September 01, 2016

Michael Huesca: Making Reunification Possible for Fathers

Hannah Leibson

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

Meet Michael Huesca, executive director of Paternal Opportunities Programs and Services (POPS). As the largest father-focused advocacy organization in Southern California, POPS gives fathers tools to be empowered, engaged, and active fathers. Under Michael’s leadership, POPS continues to grow, this year reaching 730 clients halfway through the year. 

Michael was recently nominated as a 2016 Reunification Hero, an annual celebration of accomplishments of parents and the professionals who help them reunify with their children. Those who nominated Michael described him as someone for whom “words cannot express” and a man who “takes personal interest in the families” with whom he works. Read on to learn more about aMichael and his work at POPS.

What sparked your interest in advocacy for fathers?

I was a counselor for domestic violence victims and assisted over 1,000 female survivors. That experience pushed me towards advocacy. Personally, I became a single father at 21 when my son was six months old. I’ve always done everything in my power to make sure my children were taken care of to the best of my ability and always felt supported at home. This has not always been easy. As a single dad, I face bias daily. This has led to personal reflection on whether my children were getting everything they needed to develop the way they would have with two parents. This awareness of the societal pressure as a dad has carried over to my passion for helping other fathers reunify with their children.

What barriers do fathers face reunifying with their children?

The cultural perception that fathers are not nurturers is a major roadblock for reunifying children with their biological fathers. This bias pervades inside and outside of child welfare. We work to overcome these biases to help fathers prove their worthiness to the courts.

It’s unfortunate, but true, that the courts tend to push for female parental involvement even when the mother is unable to adequately care for the child in question. For example, if the mother is unable to care for a young child, often custody will be given to a female family member, instead of a biological first-time father. This bias not only resonates with judges, but with social workers, family members, and society at large.

Tell us about POPS and your role?

POPS started with the mission of reconnecting incarcerated fathers with their children. For the last two years, I have expanded the organization to help support mothers hoping to reunify as well. By advocating for mothers and fathers, we are able to focus on our overall objective of making sure the best interests of children are met.

Our goal at POPS is to advocate for our clients through the various stages of their custodial cases. While we are not attorneys, we accompany our clients to court to serve as an extra set of eyes and ears to record and document information that would have been missed had they gone alone. Many parents we work with have gone through extremely traumatic experiences. In addition to advocacy, the staff at POPS provide support and compassion to parents during these stressful times. We hope through this process, our clients gain the voice to come back from court empowered to keep fighting for reunification.

What is the most rewarding part of your job?

I have been humbled to receive invitations from reunified families inviting me to Christmas dinner and birthday parties long after their cases have closed. Taking a step back from my job and joining these families in the everyday moments of life reminds me how grateful these families are to receive help at POPS, and how lucky I am to work there and help make these reunifications possible.

What is the greatest challenge?

Aside from lack of funding, which inhibits us from expanding and taking all of the cases we want, so much of our job is spent attempting to shift the social and cultural bias towards favoring reunification. Society perpetuates the belief that fathers do not have what it takes to parent a child on their own. ‘A father can’t care for the child like a mother’ is a common sentiment we seek to challenge through proof of the positive benefits of reunification.

Is there a memorable case that sticks out in your mind?

A few years ago there was a case where both the mother and father (unmarried) sought custody of their two children. Both parents were substance users and 14 months into the case the mother relapsed. Instead of the father receiving custody, the children were going to be put up for adoption because the father was allegedly “not ready.”

We helped get the father in a position where he could successfully care for his children and he won custody. Several years have passed since the case left the court and the children continue to live happily with their father, who has since remarried. Additionally, the children’s mother still visits her children regularly.

This case sticks out because of the work of one social worker who believed in the father and fought for reunification against bias and the odds against him. This case also serves as an example of a positive reunification that served the best interests of all family members.

What do you recommend to parents you work with at POPS to help them increase the likelihood of reunification?

I try to help fathers understand the whole process is about patience, learning, and growth. To help teach this, I always start with a reality check so the fathers understand that throughout the process, they will have to prove their worthiness. Simply saying, “I’m innocent” will not win them their children. The sooner the fathers recognize this, the sooner they will reunify. I’ve been around the block enough to learn that fathers must be humble, truthful, and transparent when creating a game plan for the future.

What programs/practices are effective to help fathers reunify?

A key to helping fathers reunify is recognizing that men and women communicate differently. To gain more understanding for fathers, child welfare organizations, attorneys, and the courts must facilitate a “father friendly” approach to reunification. To create the best outcomes for the children, we must understand the individuality of each case we work on, instead of assuming every case fits a mold.

What programs/practices are not effective and need to be changed?

Yes, the separation of parents. We need to work with both parents by providing parallel case plans and tools for the family to work together. Child welfare advocacy is a process of growing and learning that resides in a desire to make a situation better for the lives of those affected. While not every program is perfect, each program is rooted in a desire for positive change.

What preventative actions could avoid foster care?

The field must follow the lead of organizations like the Annie E. Casey Foundation who run successful programs that aim to keep children out of foster care. Child welfare advocacy is an overwhelming area right now, with more families in need than resources available. To help mitigate the overburdened system, increased attention and resources must be allocated to help this cause.

Are any public misconceptions about the child welfare system?

Public misconceptions fall partly on the agencies themselves. Many people see the agencies as institutions instead of individuals. This mindset perpetuates the notion that agencies are just out to take children. This belief leads to fear and doubt of agencies’ intentions. 

What advice would you give to legal advocates, judges and policy makers about improving the system?

The system needs to be less investigative and defensive when trying to build a case. Courts tend to ignore the presumption of innocence, and child welfare agencies are so fixated on protecting themselves that the best interests of families often comes second. We hear the statement ‘best interest of the child,’ however it is hard for the system to live up to that statement.

Is there anything else you want to highlight?

Too often society and individuals want to give up. They think, it’s too expensive to help a drug addict rehabilitate, or those people will never change. But research has proven children who grow up without the presence of a biological father or mother face increased risks of alcoholism, incarceration, and lack of access to education.

We must do everything we can to work towards reunification without putting dollar amounts to it. Especially in nonprofits, we are restricted by funding, but with increased hope and knowledge of the benefits of reunification, we will have the societal support and funding to make even greater strides in the child welfare field.

Learn more about National Reunification Month, promoted by the ABA Center on Children and the Law.

Hannah Leibson is a student at the University of Southern California. She interned at the ABA Center on Children and the Law summer 2016, assisting with Center projects and communications.