Together again: Family Reunification Day the 'best outcome' for kids

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By Jo Mathis

Legal News

Back when Janiva Magness was bounced from one foster home to another until she'd lived in 12 homes in two years, nobody talked about where she resided or why.

So the Mount Clemens native had tears in her eyes and a wide smile as she watched 11 Detroit area families honored for doing the hard work it took to be reunited following a court-ordered separation.

"Back then, there was no recognition of the kinds of things that happened today, so today was beautiful to me," said Magness, 54.

Eleven Detroit area families were honored Thursday, June 23, at the Wayne County Juvenile Court's second annual Family Reunification Day at the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center.

"Each of these families has had a very compelling story and each of them has worked extremely hard to be reunited with their children," said Christina Vadino, permanency specialist with the Third Circuit Court's Juvenile Division. "Even though families sometimes need to be separated because of neglect or mistreatment or some other circumstance, many families do make the effort to work on their problems and deserve to have their children back. Reunification is really the best outcome for children."

Held in conjunction with the Michigan Department of Human Services, private foster care agencies and the juvenile attorney bar, the day also recognized the families' foster care specialists, caregivers and other community partners who helped make the reunions possible.

Third Judicial Circuit Court Presiding Judge Leslie Kim Smith said that when she was first appointed to juvenile court, she knew nothing about child welfare other than the horror stories she'd heard through the media.

But the vast majority of children who enter foster care are there because of allegations of neglect rather than abuse, and the root cause is poverty, she said.

Citing the statistics that show children in foster care don't fare as well as those in intact families, she said ways must be found to improve the child welfare system.

She said parents whose children have been temporarily removed from their care tend to be "good people in difficult situations trying to do better for themselves and their children."

In the past year, about 1,000 children were reunited with a parent through the Wayne County Juvenile Court.

These parents enter court-ordered treatment plans tailored to the needs of their families. That often included parenting classes, therapy tailored to specific issues, an evaluation, in- or out-patient therapy, and family therapy, which could include the children.

Each family was individually honored as they received a certificate and gift bag.

After the program, Marlon Davis of Detroit said it was a great day.

"I have my baby in my custody," he said with a smile, as he held his 9-month-old daughter, Ne-vaeh.

In order to be reunited with his daughter, Davis had to enroll in a drug treatment and parenting class, undergo random drug testing, and land a job so he could find a stable home. His wife, Aklia Scott, took classes of her own. Meanwhile, a maternal great aunt and uncle cared for the baby for those two months.

Davis said the separation was tough, but in the seven months they've been back together, things are going well.

"It means everything to me," he said, when asked what it means to be reunited with his daughter. "If I don't wake up and see her smiling face, then I'm not happy."

In her keynote address, Magness told how she lived in a dozen foster homes after each of her parents committed suicide.

Her first suicide attempt was at the age of 4; her last, at 19. By then, she'd given birth to a daughter and released her for adoption four months later when she realized she couldn't give her the life she deserved.

Thanks largely to her 12th foster parent and dedicated professionals in her support system who loved her when she couldn't love herself, Magness said she has gone on to live a life she couldn't have imagined. She said she's worked very hard for it, but now every day she feels like the luckiest woman alive.

A celebrated blues singer who tours the world giving some 170 concerts a year, Magness is also the spokesperson for National Foster Care Month and ambassador of Foster Care Alumni of America. Her responsibilities include telling her life story of "dark highlights" in public, a task that has liberated her.

"It's easy to tell the truth," she said. "I never knew that."

Magness said that because so much attention has been paid to the bad news surrounding foster care, the public already knows that parts of the system are broken.

"I'm interested in speaking to the successes," she said. "I'm interested in doing everything I can to encourage and inspire more good people to step forward."

She said that just as social workers, probation officers, a seventh grade English teacher, and one remarkable foster parent were there for her when she needed help, now it's her turn to throw a rope to others in distress.

"Be part of someone's quantum leap," she told the crowd.

According to the Michigan Department of Human Services, there are 14,700 children in Michigan's foster care system. About 3,200 of them will be adopted because a court terminated parental rights following abuse or neglect.

"We need more good people coming up to the line," Magness said. "Fostering isn't right for everyone, but it's right for a whole lot of people."

After the family is reunited, the court maintains jurisdiction for at least three months as it determines whether the situation is healthy. Studies show that reunification in the vast number of cases works out well, with the rate of return to out-of-home care very low, Vadino said.

Maura Corrigan, director of the Michigan Department of Human Services and a former justice on the Michigan Supreme Court, called the day a demonstration of love in action.

"I traded this really good job on the Supreme Court for a really tough job," said Corrigan, who took on her new role in January. "And today is a day that I relish. In the 39 years that I've been a judge and a lawyer, I was so glad to come to work today. It doesn't get any better than this!"

Addressing each family by name, she said each parent has done amazing work for their children.

"They belong with you," she said. "And you have our admiration and you have our prayers ... We are praying for you. And know you are not alone. We are here to help you. We love you. We want you to face the challenges of life with a clear focus and may you inspire others to recover and to heal and to lead a Cadillac of a life."

For ideas on how to help children in the foster care system, go to www.fostercaremonth.org.

Published: Thu, Jul 14, 2011

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