Muskegon County celebrates Family Reunification Day



By Diana L. Coleman

Legal News

Muskegon County Family Court celebrated Family Reunification Day last week with gusto and enthusiasm as it recognized both the families who have worked hard to put themselves in a better place so that they can get their children back from foster care, and the selfless efforts of the many in the family court system who helped them do that. The Honorable Gregory Pittman, presiding judge of the 14th Circuit Court Family Division, presided over the ceremonies. 

The celebration was preceded by music provided by Bob and Jackie Engel and refreshments by Ice Box Brand Ice cream bars, beverages. Printing was provided by United Way of the Lakeshore. Many of the agencies involved in the reunification process also had tables and materials at the marketplace.

Only six counties in Michigan observed family reunification day, and Muskegon County was one of them. American Bar Association’s Center on Children and the Law has designated June as National Reunification Month in an effort to recognize families and the many professionals who support them in having their children returned home from foster care.

The event was held at the Muskegon Farmer’s Market on Friday, June 30, 2017, and it is anticipated that it will become an annual observance by the Muskegon County Family Court. Judge Pittman welcomed everyone and explained the significance of the celebration. Retired judges, the Honorable Neil G. Mullally and the Honorable John C. Ruck, brought remarks. Other family court judges bringing remarks were the Honorable Kathy Hoogstra and the Honorable Brenda Sprader. Additional judges in attendance included the Honorable William C. Marrietti, Chief Circuit Court judge; the Honorable Raymond Kostrzewa, Chief District Court judge; and the Honorable Geoffrey T. Nolan, District Court judge. 

Many agencies and county governmental departments involved in the family reunification process were also present, including the county prosecutor D. J. Hilson, county public defender Fred Johnson Jr., family court referees, case workers, and foster parents. It was an inspiring presence of individuals who collaborate to bring families back together after they have been separated for reasons including drug abuse, poverty, homelessness, alcohol, domestic abuse, lack of parenting skills, and many others. The county forms a team of professionals, from various departments and agencies, who work together to help parents and children return to a cohesive family unit.

The keynote speaker was Michigan Supreme Court Justice Bridget Mary McCormack. Justice McCormack is deeply involved on the state and national level working with issues of family reunification. “I am so happy to be here,” she said. “I just left the celebration in Ingham County and Muskegon is one of only six counties in our state recognizing the ABA Family Reunification month. I think it is wonderful, and if you do it next year, I will be here again.” Justice McCormack gave an uplifting speech about family reunification and the tireless work of all involved throughout the sometimes-lengthy process. She hopes that more Michigan counties will build reunification teams and help more children and parents remain as a stable family unit.

A Family Reunification Awards program was created by Muskegon County Family Court, with the intention of giving awards annually at the family reunification celebration. An award for a foster care worker dedicated above and beyond to family reunification was named after the Honorable John C. Ruck, who presided over family court for many years. An award to be presented to a service provider for excellence in reunification support was named after the Honorable Neil G. Mullally, the retired probate/family court judge.

Judge Mullally presented the award named after himself to Kevin Schmidt, for his dedicated service as a parent mentor. Schmidt has focused his career on mentoring parents with the hope of reunification in their future.

Judge Ruck presented the 2017 John C. Ruck award to Lauren Crane for her dedicated service as a caseworker in family reunification. Crane was honored for the many hours she spent helping children in the foster care program and their parents, hours that often turn into months, even years.

The third newly-created award is the Muskegon County Reunification Award. This year the award was presented by Judge Pittman to Jesse Noel and Sherri Cox and their two daughters. Noel and Cox have worked through the family court and its related agencies for 17 months in attempt to reunite with their daughters. Judge Pittman also gave recognition to Candy Knoll , who has worked closely with the mother and father during the 17-month period, even taking them into her own home. It was a long journey – but such a happy ending, as the family is back together. The little girls, Dakota and Jessica, stole the show when they came on-stage and smiled and waved to everyone in attendance as they clung closely to their parents.

Muskegon County Commissioner Kenneth Mahoney represented the county on behalf of the board of commissioners. The county commission created a proclamation for County of Muskegon Reunification Day, June 30, 2017. The proclamation reads as follows:

  "Whereas, child safety is of the utmost importance; and

  Whereas, whenever possible and without sacrificing child safety, keeping Muskegon County families together is an important goal for our communities; and

  Whereas, prevention and reunification services are critical investments for our child safety system and help to safely reduce the number of children in the foster care system; and

  Whereas, all children need the care, love, security and stability of family unity, including parents, siblings, grandparents, and other extended family members to provide a solid foundation for personal growth, development and maturity; and

  Whereas, reunification takes hard work, commitment and investment of time and resources by parents, family members, social workers, foster parents, service providers, attorneys, courts, educators and the community; and

  Whereas child safety agencies, along with state and local governments, service providers and advocates, work together to strengthen and support families by providing resources, treatment, and education so parents and guardians are able to safely care for their children; and

  Whereas, Family Reunification Day is an opportunity to recognize families who have successfully rectified the conditions that brought their children into out-of-home care; and

  Whereas, Family Reunification Day is an opportunity to recognize the agencies and service providers who have helped the families rectify the conditions that brought their children into out-of-home care; and

  Therefore be it resolved, that the Muskegon County Board of Commissioners hereby proclaim June 30, 2017, as Reunification Day and recognize those families, children and staff who work tremendously hard to make it possible."

Seeing the happiness on the faces of the young family reunited after 17 months of struggling through the issues that separated them, receiving the treatment and education necessary to put their lives on the road to successful parenting and reunification with their children, was an emotional moment for all present. Many of those bringing remarks, including those the awards were named after, became choked-up and emotional seeing the joy of the reunification of families who have walked the long mile with the help of so many in Muskegon County. 

Congratulations to those individuals for receiving awards for dedicated service to family reunification and to Judge Pittman and Muskegon County Family Court and associated services for a job well done.