#childsafety | Choosing fatherhood: Faced with the unexpected, one man turned his back on addiction to embrace being a dad – Brainerd Dispatch


BRAINERD — In the tightening grip of methamphetamine addiction, Mike Hennessey took a phone call in 2018 that would set him on a life-changing path.

On the other end of the line was a Crow Wing County social worker, who told Hennessey the agency removed his son and daughter from their mother’s home for their protection.

“They asked me to come up here,” Hennessey said Thursday, June 16. “So I came up here, and I was a mess. You know, I was deep, deep into it. And they sat me down and said, ‘You’ve got an opportunity and a chance.’ And so that’s when it started.”

Mike Hennessey smiles for a photo Thurday, June 16, 2022. Four years earlier, Hennessey quit using methamphetamine cold turkey to gain full custody of his children.
Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch

Hennessey, a former Brainerd lakes area resident who’s since moved back to his hometown of Hutchinson, shared an inconsistent relationship with his children at the time. He’d spent nearly four years of their young lives behind bars, serving a federal sentence for his involvement in a conspiracy to distribute meth. Although Hennessey maintained sobriety for more than five years after his release, the death of his mother caused a descent into the addiction that plagued him since his teenage years.

“At that point, I just didn’t really care. I didn’t care if I tipped over dead or whatnot. I just kept partying,” he said.

But his will to live resurfaced that day when he realized 11-year-old Tyson and 9-year-old Hannah needed their father.

“(They told me) first, you know, sober up. Seek help — treatments, counseling,” Hennessey said. “They sat me down right in the room, the social worker and the guardian ad litem, and told me if you want a chance, you know, a shot, you have to do this. I looked them right in the eye and I said, ‘I can do it.’”

A guardian ad litem represents the interests of children in child protection within the courts, but those who serve in the role are independent of both the county and judicial system.

“Mike hit the ground running. He didn’t waste one minute,” said Leigha Sanow, the child protection worker assigned to Hennessey’s case, during a phone interview Friday. “I mean, there are a lot of folks that get involved with child protection and it’s a forced intervention. And they’re not ready to make the change. They’re not ready to make big changes in their life in order to … reunify with their kids. And Mike, he didn’t waste one minute.”

Mike Hennessey and daughter Hannah
Mike Hennessey smiles as he looks at his daughter Hannah.
Contributed / Mike Hennessey

Sanow said Hennessey’s love for his children — and their love for him — was never in question. His love for himself, however, needed some work.

“It wasn’t that he didn’t need them in his life. He just always sat back,” she said. “He sat back and had a relationship with his kids when it worked for the mother, and he’ll talk about that. He’s like, ‘I just, you know, I got contact with them but I didn’t believe I ever could. I didn’t have the esteem, I didn’t believe I could myself.’

“But there was something about Mike that day. He literally showed up and he admitted, ‘I’m not sober, I don’t know what I’m doing, I don’t know how to do this, I’ve never been a parent — I’ve never been a full-time parent.’ … It was like, ‘You can do this. These kids need you.’”

Sanow said she explained to Hennessey if he didn’t step up, his kids and their half-siblings would likely be separated from one another.

“He didn’t fight (the guardian ad litem) and I — he was a sponge. He was like, ‘What do I need to do? Where do I need to do it? I will do whatever it takes to get my kids,’” she said. “And he did.”

Hennessey said while he knew he could rely on the county for resources and support, the decision to change his life ultimately rested in his hands. He never used meth again after leaving the meeting, he said — he quit cold turkey and sought help from an outpatient treatment program. Although he felt horrible at first, it wasn’t long before he noticed changes in his physical and mental health.

Lisa Valiant and Mike Hennessey speak during an interview
Mike Hennessey, right, speaks about his journey to full-time fatherhood alongside girlfriend Lisa Valiant during an interview Thursday, June 16, 2022, at the Brainerd Dispatch.
Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch

“Being that deep into it, you don’t feel good. You feel miserable, and you just hate life,” Hennessey said. “ … But then I was getting sleep, eating normal. Just my all-around appearance got better.”

While Hennessey picked up the pieces of his life and worked through a lengthy to-do list with Crow Wing County Community Services — including a chemical use assessment, psychological evaluation, treatment and therapy — the kids stayed with a relative. He traveled back and forth to Brainerd for visits with them at the nonprofit Alex & Brandon Child Safety Center and to meet with county staff. Hennessey said he quickly developed a positive, trusting relationship with his child protection social worker.

“I was just straight open and honest, and I did everything they asked me to do,” Hennessey said. “I just jumped on it and did it. A lot of work, but it was worth it. … Seeing what the kids went through, it was all the ambition and drive that I needed.”

