Five Single Dads Gain Custody Of Their Children At Coffee County Safe Baby Court, Family Treatment Court Graduation

January 30, 2020

A recent graduation day in Coffee County was all about fathers and their children.

The kids sat on the benches in the back of Coffee County Juvenile Court until their dads’ names were called. Then they proudly walked up front with them to share in their moment of recognition.  

“I’d like to say that I never thought I‘d be here on good terms,” Rex Sherrill said, holding his graduation certificate with one hand and his younger son with the other, his older son clinging to his leg. “A few years ago I was putting drugs and alcohol before my kids, and Safe Baby Court helped me become a better father. They’ve helped me in so many ways, and I’d like to thank everybody that’s helped me.”

As applause burst out around the room, Coffee County General Sessions Court Judge Jere Ledsinger handed Sherrill the second document he would receive that day: a court order closing his case and granting him custody of his sons.

Sherrill and each of his four fellow graduates had entered either Coffee County’s Safe Baby Court or Family Treatment Court programs many months before, dependent on drugs, their lives and priorities a wreck. Through lots of hard work and struggle, though, and with the help of many different people personally invested in their success, these five single dads had managed to make profound changes. Those who had been homeless, now had homes. Those who had been unemployed, now had jobs. Those who had been unready or unable to be responsible parents, were now dedicated, focused fathers with full custody of their kids.

It was a remarkable scene, especially for those who administer the programs and had witnessed firsthand the incredible progress that these men had made.

Coffee County Magistrate Stacy Lynch said she first met the five graduates when they were all dealing with their own individual struggles related to substance abuse, mental health, employment, housing, and other issues. All of them, however, had a long way to go when it came to parenting. They loved their children, but simply lacked the skills and the stability necessary to parent them successfully.

“They didn’t know how to take care of themselves, how would they know how to be fathers?” she said.

But after months of attending counseling sessions, intensive outpatient treatment, and parenting classes, and thanks to the relationships forged with each other and with Recovery Court program staff and partners, they changed.

“It is such an extraordinary story for one father, and we have five,” Magistrate Lynch said. “They truly are an inspiration. They set such an example.”

Safe Baby Court Coordinator Sheila Barrera said she has a deep admiration for the men graduating. They have been through so much, in some cases losing almost everything, she said, and yet they never gave up.

“I really wish you could have seen the guys when I met them, to see the difference because it’s really hard to describe how I feel,” she said. “I am so overjoyed, I’m so blessed that I got to do this journey with them, and I’m so hopeful for the dads they can become. I think they have a really good chance of changing their kids’ lives too. That’s what it’s really about. Not just changing their own lives. These little boys could have followed in their footsteps.”

Barrera’s hope is Tauris Maymi’s as well. Maymi was incarcerated just before he started the Safe Baby Court program and admits that he was skeptical about it at first.

“My past was just a life of a lot of anger, a lot of fear, not living the way I should be living, making continuous excuses to justify my actions and the way I was living,” Maymi remembered. “It was me being an addict. I was sick. I didn’t see myself getting better at the time, but I did.”

A conversation with Recovery Court Director Mike Lewis helped to start him on his present journey. Lewis asked him very seriously if he was ready to change his life, and Maymi said yes. From then on, no matter how bleak things seemed to Maymi, he knew that there were always people that he could turn to.

“It’s a tough trial, but there are people in this program I’m in who will stop at nothing to make sure that you reach the goal that you want to reach,” Maymi said. “They will make sure they find something that works for every particular individual. They’ll find a way. As long as you’re willing and open minded. It works.”

Safe Baby Court is designed to give kids like Maymi’s a greater chance of success in life. The less time that a child spends in a dangerous, unstable home environment, the less likely they are to encounter adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, that can derail healthy brain development and lead to all kinds of problems later in life. The Safe Baby Court program decreases the amount of time that children are without a safe and permanent home by making sure that their parents get the level of care they need to achieve a lasting recovery. In cases where family reunification is not possible, children are expeditiously placed in another permanent home. 

The system contrasts with the traditional handling of dependency and neglect cases in some notable ways.

“The traditional model is we take kids from unhealthy, dangerous situations, and then parents check the boxes in an effort to get them back,” Magistrate Lynch said.

This can lead to situations where parents may get their kids back before they have really recovered.

“You haven’t changed your lifestyle, you haven’t changed the people you’re hanging out with, you haven’t gotten a real job, you’re not going to your consistent meetings, you haven’t addressed the parenting issues that got you there in the first place, but now all of a sudden we’ve also thrown your kids back in? That’s a whole other stress,” Magistrate Lynch said.

As a result, many parents relapse at this point in the cycle.

“Now all of a sudden the children are removed again,” she said. “That’s another trauma for those kids. That’s what’s so great about the Family Treatment Court, Safe Baby Court model. It’s more intensive and long-term, and hopefully it’s going to stop that recidivism. It’s breaking that traditional model, trying something different.”

At the beginning of the program, participants attend 90 meetings in 90 days. They also attend an intensive outpatient program three days a week and are subject to frequent drug testing. Parenting classes and mental health treatment are tailored to participants’ specific needs with the help of community partners like the Mental Health Cooperative and Camelot Care Centers.

“It is a much more specific plan for that person instead of here are the boxes we have to check,” Magistrate Lynch said.

In all, the program can take 18 to 24 months to complete, during which parents are allowed regular visitation with their kids.

One important aspect of the Safe Baby Court’s and the Family Treatment Court’s effectiveness is the sense of shared responsibility and camaraderie it creates among participants.

Louis Johnson is a father of six who graduated from the Safe Baby Court program and, like the other graduates, has now been granted full custody of his kids. Like Maymi, when Johnson started in Safe Baby Court, he was a bit unsure about the program.

“I didn’t like following the rules,” he said. “I wanted to do things my way.”

Gradually, though, he decided to make a change and committed himself to the program. It was easier to do that alongside others who had been through some of the same things he had.

“Just having people that experienced the same lifestyle you’ve experienced helps so much,” he said. “A couple of the guys started when I started. We knew each other in active addiction and ran together and were tight. It’s really crazy how it all happened, but our kids got taken, and we always wanted to be dad. We just in a sense had to be shown what to do to move towards being dad. We’ve got a lot in common, and we just lean on each other when needed.”

Now, Johnson is taking what he learned in Safe Baby Court and putting it into action as the primary caregiver to his six kids. Homework, meals, appointments—the logistics of it can be daunting, but after what Johnson has gone through, the future looks bright. When asked what he is most looking forward to post-graduation, Johnson answered, “Just raising my kids and making memories, good ones. From here on out.”

To participate in the Safe Baby Court program, families must have at least one child who is 3 years old or younger. Family Treatment Court offers many of the same resources for parents and children, but it does not have that age restriction. There are currently around 20 open cases in Coffee County Safe Baby Court, Barrera said.

This December graduation was Coffee County’s fourth Safe Baby Court or Family Treatment Court graduation since those programs were established. The Coffee County Safe Baby Court, along with four other courts statewide, was established in January 2018 thanks to legislation sponsored by State Senator Ferrell Haile (R-Gallatin). Senator Haile was in attendance at the graduation as was State Representative Rush Bricken (R-Tullahoma).

Those five Safe Baby Courts were preceded by pilot courts in Davidson and Grundy Counties. Five more Safe Baby Courts were established in 2019, bringing the statewide total to 12 courts. Coffee County’s Family Treatment Court is the only one of its kind in the state.

One person who was instrumental in bringing these courts to Coffee County was Judge Tim Brock, who passed away unexpectedly in November 2019. His enthusiasm for these programs was remarked upon by many at the graduation. Magistrate Lynch lit a candle in his honor at the front of the courtroom at the beginning of the graduation ceremony, and said the same would be done prior to each subsequent graduation “so that he will always be here to watch over us.”

Judge Brock played an integral role in getting Sherrill involved in the program. He told Sherrill that if he wanted custody of his children he needed to go through Safe Baby Court.

Sherrill had been struggling with substance abuse for much of his life. As much as he wanted to, he just could not seem to get out of what he calls the “never-ending, vicious cycle” of his addiction. He decided to follow Judge Brock’s recommendation and go all in with the program.

“I said look I will do whatever you want me to do,” he remembers telling Recovery Court Director Lewis. “I was sick and tired of it. I was ready for change.”

Near the beginning of his time in Safe Baby Court, the change was jarring. But before too long, it started to pay big dividends.

“It was very stressful at first because I knew nothing of life; all I knew was how to use and how to sell drugs,” Sherrill said. “I had jobs before, but I was just working to get high. They taught me how to be a civil human being and how to get my priorities straight.”

After he joined the Safe Baby Court program, Sherrill got a full-time job. Nearly two years later, he still has it.

“I love my job,” he said.

Most importantly, he now has his kids, too. It is a happy ending for someone who not too long ago was stuck in the throes of substance abuse with no clear path out. Sherrill wants to savor the moment, but he also knows that there is a long road ahead.

“I had a sense of accomplishment, doing all of that,” Sherrill says of his feelings after graduating from the program. “Some people are like ‘oh it’s just a piece of paper’, but getting full custody of the kids… I’m like all this work finally payed off. It felt great. A sense of peace. But my journey didn’t end. I‘ve got to continue this recovery for the rest of my life.”

He hopes that his story will inspire others who find themselves in seemingly hopeless situations to make a change and ask for help.

“You’ve tried so many times to do it your way, and you’ve failed so many times and you’re sick and tired of that cycle, so just get out of your own way and let somebody help you and be willing to let them help you,” he said. “Be open-minded about it.”