Len Sipes: You know, this is really exciting to me, this whole concept of specialty courts, Fathering Court being one of them. The Superior Court of the District of Columbia has a whole series of specialty courts. Specialty courts seem to be gaining prominence in criminal justice systems throughout the country. Do you have a sense as to why that’s happening? Why are Fathering Courts and specialty courts becoming so popular throughout the United States?

Honorable Milton C. Lee, Jr.: One of the most important things that I believe judges have come to grips with is that it’s incredibly important for us to process cases, process them efficiently, fairly, get just results, but we’ve looked at models like the Drug Court from Miami and they’ve taught us an awful lot over the years, that sometimes the more personalized, more holistic the problem-solving approach to justice is equally as consistent with the efficient processing of cases, just processing of cases, and it gets us to a point where we really do intimately come to grips with the problems that bring people to the court. So we’re not just fashioning sentences, determining how to resolve cases. We’re really making an effort to deliver service to the people that come before us so that we make every effort possible to make sure that they do not come back, to cut down on recidivism, and that’s where the problem-solving approach really comes from at its core.

Len Sipes: But many of us within the criminal justice system, we do, in essence, many of the same things that you would find in a specialty court. We provide drug treatment. We provide mental health treatment. We provide cognitive behavioral therapy. I could go on and on and on. Our results ordinarily are not as good as those within specialty courts, and I’m guessing, from talking to different people around the country, there’s something very unique going on with specialty courts that has to do with the judge. He or she is doing something special that the rest of us are not doing. Am I right or wrong?

Honorable Milton C. Lee, Jr.: Well, I think absolutely right, and I think one of the things you just have to recognize is that there is a certain authority and a certain tone that comes from the court when things are said, when orders are given, when directives are provided to people. It’s different when a judge says it, and when you have a judge who is really committed to looking at the bigger issues for people, then I think the message is received a little differently.  So it’s one thing for a probation officer to say, “Hey, this is what you need to do.” It’s another thing for someone over in the Department of Human Services to say, “We’re going to send you off to a particular program. We want you to get the benefit of it.” Those are all well-meaning, well-placed options. When the judge says it, and there’s this threat of response from the court, I think people receive it a little different.

Len Sipes: Yes, and that’s exactly what people have told me who have been before these microphones representing specialty courts from throughout the country. That judge providing a sense of both fatherly or motherly guidance to that individual plus hanging that heavy hand of fate over top of their heads, interacting with them respectively, but they do clearly understand that they’re not talking to a treatment provider; they’re not talking to a parole and probation agent; they’re talking to a judge. They’re talking to the person who can send them back to prison if they so choose. So some people have suggested that seems to be the magic ingredient as to why the specialty courts are going so well, so they seem to agree with you. Okay, tell me about Fathering Court.

Honorable Milton C. Lee, Jr.: Well, Fathering Court is this partnership that was created. It has five years of existence right now and we’ve had five graduating classes, and when I say it’s a partnership, it really is a partnership. I think of the court as being the cornerstone of the partnership but it’s for the reasons that you just articulated. It’s one thing for a group of people to say, “This is what we want to do. We want to accomplish certain things.” It’s another thing to have those group of people come together and really kind of have the support of the court behind it.

And so our chief judge years ago, Ed, in 2006, we had a town hall meeting, and we brought together all of these community-based providers. – It was government; it was private sector – and everyone sat down and said, “Look, we’ve been doing child support a certain way for a long period of time. Is there another model that we could work on to develop a more holistic approach to not just transferring money from one parent to another parent but looking at some of the deeper issues?” – And town hall meeting grew into a group of people from really every section of the city who developed this concept of a Fathering Court, and we spent most of 2006, all of 2007, really putting together what the model looks like.  And then at the end of 2007 when we got a grant from the Department of Justice, our first funding piece, we started to take people into the program, and it’s really designed to do a few things. We’re really trying to be innovative in the area of child support. We’re looking at everything that faces a family. We want to create responsible dads but we want moms onboard as well, and the goal is to simply do this. – And, because it’s a re-entry model, its designed to address men coming home from a period of incarceration who have child support cases or they have child support cases on the way, and so we use that as really the foundation for what we’re doing.  So we want to make sure the dads come home and they get employed – critically important. They have to work, and if they work, that means that they can pay child support, and if they can pay child support because they are working, it’s amazing how easy it is to then to transition over to what I would suggest to you is the toughest, most difficult but most important part of Fathering Court. It’s getting dads to co-parent with moms and to be responsible dads.