Through all the steps he took to prepare, he faced another surprise when he learned the county also removed the kids from their relative’s home.

Kids pose together near an uprooted tree
Mike Hennessey’s children Tyson, left, and Hannah pose together with an uprooted tree.
Contributed / Mike Hennessey

“One day, I just got the call and they said, ‘Can you go get the kids and get them now, today?’” Hennessey said, adding he needed to stop at the grocery store first. “ … It was a huge blessing. There was a lot of tears, you know. But it all worked. It all paid off.”

Lying in bed on the first night of his full-time fatherhood, Hennessey said he felt like the luckiest man in the world. The next morning marked the beginning of the rest of his life — when the real work began.

Sanow said again, she watched Hennessey take every step he could to do his best, relying on her and the guardian ad litem for instructions and advice in the early months, especially when it came to his relationship with Hannah.

“He’s like, ‘Oh my God, I don’t know what to do,’” Sanow said. “ … His kids were going through things on top of the child protection case, all of like these normal, typical things that kids go through, and he didn’t know what to do. And so he literally used both of us as mentors.”

Lisa Valiant and Mike Hennessey sit together for photo
Lisa Valiant, left, and Mike Hennessey pose for a photo together Thursday, June 16, 2022. Valiant and Hennessey are raising Hennessey’s kids together.
Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch

Then, a woman entered his life. Lisa Valiant said she knew Hennessey as a teenager when he was friends with her brother, but they became reacquainted in 2019. With her own history of addiction, she said she understood Hennessey’s journey and appreciated the ups and downs. She and the kids got along well from the beginning, both Hennessey and Valiant said, and together they formed a family unit.

“I think one thing we really tried to focus on is creating a normal family structure — you know, it’s family dinners and talking through your day. Something that they didn’t really get to do a lot of, and that’s been a learning experience,” Valiant, 42, said. “That’s something I’ll never forget: the first time we sat down for a family dinner, nobody really said anything, because I don’t think anybody knew what to say or how to say it, or like, ‘What is this?’ So it’s just learning those things that some people learn throughout the years growing up.”

Valiant, who does not have children of her own, said she and Hennessey learned the tricks and trials of parenthood together. Watching him morph into the dad he is today has been phenomenal, she said.

Mike Hennessey and son Tyson on a boat
Mike Hennessey, left, and son Tyson celebrate the Fourth of July while on the water.
Contributed / Mike Hennessey

“I’ve seen the growth and the, even just sometimes, struggles,” she said. “We’ve had a lot of conversations about things where maybe if he struggles or gets frustrated or something, we kind of talk through it and he learns from it, and then the next time it’s a whole lot different. And just to see their relationships evolve.

“I wish everybody could see it. It’s very inspiring. … Just the building of relationships and watching them change and grow up and experience things — everybody should see it.”

Overcoming the trauma and challenges of their own experiences, Tyson, 15, and Hannah, 14, are thriving now, Hennessey said. Both are good students and involved in athletics and other activities. Tyson has a job and Hannah wants one. And Hennessey said he’s determined to keep supporting their dreams and goals, to keep their lives headed in a positive direction. The kids might be embarrassed by him sometimes, but he feels their appreciation.

“When it comes down to the serious side of it — I got a Christmas card, ‘Thanks for stepping up, Dad,’” he said, his eyes welling with tears. “ … It feels good. It keeps the importance in it, and knowing I can’t slip up, because they’re going to see that and know it’s OK to do that.”

Asked what they love most about their dad, Tyson and Hannah shared similar answers.

Mike Hennessey and daughter Hannah laugh on the couch together
Mike Hennessey and daughter Hannah share a laugh together on the couch.
Contributed / Mike Hennessey

“The ability to find humor in everything,” Tyson said.“Sometimes he’s funny,” Hannah added. “And he doesn’t freak out when things go wrong at school.”

Sanow said she hears from Hennessey every couple of months with photos and updates, and she feels grateful to be part of his family’s story. Hennessey now officially has full custody.

“This truly is the reason why people do child protection. It’s just the folks like Mike. It’s true, it’s intervention, and it truly is about seeing people take the opportunity and make growth and change in their life and do it,” Sanow said. “ … It’s sort of a miracle.”

Hennessey said he hopes others experiencing addiction or involved in the child protection system overcome and get the chance to live life as he does now.

“Don’t ever give up,” he said. “I mean, just try. You can try and fall down. Just get back up. Try again. It’s worth every moment. And it can be done.”

CHELSEY PERKINS, community editor, may be reached at 218-855-5874 or

chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com

. Follow on Twitter at

twitter.com/DispatchChelsey

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