‘Tough Love’ shows how a treatment court can help struggling parents change their lives

Equity and OpportunityFilmmaker Stephanie Wang-Breal wanted to give voice to a group of people who rarely have one — parents who have lost their children to the state welfare system because of alleged neglect or abuse. What resulted is a powerful new documentary – at times tender, at other times raw – that offers an intimate glimpse into the child welfare system.

Called “Tough Love,” the 83-minute film profiles two parents in two different parts of the country struggling to put their lives back together and to prove to court and state officials that they should be reunited with their children. It has particular meaning to people in King County. One of the parents profiled is a quiet, sturdy man named Patrick Brown, a North Bend resident who lost his daughter due to neglect and then went through a rigorous, two-year program at the King County Family Treatment Court to get her back. He was represented by two county public defenders, Alena Ciecko and Patricia Penn.

The film played to a nearly packed house at the SIFF Uptown Theater in September, a screening that drew judges, public defenders, employees from the Family Treatment Court and others to the Queen Anne theater. A panel discussion that included both Brown and Ciecko followed.

A panel discussion followed the screening of "Tough Love" at the Uptown. From left are Patrick Brown, Alena Ciecko, Judge Julia Garratt and Judge Patricia Clark. Photo by Leslie Brown.

A panel discussion followed the screening of “Tough Love” at the Uptown. From left are Patrick Brown, Alena Ciecko, Judge Julia Garratt and Judge Patricia Clark. Photo by Leslie Brown.

In the end, both parents were successful. The scene captured by the filmmaker at Family Treatment Court, when the two judges who oversaw Patrick’s case said he had successfully completed the program and praised him for his tenacity and commitment, was tender: His young daughter sat on his lap, holding him tightly, as he emotionally thanked the people who helped him through the process.

Alena had already seen the film but said it was quite meaningful to watch it again, this time surrounded by her peers and colleagues. “It felt like a good reminder of the importance of the work that we do,” she said. “We get caught up in the day to day and forget how much of an impact we can have on an individual’s life.” 

The Family Treatment Court just celebrated its 10th anniversary. Alena was glad Patrick was able to go through it. “I think the Family Treatment Court is the ultimate model and am so thankful our clients have access to it,” Alena said. 

(Article courtesy of the Department of Public Defense For the Defense newsletter, Nov. 2014).