Len Sipes: You know, that’s an amazing array of things that you’re taking on because the individual comes out of the prison system; the individual often times has a great difficulty finding work, so when they work, they are starting off at the lowest part of the continuum and not paid all that much, and so they’re struggling to find themselves a place to stay in one of the nation’s most expensive cities, and so they’re going through this whole process, and then somebody comes along and says, “Oh, by the way, you’ve got to support your child.” And, “Oh, by the way, you’ve got to pay so much in terms of your child, and by the way, you have to be a responsible father and be part of that child’s life.” They’re all extraordinarily important goals for a safe and sane society but how do you convince a person to do that?

Honorable Milton C. Lee, Jr.: Well, I will tell you right upfront – most people really don’t believe it’s accomplishable, that’s how daunting a task it is. And so I know every quarter from working with folks in law enforcement, particularly the folks in this office in CSOSA who have been one of our partners from the beginning. We know who’s coming home from the Federal Bureau of Prisons every quarter, and we look at that list, and we work with a child support agency here in the District of Columbia, the Office of the Attorney General of Child Support Services Division.  We look at that list and we see who has child support cases, and we look to see who might fit into our criteria for a Fathering Court, and it’s not particularly exclusive. We just look for folks who we think that we can work with. We get them, in most instances, immediately when they return to the District of Columbia, and in some cases we’ve actually done video chats with folks while they’re still incarcerated, getting them prepared for release.  They hit the ground in the District of Columbia; they pick up supervision right away. We will farm out for a job readiness program, and we really had two models. One model was to use the Department of Employment Services here in the District of Columbia, Project Empowerment. If you’re a D.C. citizen, you’re eligible for those services. That’s one of the partners, and because they’re one of the partners, we can orient people coming home directly to that program. They get them through job readiness; it’s about a three-week endeavor, and then they place them in a subsidized work environment. It works very, very well.  We also, because we had some money from Justice and the Department of Labor, we were able to get some private, professional job counselors from a group called Education Data Systems Inc., and they just developed relationships with employers and connected those employers with people coming home from prison. We did not try to hide who the folks were. We were right upfront. We got folks ready for their interviews, and they did amazingly well. No, you’re right. It is not high-level jobs. It’s entry-level jobs but it’s important for people coming home from a period of incarceration to get right back into the foundation of the community.

Len Sipes: Agreed.

Honorable Milton C. Lee, Jr.: So when they start working, you have an incredible response, and we get immediate wage withholding, and so the child support starts coming out right away. Now, here’s one of the keys to Fathering Court. It’s because of the partnership with the Child Support Agency. We’re not asking for the men coming home to pay a lot. We’re asking them to pay 25% of what their order would normally be. So if they had a $400 order, they would pay, for the first 90 days, $100, and they’d get a foothold in the District of Columbia, and as they work through the year of the program, when they get to the end of our program, they should be paying their presumptive amounts. So, each quarter, it goes up 25%. Because they’re working, it comes out of wage withholding, the money’s coming in. We have solved the employment piece; we’ve solved the child support piece right away, and now we can get down to the core of what we’re trying to do. We get mom on board; we get the kids on board, and we start getting these dads ready to be responsible fathers. Now, that takes a lot of work.

