No one likes to have their mistakes thrown back in their face. But that's exactly what it takes sometimes. Like a slap, it was a wake-up call that brought Richard Guerra around to realizing his family was on the line.
How much did that mean to him? Everything.
Like others who have gone through Bexar County's Family Drug Court, Guerra has turned his life around in the nick of time. His cocaine and marijuana use put him in jeopardy of losing his three children -- and his wife along with them.
CPS was on his doorstep, and it was going to take some serious work to set things on a new track toward recovery.
The program is a rigorous team approach that focuses on treating the whole person to get to the heart of the problem, dealing with destructive behaviors and providing direction and resources to hold the parent accountable.
Though the program is voluntary, it is the fastest way to get your kids back, said Barbara Schafer, program director for Family Drug Court. But it's not easy.
Taking the case
Schafer said they take cases from the CPS docket that have some component of child abuse and drug abuse in them.
"We have theft. We have prostitution. We have even possession charges -- possession of controlled substances," Schafer explained. "Once the district attorney says, 'Hey, you have to remove those kids,' the judges look at that and they see there is some extensive drug rehab and court monitoring involved, and they send it to drug court."
Schafer said they also see a lot of mental health issues with clients. "Because one of the best ways to treat mental health is illegal substances. In an addict's mind, you can't afford the prescription, so you buy stuff off the streets."
Those who choose to sign the official court contract must commit to months, maybe even a year, of Fridays spent in the courtroom across from Judge Peter Sakai or Judge Victor Negron and a multi-disciplinary team of caseworkers, therapists, and advisers from the drug court, CPS, Family Violence Prevention, Texas Workforce, Fair Weather Lodge and treatment providers. It's a round-table discussion focused on the individual and that individual's family.
"There's no other program, there's no other court process to where we the court will promise to do the following things, but you, the individual promises to do the following. These are the consequences for your failure to follow through, and as the team may or may not tell you, I hold them accountable," Sakai said.
Learning from each other
Watching form the gallery are other parents in the same boat, going through the same struggle, the same healing, facing the same probing questions: Did you do this? What are you learning? What are you trying to get to? What are you trying to become? What are you doing to get your kids back?
"[Judge Sakai] doesn't wear a robe," Schafer said. "The fact that people want to do well to please him is very much like a stern father."
"One of the things the judge says is he can deal with relapse, he can't deal with liars, cheats and back-stabbers. So don't come in here lying and say you didn't do something, 'cause part of being in recovery is getting rid of that sneaky behavior," Schafer said. "We're trying to change behaviors. So if you come clean about what you did, or what happened, we can work with that. We can't work with people that hide it and are still doing that manipulation behavior…That's not what it's about."
"Before I got into this program, I always felt the law was out to get me," Guerra said. "You know, that's the way I was raised. I've been around it my whole life: My cousins, my dad -- they've all done time. I walked the streets with them. I know how it is."
That's exactly it: Parents who have picked up their parenting skills, or lack thereof, and their life skills from others who have also failed. Some of that failure also includes abuse.
"We have a lot of moms that have been sexually abused as children," Sakai said. "Sexual abuse and child abuse generationally is rampant and prevalent in practically every case."
That kind of trauma is the catalyst for drug abuse, Schafer said.
"What we've come to realize are most of these parents are basically self-medicating themselves with drugs or alcohol, generally and most likely because of trauma they've suffered," Sakai said.
"So what we are trying to do at Family Drug Court is intervene in a multi-disciplinary way, in a truly rehabilitative, restorative way to where we're trying to, basically, focus on the needs of the parent, make sure the children are protected in the meantime, but as we bring them to sobriety with an intensive model. Meaning we check on them every week."
Checking means random drug tests that may include hair follicle testing.
"We've had to get through all that denial and victimization that they come with - the baggage, so to speak - they come with to this court, and we try to strip it away so that we can then rebuild them and empower them," Sakai said.
"We run them through what's the real important part is the family violence prevention piece which is, especially the women who have been victimized, their self esteem, their self-identity, their self-preservation that has been stripped to the core. We have to build them back up."
Family Drug Court began in 2003 as a brainchild of Judge John Specia. In just one year, the program has had 188 graduates, reuniting 142 families and affecting 435 children -- children who were taken out of the foster care system.
At the June 22 graduation ceremony at the Cadena-Reeves Justice Center, proud children crowded around thankful parents as guest speaker Judge Nelson Wolff spoke.
"We want to put in jail those that are a threat to society. We do not want to put in jail people who have a sickness, whether its a mental sickness, or whether it's a drug addiction or alcohol, or whatever it is," Wolff said. "We want to help them. We want to change them. We want to make them productive citizens. So that has been a world of change here in the last 10 to 11 years in how we view the administration of justice."
