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Leading with Compassion - The Saint Joseph Parenting Center

Nelson and NicolasThree-year-old Nicolas was at risk of being brought back into the care of the Department for the second time. Perhaps the last chance to prevent this traumatic experience would be for his father, Nelson, to participate in a considered removal meeting in the Norwalk Office. Nelson made his presence known. The Department was impressed by his ability to advocate for himself and his young son. Nelson recognized that he needed supports.

"It is hard being a single parent, both mom and dad, but I am willing to learn because my son deserves it and means the world to me," Nelson stated. Like many other fathers, Nelson grew up without the strong presence of his own father. He stated, "unfortunately, my father was not a present figure in my life, but I want to learn how to be a better dad for my son."

The familiar African Proverb "it takes a village" recognizes that we need the help and support from an entire community of different people interacting with children, in order for them to grow up in a safe environment and experience life in a healthy manner.

Who could be a part of the village for a single father and his son?

The Saint Joseph Parenting Center (SJPC) in Stamford has partnered with the Department of Children and Families since 2010. With their vision and mission aligned with the work DCF performs each day, their staff seek to “strengthen families that are at risk of child abuse and neglect by providing parenting education and support.”

Nelson was referred to SJPC by the Department in the spring of 2020. He was enrolled in the 24/7 DADS program - a 12-week program that meets once a week developed by the National Fatherhood Initiative. This program focuses on the important role Dads play in their children's lives. The topics reviewed include; The Father's role, Children's growth, Showing and Handling Feelings and others.

It seemed like a perfect match.

It was also a perfect match for the Saint Joseph Parenting Center to hire their new Executive Director, Rhonda Neal, a year earlier. "This is personal. I want families to know there is hope despite circumstances whether you live on Park Avenue or a park bench. I am grateful that I get the awesome chance to pass down what was freely given to me" she stated.

It is within partnerships that the most valuable and sustaining work is completed within our communities. While the Department is one entity, community-based programs provide a critical need to families far greater than what may be readily apparent.

The collaboration between DCF and SJPC includes case managers participating in many facets of the work. This includes attending Administrative Case Review meetings, attending court hearings, engaging in regular updated conversations and providing monthly written reports. According to Rhonda, “the benefit of our relationship is that sometimes SJPC is able to identify deep seeded issues that may not surface immediately due to fear of unknown consequences."

Saint Joseph Parenting Center case managers also work closely with DCF clients and social workers to achieve permanency goals as described by DCF guidelines. Their programs serve as a community resource center where parents learn the skills and tools needed to achieve reunification.

The work is that much more powerful when two agencies have aligned values.Heaven-Lee

Despite the pandemic, Rhonda said that her agency accepted their highest number of DCF referrals in March and April, which she explained to be “a reflection of the hard work and strong desire we have to growing our partnership.”

A major support to Nelson was Heaven – Lee Trenard, a Treatment Social Worker from Norwalk DCF. In working with Nelson, she explained, “St. Joseph's Parenting Center takes on the Department of Children and Families clients with compassion and goes above and beyond to ensure the safety of our children. I always have had a positive experience working with this agency because I feel that they bridge the gap between the Department and clients.”

Nelson became a stronger parent. With food, books and an activity backpack being provided for Nicolas, he and his father began settling in as a family. It is recognized that parenting is not easy. Supports may need to continue throughout the different developmental stages of a child's life. " SJPC has helped in many ways but I am especially grateful for the parenting classes which I took in order to get my son back. These classes gave me a guide to develop a healthy relationship with my son," Nelson stated.

The parenting model used at SJPC is the community style learning. They create a non-judgmental and safe place for parents to connect. A shared meal is part of the experience enabling parents, volunteers and staff to interact with one another. Rhonda explained that “as testament to the level of care and respect we place on our clients, many reengage in classes or case management as their child grows older and/or they face a new life challenge.”

Nelson required some individual supports during this time as well. "As part of SJPC case management services, I was referred to a therapist who helped me address and understand how my anger issues could lead to the domestic violence," he stated.

Exec DIrRhonda Neal further stated, "parents gladly come to SJPC because they know that they will be loved and not judged, respected and not treated like a number and that we work hard to help them achieve their goals. Working collegiately with DCF addressing hard family issues is how we live out our mission to prevent child abuse and neglect and bring about the best outcomes for families.”

What has Nelson learned during this work? "The importance of having good communications and being there for my son is how I can help build his confidence and self-esteem. For me, that means getting involved in his school, sports, friends and spending quality time together," he stated.

Shortly before Nelson came into the Saint Joseph Parenting Center family, Rhonda Neal lost her father. "Unfortunately, I lost my hero, my dad to a terminal illness on January 14, 2020. I miss him greatly but know I get to live out his legacy through the work SJPC does to strengthen and empower families."

Legacy - What we leave onto others which impacts them far beyond when we are physically present.

The legacy for Saint Joseph Parenting Center is that a little boy named Nicolas can experience the love and affection of his Father due to their compassionate efforts.

What is his message to all of us?

"Through working with DCF and SJPC, I was able to get my son back and will always be grateful," Nelson stated.