Len Sipes: I was going to say; now how does one do that? I can understand the job provision. I can understand paying child support. Those two I understand. The third part of it, the cognitive part of it, how do you take an individual who has been absent for a couple of years and doesn’t necessarily feel a connection to that child, and develop an emotional connection to that child so that he is involved – I don’t want to over use the word “emotionally” – that he is involved meaningfully in that child’s life?

Honorable Milton C. Lee, Jr.: You started off asking me about problem solving courts. You know, one of the keys to what we do is we really make an investment in these families, and we make an investment at their core, their children. You know, a lot of dads come in and an equal number of moms come in, and they really do not believe we’re going to do all that we say that we’re going to do. They’ve never really had that type of response in court cases before. They don’t have a great deal of faith that this is going to work out But once we get the employment piece in and the money starts rolling in, we actually give most custodial parents, and most times it’s moms, they’re encouraged by what they see.  The dads actually start to have some self-confidence. They feel good about being able to go to work, that someone is supporting them, including me in the courthouse; something that they’re not always accustomed to from a judge. And then we have case managers, and the case manager, really, they’re professional social works. They work with dad and they work with mom to bridge the gap and to bring them together. Every dad in the program goes through parenting classes called Quenching the Fathering Thirst. It’s a curriculum that’s developed by a national organization, and the idea behind the curriculum is to get dads to understand their obligation, and then it’s up to us to give them the tools to carry it forward.  And so every year we sponsor things like family trips to baseball games for the nationals. We’ve gone to Georgetown basketball games. We’ve had lunches where the families come in. It’s not court business; Len, it’s family business. They come in; they meet the players, all of our providers, all of our supporters. They sit down and they talk about what families do. Just this year, and I usually try not to give specific instances, but just this year we had a gentleman who was struggling with getting connected to his child. He had been in prison for five years. His child was now 8, 9 years old. In a sense, this dad was terrified of his child.  So we made arrangements, and mom was incredibly supportive. I mean, she was just the salt of the earth. She said, “I want them to have a relationship. That’s what’s most important to me. The money’s important too but I work for a living. I’ll be fine with limited child support. Get them together.” So we made arrangements for the dad to come up to a basketball game at the Verizon Center. They took in a college basketball game. They had a great Saturday afternoon. They all met right out in front of the arena, went and spent the day. We sponsored the tickets for them because, you know, when you’re doing something positive like this, people offer you things to help parents move themselves along.  The next Wednesday, that dad was supposed to go to school and have lunch with his kid. Now, we thought the basketball game was going to be the highlight so he went on Wednesday to visit his son for lunch at school. He came in to see me next Friday, and this is what mom and dad told me, “Thank you very much for the basketball game. It was great. You know what was better? – My son had his dad visit him at school, meet his teachers, and then meet his friends on the playground.”

Len Sipes: Because one of the things we’re really talking about here is not so much a Fathering Court, is not so much parenting, but the fact that kids that are involved with an incarcerated parent have a much higher rate of fill in the blank – of emotional problems, substance abuse problems, problems in school, and a much higher rate of being involved in the criminal justice system themselves. So we’re not just talking about justice for the mother. We’re not just talking about justice for the child. We’re just not talking about reinvigorating that family relationship with dad. We’re talking about solving some major social ills within our society.

Honorable Milton C. Lee, Jr.: You know, what I do on the days that don’t involve Fathering Court is a juvenile delinquency calendar, and I see countless single parents coming in, trying to support their kids and doing the very best they can. You know what really makes a huge difference for kids, and I think this crosses all lines, is when kids know they have parents that love them, that love them unconditionally and will support them. Even if the parents aren’t living together, just knowing that you’ve got a rock in a dad and a rock in a mom, it makes the difference for them. That’s what we’re trying to promote.

Len Sipes: It makes a difference for them, and it makes a difference for the larger society. Ladies and gentlemen, we’re more than halfway through the program. Our show today is on Fathering Court with the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. The Honorable Milton C. Lee, Jr., he is the presiding judge of the Fathering Court. I do want to give out the website. It’s www.dccourts.gov. Just look for the media page. www.dccourts.gov. Again, look for the media page. You’ve had a lot of success with this, Judge Lee. You really have. Talk to me about how many people have been through the program and talk to me about the recidivism rate.

