Sheri Trusty, Correspondent Published 6:26 a.m. ET March 19, 2019
Judge Kathleen Giesler and Specialized Docket Coordinator Ann Johnson, along with a team of other professionals, collaborate to help parents through HOPE Court. (Photo: Sheri Trusty/Correspondent)
PORT CLINTON – Parents dealing with alcohol or drug addiction who have lost custody of their children in Ottawa County due to abuse or neglect haven’t necessarily reached a dead end.
They have on their side an unlikely ally: The judge who has the power to determine custody.
Ottawa County Probate and Juvenile Court Judge Kathleen Giesler looks beyond the parents’ problems, sees their potential, and offers to help walk them to the other side of addiction.
Giesler isn’t the parents’ only supporter. A team of professionals works together through the court’s Helping Our Parents Excel (HOPE) program, a Family Dependency Treatment Court which helps participants regain or retain custody of their children. Parents who have lost custody or are at risk of losing custody who are chosen for the program undergo an intense four-phase process with an end objective of family reunification.
“Our goal is to keep the family together,” said Specialized Docket Coordinator Ann Johnson, who coordinates the HOPE program.
But that reunification isn’t easy. Parents chosen for the program must agree to a number of participation requirements, including random drug and alcohol testing, faithful attendance at Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings, attendance at regularly ordered court appearances, and the promise to address their individual life issues as determined by the court.
HOPE Court is a voluntary program, and sometimes parents who are referred to the program do not initially agree to participate. Giesler works with them, encouraging them to participate while reminding them that delay can make it more difficult to complete the program and therefore make it less likely their family will be restored.
“It’s not unusual for the parents to resist,” Giesler said. “But when a judge removes a child, the clock starts ticking. They have one year to do what they need to do.”
Once they agree to enter the HOPE program, a team of professionals gathers weekly to collaborate on the parent’s success. In addition to Giesler and Johnson, that team includes a family and child advocate, a case manager, and representatives from CASA, Heartbeat of Ottawa County, Job and Family Services, and multiple treatment agencies. The team shares information on the parent’s progress and makes decisions on the next step in the plan.
Ottawa County ran one of the few Family Dependency Treatment Courts in the state when H.O.P.E. Court was launched here at the Ottawa County Courthouse in 2008. (Photo: Sheri Trusty/Correspondent)
“We have lots of people working for them,” Giesler said. “We collaborate, answer questions, and celebrate victories.”
HOPE offers incentives — such as key chains honoring their accomplishments or gift cards — to encourage participants to keep pushing through the program. Sanctions can be placed against participants for noncompliance. Those include increased drug testing, community service, jail, and, when necessary, termination from the program.
But success is always the goal for those working with the participants, so an individualized, tailored plan is created for each parent.
“The diversity of what each person needs still amazes me,” said Johnson, who has been the program’s coordinator for five years. “The team can dissect that and accept that. They are a really open-minded treatment team. I think that’s one reason the program is successful.”
Giesler said it is rare for HOPE graduates to face the loss of custody again. The program helps them stay sober and functional.
“It not only helps the parents get back on their feet, but it helps bring the family back together again,” she said. “Our intent is to support them in their sobriety and reunite them with their children.”
HOPE Court is a specialized docket certified through the Ohio Supreme Court. It was one of the few Family Dependency Treatment Courts in the state when it was launched in Ottawa County in 2008. Specialized dockets not only create uniformity in the judicial process across the state, but they also provide grants to local courts.
“We are very fortunate to have the (Ohio) Supreme Court by our side,” Giesler said.
HOPE court receives support services grants to aid participants with issues such as transportation and housing that might otherwise hinder their successful completion of the program.
That practical assistance, along with the support of a team of professionals and a compassionate judge, makes success possible for parents who have little else to lean on.
“They’re able to re-enter society,” Johnson said. “They become a family and a home again.”
Contact correspondent Sheri Trusty at firstname.lastname@example.org.