Reunifed Michigan families, advocates share a beautiful day at Hall of Justice


Group Photo: Sun-dappled judges at the closing of Reunification Day are, left to right, Melissa Pope of the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi, Michigan Supreme Court Justice Bridget McCormack, Tim Connors of Washtenaw Country Court, Susan Dobrich of the Cass County Circuit Court Family Division, and Robert Butts, Cheboygan County Probate Court and chair of the highly-supportive Michigan Probate Judges Association. At right is Hunter Genia, who sang and drummed at both beginning and end.


by Cynthia Price
Legal News

A year ago, Michigan Supreme Court Justice Bridget McCormack attended Washtenaw County’s inaugural Family Reunification Day at the invitation of Judge Tim Connors (see Grand Rapids Legal News 7/3/2015).

The justice was so impressed and moved that she vowed on the spot to make the event statewide in 2016.

Though Justice McCormack said last Friday that she felt at the time it might have been a rash statement, staff of the Supreme Court and Department of Human Services Children’s Service Agency, among others, made it happen.

The June 24 celebration of parents who have turned their lives around and gotten their children back took place on the grounds of the Michigan Supreme Court building, and featured a luncheon before judges, reunified family members, and others spoke of their struggles to make family life work.

For the final part of the ceremony  Judge Connors and Judge Susan Dobrich of Cass County called up the  mothers of  the five families represented to tell of their experiences.

They spoke with pride of as many as 18 years in recovery and tremendous gratitude for the court system not giving up on them — “You didn’t just give me a second chance, with you, I? had a million chances,” said Thereasa McGill. A teenage boy, Chance, provided one of the day’s most touching moments as he told of the joy of getting to know his mother Kizzie Hogan as a nurturing and caring woman.

Reflecting on the celebration, Justice McCormack commented, “I was very moved by the entire program, but obviously by the stories of some of the parents who’ve gone through the process. Frankly, the young man moved me to tears.”

The event corresponded with the American Bar Association National Reunification Month of June.

The Michigan version paid homage to Native American leaders who have worked to overcome national policy that removed Indian children from their homes, with the sense that victories in Indian Country reunification echo the struggles of addicted and overwhelmed parents to reunify their own families.

Hunter Genia, Saginaw, Swan Creek, Black River Bands of Chippewa and Grand River Ottawa, performed a  traditional song, accompanying himself on a drum, for both the opening and closing of the celebration.
Homer Mandoka, a hard-working advocate for child welfare, spoke of the ways in which family reunification reflects the seven grandfather teachings: Love, Respect, Honesty, Bravery, Humility, Truth, and Wisdom. Mandoka is from the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi as is Judge Melissa Pope, who spoke, recognizing Mandoka’s effectiveness as well as the passion of people like Judge Connors.
Judge Pope noted the ongoing work done by Michigan’s Tribal State Federal Judicial Forum, originating in the work of former Michigan Supreme Court Justice Michael Cavanagh and Tribal Judge Michael Petoskey.

In 2015, more than half of the 8,000 plus children in foster care were reunited with their families. As several people noted throughout the event, reunification is always the goal of the judicial system, and deciding to terminate parental rights is a last resort. Friday’s event celebrated the major efforts courts and the state are making to put parents back on the path to caring for their own.

Such programs include the peer-to-peer modeled Parent Partners Program.

Stacie Bladen, DHHS Deputy Director of the Children’s Services Agency, noted that expansion of that and other programs to support family reunification was included in Gov. Snyder’s 2017 budget,
Justice McCormack said the Supreme Court would like to see individual county courts celebrating Reunification Day as they now do Adoption Day.