Pima County Court Program Connects Families Through Reading | Local News

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A new program offered at Pima County Juvenile Court hopes to promote bonding between parents and their state-care children, while supporting children’s literacy efforts.

Reading 2Gether is open to children from birth to 5 years old, and the time commitment for parents is minimal: two 15-minute phone calls per week.

But during this short time, parents can help improve their child’s language and literacy development, engage in meaningful exchanges, and increase their child’s sense of self-confidence through predictable and consistent.

Participants receive a Reading 2Gether tote bag with books in the family language. Parents and children receive the same two books in their bags but the content differs.

The bag that accompanies the child home contains information on setting up a Google phone number in case the temporary family wishes to keep their personal phone number private.

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The bag that comes home with the parent also includes a blanket. Parents are advised to sleep with the blanket on for a few nights and refrain from cigarettes, marijuana, and anything else that could be harmful to their child.

“There’s tons of research that says bonding and attachment is a multi-way process,” said juvenile court judge Joan Wagener. “How do you do that when the parent lives in one house and the baby lives in another house? You do that with this program.”

At least twice a week, the birth parent and caregiver will contact each other by phone or online. The child snuggles up against the blanket that has been spending time with their parent and will follow their copy of the book while mom or dad reads to them on the phone.

“Their auditory system, their olfactory system, and their visual system are all playing at the same time,” Wagener said. “It’s a really inventive way to bring all of these things together to increase the chances of bonding and bonding occurring.”

hundreds of books

Reading 2Gether is a collaboration between the court, Pima County Public Defense Services, and the Arizona Department of Child Safety.

The program was launched last month and aims to encourage early reading interactions between parent and child during the journey to reunification or final placement.

The program is funded by the county’s Public Defense Department, which houses the Office of Children’s Counsel, whose attorneys represent minors in a variety of court matters, including family law and guardianship matters.

Most addiction cases in juvenile court are eligible for Reading 2Gether. The exception is if there is criminal conduct involved in the case or a no contact order between parent and child.

The dependency process is for families who become involved with the Department of Child Safety after a child has been removed from the home.

Reading 2Gether is open to approved foster families or kinship providers, who are parents. Parents in jail or prison are also eligible, if the facility where they are incarcerated allows their participation.

Pima County is now the second site in Arizona to have this type of program and is one of only a handful in the country.

The program was inspired by the Safe Babies Court team at Iowa Court 2-4-2 programwhich Wagener heard about in 2018 at an annual meeting of the courts.

Wagener brought the idea back to the Pima County Building Blocks Committee, a group of local court, legal, and agency actors working to meet the needs of children and families involved in Juvenile Dependency Court and the child protection system.

“We fell in love with this program and wanted to implement it here in Pima County,” Wagener said.

Funding for the program was finally put in place, in part because Jillian Aja, assistant chief attorney at the Pima County Children’s Council office, wrote a grant proposal.

For books to use in Reading 2Gether, Aja gathered suggestions from colleagues and others, then scoured the Scholastic catalog, checking off titles.

“It was like living out my best childhood fantasy,” Aja said. “And when (Scholastic) realized it was a kid-related thing…we ended up with a lot of extra books.”

With over 500 books filling a cubicle in Aja’s office, Reading 2Gether was finally ready to launch last month. defense department.

“We want to take you home”

Reading 2Gether works on the honor system, as the organizers didn’t want it to be a cumbersome process. But they are asking parents, foster families and DCS about their thoughts on the program and whether they thought it affected the reunification system.

“If the court or anyone else decides they want to extend it to something else, we’ll learn from that,” Wagener said.

Stephanie Rascher, a local lawyer who represents parents in addiction cases, said this type of program that focuses on bonding without putting anything extra on parents’ plates is particularly important.

For some, “they go from drug testing to parenting education to myriad services that DCS asks them to do, which can be really stressful and disheartening for them,” Rascher said. “One of the strengths of this program is that it doesn’t ask too much.”

Families can keep the books that come in their bags, or they are encouraged to bring them back and exchange them for new books.