Importance of families
Many of the parents involved in the program share certain characteristics:
1. They were children having children.
2. They grew up in a dysfunctional, abusive family.
3. Being children having children, they never learned how to be parents.
Celebrating Families is another facet to the Family Drug Court. Funded by a grant from the Harvey Najim Family Foundation, the program brings families together to share a meal where they learn about nutrition, stresses the importance of family conversation and develops skills to help parents talk to their children. Kids also learn about drug abuse and what makes a healthy family. Sakai also added a special request: "Teach them manners."
Now, after its 16-week completion, the staff is looking for grants to continue the program.
"I've been doing it wrong for 20 years."
For 40-year-old Christopher Garcia, the Family Drug Court has been a blessing.
"A lot of people don't understand," Garcia said. "They are coming into this program looking at everybody here as their enemy. Like they are out to get them. 'Why me? Why my children?' Nobody ever looks at themselves and says, 'OK, you know what, this is what I did wrong, and I need to fix these things to make my family better."
Garcia is a single father of four teenage boys who were in foster care while he went through the program. He is now employed as a certified nursing assistant and living at Haven for Hope while he works to establish a permanent home and regain his kids' trust.
He said it's hardest for people in the program to let go of what they think is best and get some help from those who are specially trained to handle cases like his.
"I mean, our decisions have been wrong because of where we are at," he said. "I've been doing it wrong for 20 years. Now they're telling me how to get my children back and how to better our lives. I'm going to try it their way."
Correcting the mistakes
That's not to say there is no back-sliding. When Guerra first signed on for the program, he was considered a tough guy. After a couple of months, he suffered a relapse. A long work day and a lot of peer pressure led to a failed drug test.
"[Judge Sakai] is always on the money," Guerra said somewhat incredulously. "He caught me, and now when I see other people make the mistake and I see that they are trying to lie, and they're trying to shed those tears, and he's like, 'You're not going to do that. You're not going to lie to me. I know when you're lying.' And I'm there nodding and agreeing with him. And like, 'Don't lie to him, don't lie to him.' And I'm looking around and say, 'I hope he's not going to get in a bad mood now.'"
Guerra said if you are towing the line, the judge won't let you have it, but even little mistakes will be pointed out.
"He's going to let you hear it," Guerra added. "You know, you need to hear it. To me, the way I see it, that's the only way people will learn."
The dad said if nobody tells you about your mistakes, it feels like nobody cares.
"Showing me my mistakes, it was like, kind of like a father figure" Guerra explained. "And they are right on the money. They are telling me, trying to help me to get up there. Now get back up on that ladder."
But in the case of multiple relapses, and they do happen, Sakai said, it takes team-reassessing to determine whether they are still moving forward, or if the person is stuck in a victimization, denial, accusatory frame of mind. Sakai sometimes has to take a different tack.
"We have a one-on-one conversation, and I find myself having conversations much like I would have with my own children, who would also do stupid things," Sakai recalled.
As for Guerra, he now spends a lot of his time with his family. He likes to read "Dora the Explorer" books to his girls. "I did their hair, by the way," he pointed out during an interview. "I learned that mistakes are going to be made. It's up to you if you are going to learn from them."
Once a client rises to a level of accountability, the team shifts into an affirming, nurturing mode. They are treated to applause, cheers and a pat on the back…and a star.
"They get stars just like you would give your own children a star," Schafer said. "They've never had anyone tell them they've done a good job."
A 'star' for the program
So, how good a job is the Family Drug Court program doing? Schafer said she and Judge Garcia crunched the numbers. They compared their recidivism rate to that of Children's Court. "Ours was one percent; theirs was 14," Schafer said.
Judge Sakai believes long-term the program is a cost-effective way of treating families. The judge said 53 babies born in the program were born drug-free even though the parents have drug histories and have previously had drug-addicted babies.
He points to the one percent of repeat offenders and says that too translates into a lower jail population and related costs.
In a Bexar County statement released Friday, officials cited these statistics:
- For every dollar spent on substance abuse treatment services, $7 to $11 is saved on social costs such as health care, violence and crime, lost work and school productivity, and social services.
- A traditional Child Protective Services case costs $7,921, but a typical Family Drug Court case is $4,491.
- From 2008 to 2011, Family Drug Court reunited 164 children with their families. If those children had stayed on the traditional CPS track, it would have cost taxpayers more than $1.3 million compared to $737,000 for the drug court program.
"[Family Drug Court] is how it should be. Instead of running people through a system, a cattle-call, so to speak, of our criminal justice or our child protective services system," he said. "That doesn't do anything. And people just continue to re-offend."
"As we've seen with our numbers, even though our child population is a third in size to Houston and Dallas, we're number one in confirmed child abuse cases. and we're number one in children that are re-victimized," Sakai said.
At the graduation podium, Richard Guerra shared his story and read words of support and encouragement to others like him.
"Don't give up. Remember, do not let what you can not do interfere with what you can do. We are the heroes in our own story."