Honorable Milton C. Lee, Jr.: You know, I think we’re somewhere – I can’t give you the exact number, and I’m ashamed of that, but we’re somewhere in the 50s for graduates, and so we’ve averaged roughly about 10 graduates a year out of the program. We started off very cautiously, very slowly. I know we hit 2 the first year, I think we had 8 the next year, and then, this past year we just graduated 12 men, and I think the year before that was 14, 15, somewhere around there, so we’ve had some success. It’s a yearlong program. It’s really not for everyone. There are some people that just can’t come to grips with their responsibilities of being a father, going to work every day, working hard sometimes for less than what you think you’re really worth but dedicating yourself to doing that because your kids are just so important to you. But do you know what the real success has been? — We’ve had three groups of participants who actually got married.

Len Sipes: Wow. Interesting.

Honorable Milton C. Lee, Jr.: They came back to get married. They rode off into the child support sunset because they thought it was the right thing for them to do. We’ve had three other cases where moms have had their own difficulties trying to manage kids, and they’ve had their own issues, sometimes substance abuse, and we’ve had dads that have done so well that in three cases, kids have actually been placed with them, and that’s a real achievement.

Len Sipes: Yes, it is.

Honorable Milton C. Lee, Jr.: To see people come home from a period of incarceration and essentially turn their life around 180 degrees, and this is what dads tell me, and this is the key to the recidivism piece. For the first time in many of our fathers’ lives, they feel connected to the larger society. They feel like they’re an important part of it. They work for a living. They’re responsible for their kids. They actually pay their child support. They don’t mind coming to court to see me because they’re—

Len Sipes: They’re doing well. You’re there to give them positive feedback.

Honorable Milton C. Lee, Jr.: And it really means, and I try very hard to give them all the positive support that they deserve, and when they don’t do what they’re supposed to do, I’m the most critical one in the group. But when they really get some success, it’s no magic that you see a reduction in recidivism because now they’ve got too much to lose. It’s too important to them.

Len Sipes: But I’ve been told that this is, in reality, a learning experience for everybody – for us, for the Superior Court, for the people involved in the program, in terms of its future expanding, in terms of getting bigger. We had to start off – I mean, Fathering Court is an interesting concept because there’s a lot of people who simply feel that you can’t cross that bridge. Yeah, you can enforce child support; you can enforce getting a job, but you can’t support being a good father. You can’t force a person to be a good father but it sounds as if, through a variety of steps, you’re encouraging them to be good fathers, and they’re turning out to be good fathers. So this is a learning step for the most important variable – being a good father.

Honorable Milton C. Lee, Jr.: We all have to come to grips with a reality that is simply inescapable. There are a good number of our dads and our moms that are in the child support system that grew up in families where they didn’t have dads as a role model, and so when you’re asking men to become responsible fathers, you have to do more than ask. You’ve got to teach; you’ve got to show; you’ve got to support. – And it’s only by doing those things that you help them develop what they really want to be, and I really believe that.

I think most dads want to do it; they’re just not sure how to accomplish it, and they are afraid of failing their children. We give them the tools to do better, and once they start to see the response from their kids, then it is really inescapable that we get to the conclusion that we get to. They want to be good dads. They want to promote their kids. They want to do something that they didn’t necessarily have in their lives, and then when you see the results and when you see them at the baseball games, at the basketball games, or you actually see them in court with their kids, those are the moments that solidify everything that we’re doing in Fathering Court.

