Journey to Success

by: Ora Beth McMullen, LMSW

Imagine living in a transient motel on Jacksboro Highway, dizzy, confused and paranoid from drug use with little money, no hope, and three young children.  This was Johnny’s life.  As a teen, Johnny smoked marijuana on occasion.  After meeting his wife, he began a long descent into a dangerous place defined by methamphetamines.

Johnny recalled wandering across a motel parking lot one night with his three children, Jessie (6), Chris (4), and Sophie (3). He didn’t know what to do or where to go.

The next day, Child Protective Services (CPS) removed all three children, placing them in foster care.

When Johnny and his wife attended the emergency court hearing, a CPS case worker told them about the Tarrant County Family Drug Court (FDC) and they decided to join.

Administered through Tarrant County Challenge, the FDC program provides intensive services to parents whose children are removed from their custody due to parental drug abuse.  Judge Ellen Smith is the judge presiding over this program. Lena Pope provides two intensive case managers to work closely with parents in this program. A key program component involves strong collaboration with a wide array of community resources that work jointly with FDC participants to change their lives in meaningful ways. I became Johnny’s Lena Pope case manager during July 2012.

Johnny entered drug treatment at VOA Riverside July 1, 2012 – this was his clean date – the first day he had been clean from alcohol and drugs in a very long time. Johnny hoped to stay clean, work for his children’s return, obtain a driver’s license, and secure skilled employment. One barrier he faced was a hearing impairment that he had struggled with since birth. At 27, Johnny had not worn hearing aids in years and communicated by reading lips.

After less than a month of treatment, Johnny’s wife resumed her drug use. She never returned to treatment and was eventually arrested on drug charges and imprisoned. Soon after, the children left foster care to live with Johnny’s parents.

Johnny completed his in-patient treatment at VOA Riverside in October and was placed at the Union Gospel Mission’s (UGM) Men’s Center Program, where he began a skills-building job in the UGM kitchen. He had worked in food service before but at UGM he learned new culinary skills like baking a cake. “It actually tasted good,” Johnny said. 

Johnny was required to attend at least five 12-step meetings each week and to call a 12-step sponsor daily. He was required to attend intensive outpatient drug treatment five days per week. As his case manager, I met with him throughout each week to ensure he met requirements and secured the help he needed to move forward.

Johnny’s UGM case manager referred him to the Texas Department of Assistive & Rehabilitative Services (DARS) for hearing aids. Johnny’s CPS case worker referred Johnny for parenting classes and for individual and family counseling through Opportunities Counseling in Fort Worth.

In March, Johnny moved into a private room within the UGM Men’s Family Center program and Judge Smith advanced Johnny to Phase 3 of the FDC program (children are returned to their parents during Phase 3).

Judge Smith also presented Johnny with his Nine-Month Clean and Sober certificate.

Within a couple of weeks, Johnny began having weekend visits with his children at UGM.

On April 1, 2013 Johnny enrolled in the Tarrant Area Food Bank Community Kitchen program. This 14-week course, taught by professional chefs, prepares participants to cook professionally. Johnny immediately became excited over the skills he was acquiring and fell in love with the three mentors who administer this program. “These people are positive and joyful,” he observed. 

As April progressed, Johnny experienced some hard times. He had difficulty managing his money, his children, and passing weekly exams at the Community Kitchen. Then, Johnny discovered that his sponsor, whom he depended upon for daily guidance, relapsed. “I didn’t realize that everything in my life would be so hard,” Johnny said. Johnny’s pastor, mentors and case workers encouraged him to take one day at a time and move forward with faith.

On June 3, a doctor fitted Johnny with new hearing aids made possible through the DARS program. 

Johnny emerged from the doctor’s office with a big smile on his face and marveled at how well he could hear.

The pitch of his voice was noticeably softer. That same month, Judge Smith awarded Johnny possessory conservatorship of his children who then moved into Johnny’s room at the UGM Men’s Family Center. 

I contacted the Fort Worth Drowning Prevention Coalition about swim lessons for Johnny and his children that summer. Johnny, whose swimming skills were limited, took his children to the lake on occasion but they could not swim. The Coalition arranged for free swim lessons at the Eastside YMCA and Johnny’s FDC team provided transportation to and from these lessons. 

Johnny began his two-week food services internship in July at Billy Bob’s Texas and graduated from the Community Kitchen program July 20, 2013. The instructors recognized Johnny for perfect attendance and awarded him a chef’s hat, chef’s coat and professional knife set. Following his graduation, Johnny cooked for his family during a large celebration in his honor. 

Eight days following graduation, Johnny secured employment with Razzoo’s Cajun Café in Sundance Square. In August, Johnny noted,

“I work with a lot of good people. I’m able to be myself, and I feel like I’m in control of my destiny.”

Johnny graduated from the FDC program November 1, 2013, with 489 days of sobriety.  The day before, he passed his written driver’s test.  Johnny spoke to other FDC participants during his graduation and discussed the nature of his change:

“I realized that I was a man and I needed to act like a man.”

Those who spoke in Johnny’s behalf observed that he welcomed treatment, maintained a positive outlook on life, remained open to new ideas, possessed a supportive family, and held great hope for his future.

Today, Johnny still resides at Union Gospel Mission with his children, who smile easily and laugh freely. Johnny is now very much in control and they listen to what he says. He continues to work at Razzoo’s, loving his job, and was just awarded a housing voucher through Tarrant County Housing that will allow him and his children to move into their own apartment and live independently. Johnny continues to count his many blessings and look to the future with faith and hope.