Losing custody of a child as a result of an allegation of neglect can be devastating. When that happens, parents who work with the Department of Children and Families (DCF) receive a “service plan” that includes a check list of tasks they must accomplish to maintain or gain custody of their children. When Juvenile Court Judge Mary McCallum observed that there were no parenting programs for justice-involved mothers in Norfolk County, Probation Officers Tracey Clogher and Teresa Plante decided to address the issue head-on.
The result, MPower, is an 11-week course that teaches mothers how to navigate the court process and regain custody of their children. To provide additional support, Officers Clogher and Plante also offer a second program, Triple P (Positive Parenting Program), a parenting intervention course certified by the World Health Organization to help parents of children aged 0-12 with positive parenting skills.
After three years of data collection, the two programs are starting to show promising results.
Officers Clogher and Plante designed and launched the MPower course in the fall of 2013. Since then, 43 mothers have graduated from the course and 22 have physical custody of their children.
Of the three parents who recently graduated from both MPower and Triple P programs, two received custody of their children back with no further court involvement.
“MPower wasn’t what I expected,” says participant Patricia Meador, who now has physical custody of her three-year old twins after completing the first half of the MPower course. Ms. Meador’s 6-year old daughter is expected to be back in her custody full-time in June. “Instead of the obvious parenting class topics, MPower gives you the resources and tools you need to be a better parent. It can be scary the first time you have to go to court. You learn how not to be scared. The class empowers you to have a more fulfilling life.”
The officers introduced Triple P to their court in October 2015 through a grant from the Court Improvement Program. In January 2016, Officers Clogher and Plante conducted a statewide training of the Triple P program for Probation Officers across the Trial Court.
MPower: empowering mothers. In addition to working with Judge McCallum, Officers Clogher and Plante reached out to Dr. Christine Darsney, Director of the Norfolk County Juvenile Court Clinic, to help develop the MPower curriculum. Topics include: how to navigate the schools and secure services for children; general pediatric health and well-being; how to navigate the court system; limit setting for children with mild to moderate behavioral issues; healthy relationships; Post Traumatic Stress Disorder; and stress management and coping skills. Each class features an expert speaker who presents each topic and facilitates discussion with Officers Clogher and Plante. At the final class, a mother who is a recovering heroin addict shares her inspiring story with the group.
To reinforce “lessons learned,” every class ends with participants stating one of the five MPower principles [see the box below] and how they applied that principle the week before with their children at home.
TripleP: Positive parenting in action. Once probationers graduate MPower and get their children back from DCF custody, they face an entirely new set of challenges. Children returning home are often angry and traumatized about their experience. They can be distrustful of their parents, who in turn often feel guilty about past behaviors. As a result, parents are reluctant or lack the skills to appropriately discipline their children.
Triple P helps parents identify the root causes of their children’s behavior, set specific goals, use strategies that promote healthy child development, and manage misbehavior. In addition to Triple P’s 8-week class schedule, participants must also commit to attending five 2-hour group sessions and three 15-30 minute phone consultations to help them solve problems independently at home.
The overarching goal of Triple P is to give mothers problem-solving and networking skills. As part of that process, participants must check-in with each other regularly – and report each check-in with their probation officers. Issues can be further discussed and addressed in more detail during the weekly group sessions, where participants explore potential obstacles that might get in the way of their goals.
Officers Clogher and Plante obtained Court Improvement Program and Trial Court Innovation grants to provide meals for attendees and their children coming to the sessions—and to help ensure mothers attend every session for both programs.
The team also provides free daycare. Pre-screened high school students offer tutoring assistance to school age children in exchange for community service hours. Court support staff and court officers lend an additional hand while probationers attend class.
Next steps: MPower + Triple P. Starting this fall, Officers Clogher and Plante will offer the Triple P program as a next step for parents who have graduated from MPower but who still struggle with anxiety, overcoming substance use disorders, and domestic violence.
“We want parents to keep their kids and get the skills they need to be mentally and physically healthy,” says Officer Clogher. “MPower helps our parents get through the first hurdles of the court process, while Triple P provides proven tools to be successful on their own once they complete their probation conditions. We’ve found both programs to be essential steps in the process.”
The Five MPower Principles
As a mother it is my responsibility to: