The Free Press, Mankato, MN

July 9, 2009

Special court aimed at families

First 'graduate' goes through Family Dependency Court.

By Dan Nienaber

MANKATO — Alcohol was flowing, words were flying and things turned violent that night in May, 2008.

Things followed their usual path after that. Police officers arrived, Michael Bakke was arrested and Wendy Lowe, the mother of Bakke’s 8-year-old daughter, Morgan, was told Blue Earth County social workers would be notified about the domestic disturbance.

It had all happened before, usually to a lesser extent, but something the couple wasn’t prepared for came with a jolt the next day. Morgan and her brothers, 12-year-old Dylan and 14-year-old Colton, were removed from their Mankato home and placed in foster care.

“It was pretty devastating for both of us and it was hard for all three kids,” Bakke said. “But was the worst for Morgan. She didn’t understand what was going on.”

This time, it wasn’t as easy for the couple to open a bottle of booze and bury their problems by guzzling down a few thickly poured drinks. Had Bakke and Lowe taken that route, chances are they still wouldn’t be with their kids.

Instead, Bakke decided to participate in one of Blue Earth County’s newest problem solving courts. He became the first graduate of Family Dependency Court this week, officially closing his child in protective services case and regaining full custody of Morgan.

Kathy Kopka, his social worker for the court, said she was hoping Bakke’s graduation would close a long history with social services. Then she highlighted some numbers as Bakke waited to receive his plaque from District Court Judge Kurt Johnson.

Bakke had received clean readings on 51 drug and alcohol tests since starting as one of the court’s first members about nine months earlier, Kopka said. He’d attended more than 80 Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. There had been 135 conversations between Bakke and Kopka discussing his parenting skills and other issues.

Johnson runs his Family Dependency Court much like Drug Court, another problem solving court that has been operating in Blue Earth County since 2004. He said he believes both provide an alternative to simply focusing on the law without finding solutions to the problems that get people in trouble.

“Some people need to go to jail, and I have no problem throwing someone in jail,” Johnson said.

But some people commit crimes because they’re addicted to alcohol or other drugs, or because they have mental health problems, Johnson said. When those problems are addressed, the criminal behavior usually stops.

The financial benefit, of course, is participants who are successful become productive members of the community instead of a drain on law enforcement and social services resources, he added.

“We’re helping people,” Johnson said. “We’re actually making a difference in people’s lives instead of taking their kids away or throwing them in jail.”

Participants are required to participate in alcohol or drug treatment, attend parenting classes, have quality visitations with their children, show they can maintain a stable family environment and become financially stable, said Brenda Pautsch, drug court coordinator.

Lowe said she’s seen a change in Bakke since the children were taken from their home more than a year ago. He had already quit drinking before October, which is when the new Family Dependency Court started, she said. The children were allowed to return home in March.

“It was every night that I had to baby-sit,” Lowe said. “He was passing out with lit cigarettes in his hand.

“Now he wouldn’t even think about taking a drink.”

John Forsyth, a friend who spoke on Bakke’s behalf during the graduation ceremony, said Bakke and Lowe have both changed since the children were taken away. He called the experience a “wake up call.”

“He wasn’t going to see it until something like this hit him upside the head,” Forsyth said. “He’s learning how to live now when, before, he wasn’t able to commit to not drinking.

“He wants it now. His kids are very important to him.”