Len Sipes: For so many people under supervision, it’s interesting as to how that family connection is the principle motivator. You know, we within a system, we talk about cognitive behavioral therapy; we talk about finding work, and substance abuse and mental health treatment, and preparing the person for work, and at the same time, most of the successful people that I’ve ever talked to throughout my career, and I’ve interviewed hundreds of people both on radio and television who have done well, they count either a religious affiliation or the devotion to that family member as being the key ingredient that helped them kick cocaine, that helped them stay off the corner, that helped them go to work, that helped them become a better peons.  So I think you’re centering in on a key issue here as to why people do well. If it’s not for your child, then who is it going to be for? I mean, so many men I’ve seen caught up in the criminal justice system who have been lost, the only thing that ever saved them was a religious affiliation, a faith-based mentor, friends coming to their aid, or the fact that they were ashamed as to how their mother felt about them, that they were ashamed as to the fact that their child was being abandoned.

Honorable Milton C. Lee, Jr.: Well, I think that it’s no different for the guys coming home than it is for the guys that get up and go to work every morning to support their families. All we’ve ever done is give them the means to do what they’ve always wanted to do, and here’s one of the good things about Fathering Court: if the gentlemen who are in the program are really not serious about it, you figure it out very quickly, very, very quickly. The rubber meets the road in Fathering Court.

Len Sipes: Sure. Right. Absolutely. But I mean, again, you’d have to bring people in and you have to figure out whether or not this is going to work. What’s the key ingredient? What are you looking for?

Honorable Milton C. Lee, Jr.: Well, you know, when we started talking about who we were going to take in to Fathering Court, there were a lot of limitations placed on the type of returning citizens that we looked at, and so early on, many people in planning and the model development stage said, “We can’t take any violent offenders” So we looked at who’s coming home to the District of Columbia from the federal bureau prisons – we wouldn’t have had any participants because a good number of folks come home with offenses that fit into the violent classification or dangerous crimes.

Len Sipes: Well, looking hard enough, virtually all of them are going to have some history of violence.

Honorable Milton C. Lee, Jr.: So we really had to move away from that notion, and this is what we really did. We have a team approach this, and so we have a project manager; we have a case manager; we have a representative from the employment piece, and we also have a representative from the Office of the Attorney General, the folks responsible for child support cases. They make the assessments. So when we get these referrals, they sit down with the folks that are coming in and they make a determination about whether they’re really motivated, whether they’re really going to follow through the way we want them to. They meet with mom to make sure that she consents to being into the program, that we’re not missing any issues like domestic violence that may be out there.

Len Sipes: I was going to ask about that.

Honorable Milton C. Lee, Jr.: Well, that’s a big concern for us, and when we see cases where there’s domestic violence, it raises a red flag. It’s a concern. And remember, we don’t force anybody into the program, but there are limitations and terms of what we can do, and sometimes the domestic violence cases are a deal breaker. We also look very carefully at sex offenders because their supervision model is a little more rigid than what we can work with, not because we don’t want to work with it but we need folks to be available, and we need to be able to get out participants into the appropriate job training programs and employment. Sometimes the sex offender supervision just interrupts that, and we recognize that, but we don’t take anything else off the table.  For example if someone comes home and they’re really struggling with a drug problem, and they’re still struggling with it – we’ve got the ability to get them into drug treatment. We go right through APRO. We work with CSOSA folks, they go to the re-entry sanctions center, and so we have the ability to address those issues. The same is true for individuals that suffer with mental health issues. The key for us is to identify the issue, connect them with the resource to address the issue, and then watch them respond to the resource delivery, and then we’re ready for them.

Len Sipes: But I’m going to go back to the whole concept of specialty courts. I don’t think the key is any of that. I think the key is the judge. I have seen this in the Bronx, New York. I have seen this in dozens of communities throughout the country where the criminal justice system – we don’t talk to each other a lot of the times. I mean in D.C., we do have a good relationship with each other in D.C., and I’m not saying that just because I represent the nation’s capital, but I’ve also been in other cities in the criminal justice system, and what happens in the District of Columbia is special.  But what’s happening in these other jurisdictions is that judges are bringing people together. You can’t say no to a judge. Don’t care how many times you like to do it, you can’t say no to a judge, so prosecutors are bringing defense counsel; they’re bringing law enforcement; they’re brining parole and probation; they’re bringing providers of social services. They’re bringing businesspeople to the table. Why? Because they have the power to bring them all to the table, and they have the power to sit everybody down and say, “You know what, this is a problem. Let’s figure out a better way of handling this problem than we have in the past.” Judges seem to be at the center of all of this.

