Family Reunification Day the 'best outcome' for kids

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 Thursday 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 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.

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.

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

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.

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!''

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

Published: Mon, Jul 4, 2011

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