"The third time's the charm"
Tai Thergood's children made him breakfast on Father's Day. Gone are the memories of being alone on this special occasion, wondering when and if his children would be returned to his care.
Later that week, he was the featured speaker during the Region 1 Fatherhood Engagement Training. Staff from the Department of Children and Families were his captive audience - adding another chapter to his intriguing life story and the lessons he can teach us.
Mr. Thergood's journey to arrive at this point in his life was painful. It also was reflective of the systems he encountered and implicit bias about not just fatherhood engagement, but also the potential role of fathers overall in the life of their children. Mr. Thergood does not hold onto the past. "In the end, it becomes a glory story," he stated when asked about what reunification felt like when he knew his children were coming home.
On three separate occasions, the Department of Children and Families became involved with Mr. Thergood and his family. The first time, a relative contacted the Department. He was working 80+ hours a week as a contracted security guard for movie sets and was not fully aware of all the conditions in his home when he was not present. A week after DCF's initial visit, he received a phone call to ask his opinion of the situation. "After DCF figured out my schedule, I was pushed aside," he stated. Circumstances in the home required his young child to be removed yet he scarcely met with Department staff and paternal supports were not explored. The child was eventually reunified.
Upon the second DCF involvement, Mr. Thergood admits he was upset based on his first experience. He was pointed in his statements to the Investigator and believes his actions were interpreted as "aggressive" instead of being understood in the context of genuine emotion being expressed by a frustrated and concerned parent. "I didn't know what to do but cry," he stated. "I talked to the worker in a very harsh way and took myself out of being considered." He apologized to the Social Worker, but "it was too late."
Removal again was necessary, and Mr. Thergood put a plan in place to reunify. "This is not me," he remembered saying to himself. He decided to move out of the house, secured his own 1-bedroom apartment and even brought pictures to court of his living conditions including the refrigerator. He was told his place was too small for an adult and two children and reunification would not occur.
Mr. Thergood began writing letters, sending e-mails, and advocating for himself, which included offering up a cousin who was already licensed as a foster parent to care for his children. After almost two years, his children were reunified to both parents. He questioned why it took this long and why his interests as a father appeared not to have been heard or acknowledged.
A period of time later, Mr. Thergood realized his children were not being cared for in a safe and nurturing environment. Proactively, he took them to live with a family member where he could only stay for a short time. The Department again was called to investigate resulting in the same outcome - the children were removed.
Mr. Thergood was not in a position to care for his children on his own, but he was committed to doing the work to make his life better and take care of his children. "Me being honest was the best thing possible," he stated. "I knew I would be that parent, not just the father, who was being truthful from the beginning."
This third time being involved with DCF was different. "I was given the opportunity to showcase myself," he stated. "The dad I was seen as inside my home was the dad that was seen by others on the outside. I never was horrible."
During this occasion, he also met Social Worker Mario Martins. "The worker had a willingness to work with me," stated Mr. Thergood.
"The third time's the charm."
"Mr. Thergood always kept a positive outlook despite what roadblocks and obstacles he was confronted with. He had a strong desire to persevere and stepped up to play a larger role in his children's lives. My experience with working with him seemed like an unspoken partnership we had towards bettering himself for his children. He was open to engage with what resources and services were available to him to get to where he is now," stated Mr. Martins.
A plan was put into place to support Mr. Thergood towards the goal of reunification. Key to his success was Mr. Sal Hanaif from the Family Re-Entry Fatherhood Program which includes Fatherhood Engagement Services (FES). DCF funds this community based in-home service that works directly with fathers to strengthen father-child bonds and enhance the level of involvement with fathers in their DCF case planning, provision of services and positive parenting.
"He had a lot on his shoulders," Mr. Hanaif remembers of his early work with Mr. Thergood. "Some days, he just came in and talked," he added. "He was a blessed guy who wanted to be there for his kids, he just didn't know how."
Their relationship continued to strengthen. Mr. Thergood stated Mr. Hanaif gave him the "tools of the trade," and taught him that "I had the right to speak up, advocate, switch attorneys and to express yourself." Mr. Thergood refers to Mr. Hanaif as playing the role of "Cus D'Amato to me," in reference to the famous boxing manager and trainer who turned a young and troubled Mike Tyson into the heavyweight champion of the world while serving as his father figure.
"He saw me."
Mr. Thergood "had affirmations" of the day his children would be reunified. After supervised and unsupervised visits, overnights and weekend sleep overs, the court ruled the children would be coming home! Mr. Thergood absorbed whatever information he could. "Human encyclopedia" is how is referred to himself with the way he gained knowledge from Mr. Hanaif.
He cried tears of joy and happiness.
Mr. Thergood enthusiastically speaks of teaching others about his journey so the system can improve leading to more positive experiences for other fathers. The student has become the teacher.
"Attitude makes the difference," he stated when speaking of relationships. "Equal partner," is a term he uses when thinking of how families should be viewed in the system.