Honorable Milton C. Lee, Jr.: Well, I’m not going to disagree with you since I’m one of the judges. I’m on board with that. I think you’ve got to connect the will with the skill, and the court has the will to make that happen. You’ve got out and get the other pieces of the partnership puzzle, the other stakeholders that have the skill, bring them all together, and that’s how you develop things like Fathering Court. I travel around to other jurisdictions; talk about Fathering Court all the time, and I tell them that you’ve got to have the court involved not because the court is better than anyone else but it’s such a central piece too it for all the reasons you just articulated.

Len Sipes: But law enforcement says, “I have a problem. Let me sit down with the prosecutor and parole and probation and a defense attorney,” and we could say, “Well, okay, it’s your problem, not ours,” but we can’t do that to a judge. We can’t say, “Hey, Your Honor, that’s your problem, not ours. Have yourself a pleasant day.” Or to give what sounds like approval and what sounds like agreement but really isn’t. I mean, we can’t say that to a judge so that’s why I think what’s happening throughout the United States is special, and what’s happening in Washington, D.C. through the Superior Court is special. It is unique. It’s judges taking leadership in areas that maybe judges haven’t taken leadership nearly as effectively before. I’m not quite sure that’s a sentence.

Honorable Milton C. Lee, Jr.: There’s really no doubt about it, and you’ve seen it in all of the specialty courts, the problem-solving courts, that have caught on. Just thin, we’ve had drug courts now for 20 years or so, and the reason they have staying power is because it’s a different model of processing cases and the results are clear. And there are certain pieces, there’s certain features you just can’t ignore. You’ve got to have a very involved judge. You have to have a judge that’s willing to take off the regular traditional role and really do some things that are very different for judges, and you’ve got to have a judge committed to that.  I try very hard to be as personable as I can be with the folks that come in before me, and so I try to pay attention to the fact that I know the kids’ names; I know their birth dates are coming. I know what’s going on in your life, and without this team approach, having a case manager, I’m really not going to have all of that information, but because I have it, it really is a personal design in terms of what we do.

Len Sipes: Less than a minute left – where do you see Fathering Court going in the future?

Honorable Milton C. Lee, Jr.: Here’s the goal. It’s a model that I can say to you, not because I’m involved with it, that it works, but because the data supports the notion that it works. It’s an innovative way of looking at child support. My goal is not just to limit it to the re-entry population but to try to expand it to those folks who simply need it, and not everybody needs it. It’s true. There are people who come in; they have a child support issue; you give them a child support order; they’re actually quite happy with the result, but there are a good number of families both for folks who are re-entry but otherwise who need these additional services. We can take this partnership, this team approach, this problem-solving approach, if we can deliver it to them, the results that we get for the re-entry population, we can get for the greater population.

Len Sipes: And again, it’s not just for the re-entry population, you would be the first to say this; it is for the good of society itself if not for the good of the children directly involved?

Honorable Milton C. Lee, Jr.: Absolutely, 100%.

Len Sipes: All right. It’s been a pleasure talking about this, and congratulations on a successful program. Ladies and gentlemen, today we’ve been talking about Fathering Court with the Honorable Milton C. Lee, Jr., Presiding Judge of the Fathering Court here at the Court of the District of Columbia. The website for the Superior Court is www.dccourts.gov. www.dccourts.gov. Go to the media page and get information about Fathering Court.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is DC Public Safety. We appreciate your comments, we even appreciate your criticisms, and please have yourselves a very pleasant day.

[Audio Ends]

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