When Bryan O'Neill looks in the mirror he sees a winner.

He's been clean and sober more than two years. He is raising his 23-month-old daughter, and he's managing a restaurant.

"I've got a car now. I pay insurance on my car. There's food in my refrigerator, and these are things I never had before. These are things I used to have to steal or hustle for before," said the Tucson resident, 29.

O'Neill is a result of the Engaging Fathers initiative undertaken by Pima County Superior Court, Arizona Child Protective Services and the Arizona Division of Child Support Enforcement. Other participants include Pima County Juvenile Probation, Court Appointed Special Advocates, various attorneys and service agencies.

In recent years authorities nationwide have realized there are far more minority children in the foster-care system than white children and that those children are less likely to be reunited with their families or adopted, said Pima County Superior Court Judge Karen Adam.

When CPS caseworkers in Phoenix discovered that reaching out to black fathers resulted in 75 percent fewer foster care placements, Adam said, she decided to form a committee to brainstorm ways to get fathers of all races more involved in their children's lives.

If officials can get fathers involved, not only does it open the possibility the child can live with dad, but perhaps a member of dad's family.

"Children do better in school and are less likely to be involved in the criminal justice system or use drugs if their father is active in their life," said Carol Punske-Brasch, assistant program manager for CPS. "They are better adjusted."

Adam said that in years past it would have been an especially difficult project to undertake because a family's dynamics were rarely understood fully because child support, divorces, guardianships and child custody issues were handled by separate judges even if only one family was involved.

However, Adam had high hopes for the Engaging Fathers initiative because Pima County has made great strides in consolidating all existing cases under the "one-family, one-judge concept."

Now when a mom is under investigation for abuse or neglect, the judge knows everything going on in the family, and the same procedures are followed every time, Adam said.

The judge first determines if paternity has been established. Sometimes, parents who are never married have been content to handle finances informally, whether they remain a couple or not. Other times, fathers have never been told they are fathers.

If paternity has not been established, efforts are made to do so, even if it means tracking the father down, Adam said.

Once paternity is established, then child support orders are made.

Children who are properly supported financially have the best chance of succeeding in life, said Bianca Varelas, program manager for the Division of Child Support Enforcement.

Surprisingly, one of the things discovered when the committee was formed was that CPS had data readily available to it to find fathers whom Child Support Enforcement did not, Adam said. They now share that information.

In 2008, 74 special paternity cases were opened, Adam said. As of Dec. 21 this year, 138 such cases were filed.

The increased communication between all the agencies and the parents also means child support is going to the proper person, Varelas said. Modifications are made much more quickly now, and noncustodial parents are developing a better level of trust, she said.

The committee has also discussed the best way to approach fathers, especially those who may not have been involved with their children, Adam said.

"What they say on that first meeting is so important," Adam said. "It's not 'Where have you been? You owe $50,000 in child support!' That's not effective."

Instead, caseworkers ask the fathers what their relationship has been with their children and what they would like it to be. They then figure out what issues the father may have to resolve before he can have a good relationship with the child, Adam said.

It's rare to find a father who doesn't require some sort of assistance, Adam said.

The father may not be immediately equipped to have custody of his children. He may have roommates or work three shifts or be dealing with something more serious such as drug addiction.

Committee members have learned from focus groups that some fathers wanted to play a more active role in their child's life, but messages they left with CPS weren't returned, Adam said. Other times, the mothers put up roadblocks for the fathers.

Punske-Brasch said they also learned case managers let the fathers' anger and frustration intimidate them and didn't reach out to them as they should have. In addition, some fathers assumed the mothers stood a better chance in court than they did and chose not to get involved.

When O'Neill's daughter was born in January 2009, her mother was losing her battle with drug addiction. She died in March 2010. O'Neill himself was working at a fast-food restaurant and was only four months clean and sober.

He found himself part of the Engaging Fathers Initiative through the Family Drug Court Program, over which Adam presides.

He went through drug counseling, parenting classes and anger management.

Everyone who helped him along the way was "awesome," O'Neill said. Adam continues to drop by to see him at his new job at a family restaurant on an informal basis.

"They did everything they could to help me help myself," O'Neill said.

Just because fathers may be getting more involved with their children, that doesn't guarantee they will get custody, however, Adam said.

While the fathers are working toward bettering themselves, the mothers are often working with CPS at the same time, Adam said.

"Each parent is on equal footing. They both need to be available to their children, and we treat them equally," Punske-Brasch said.

If both parents are successful, they are sent to mediation where issues such as child custody and parenting time are worked out, Adam said.

Although children are not represented by lawyers when parents typically get divorced, they are represented in these cases, Adam said.

If mediation doesn't work, the couple goes to trial.

The earlier the fathers can be involved in their child's life, the more likely it is they will stay involved, Adam said.

O'Neill said he often reflects on the classes he took through the program to remind him how far he's come.

"I encourage guys to go out there and get involved, to make better lives for themselves," O'Neill said.

Contact reporter Kim Smith at 573-4241 or kimsmith@azstarnet.com