DCS case managers and Office of Children’s Counsel attorneys recommend families attend Reading 2Gether, with community coordinator Tasha Gamez taking all referrals and handing out bags to families.

“Part of the goal of this project is to encourage collaboration between placements and biological (logical) parents toward reunification,” Rascher said. “Because it really takes a village to achieve reunification.”

Two factors that strongly influence successful reunification are the number of contacts between parents and children and the support of the adoptive parent or kinship provider, Wagener said.

She said building a support system that is not tied to the system increases the chances that a family will not return to the system.

“At the end of the day, that’s what we want. We want to bring you home and that’s it,” she said. “And that’s a strategy that will help if those relationships are built.”

Reading 2Gether can also help birth parents learn new skills, with adoptive parents being able to model interactions for parents who may have never raised a child or haven’t been with their child long enough to acquire knowledge, said Maria Colón, coordinator of the CASA program.

“If they interact with these placements and the adoptive parents, they even see how their baby likes to be held and what activities their child likes to do,” Colón said. “It can help them in the reunification process.”

For birth parents who never had a positive parenting role model in their own lives, programs like Reading 2Gether can sometimes provide just that, with adoptive parents serving as the character, Wagener said.

“This model doesn’t have to be biological,” Wagener said. “That’s what’s so beautiful about this process. If you get the right people together, you get this beautiful result.”

“An excellent icebreaker”

Nancy Boccardo has been a foster mother for nearly 17 years. She had 65 “children” who passed through her home and most of them ended up with their biological parents, thanks to the approach of Nancy and her husband.

“We get involved as much as possible with the whole family,” Boccardo said. “Sometimes it’s not safe and it doesn’t work that way, but most of the time it’s doable.”

Boccardo and her husband adopted eight of the 65 children they cared for. Two were adopted by their friends and the others returned to their parents. She said that while her reunification numbers are better than the state average, it shows her approach is working.

“If you have a newborn baby taken away and two years later you get a toddler back, you don’t know anything about them,” Boccardo said. “You haven’t gone to doctor’s appointments or anything outside of your visits. You don’t know who you’re picking up.”

That’s why programs like Reading 2Gether are so important, she said. When a person has their child abducted, the first interactions with the foster parents can sometimes be conflicting.

“When we go to the first meeting with a child’s parents, we are automatically the enemy because we have his child,” she said. “This type of program is a great icebreaker for families in need.”

Boccardo said she had long-term relationships with many of her former adoptive children’s families, providing after-school childcare for one and acting as an emergency babysitter for the others.

“Our family has grown bigger than I can even tell you,” she said.

“Gives them the ability to bond”

If the program goes well, organizers will consider expanding it to older children, but for now the focus is on early childhood development.

One of the advantages of the younger age group is that reading fluency is not a barrier for parents.

“You don’t need to be able to read at all to participate in Reading 2Gether,” Wagener said. “You can sing along with your baby. You can use this book and show the picture and tell your own story. Just talking to your child will increase their vocabulary, attention span and school readiness.”

A family’s language isn’t a barrier either, with a supply of books available in Spanish and other languages. The working group also has a partner who is committed to providing books in all languages ​​that are not already available.

Even if the child is not reunited with their biological parent, studies have shown that bonding with a biological parent is good for children in the short and long term, CASA’s Colón said.

“It gives them the opportunity to bond and bond with another adult in their life,” Colón said.

Studies have shown this secure attachment forms the foundation for future relationships, a child’s sense of self-esteem, ability to regulate emotions and more, according to the Tennessee Governor’s Early Literacy Foundation.

The program cannot fit into the court’s budget, so Reading 2Gether will have to find other ways to continue, either through DCS funding or the county. At this time, the Pima County Library is accept donations on its website, but Wagener isn’t worried the program will be gone anytime soon.

“I just believe that when you put something out into the universe, the universe makes it happen. It just seems like the needs are being met,” Wagener said. “My hope is that this program sticks whether one of us is here or not.”

“Who can say no to building a brain?”

Contact star reporter Caitlin Schmidt at 573-4191 or cschmidt@tucson.com. On Twitter: @caitlincschmidt

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