Children leave foster care to rejoin parents

Date: 2008-01-02

Daily Journal, The (Vineland, NJ)
Author: ANGELA DELLI SANTIThe Daily Journal

GLASSBORO -- Danielle Maslow watched her 8-year-old son slowly sound out the words in a puzzle book he had just been given at a party thrown by an agency that helps struggling families get back together.

It was a simple pleasure, watching Jamie play and learn, but one Maslow missed for 18 months while the two were separated and the boy was in foster care because of Maslow's drug addiction.

"Last year at this time I was homeless and I didn't have my son -- I had nothing," said Maslow, who now lives with her son and fiance in Haddon Heights, is expecting a baby girl in February and has been off crack cocaine for 15 months. "We're a family now."

Jamie, a third-grader in special education in Mount Holly, is among 7,737 children who left foster care in 2006, the majority of whom returned home, according to the Department of Children and Families. Children who enter foster care at his age typically spend about 11 months in out-of-home placements; they are most often removed from their homes because of neglect.

In the Maslows' case, Danielle called the Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS) herself, asking the agency to place Jamie in foster care after she relapsed into serious drug abuse.

With no home of her own, she crashed on her brother's couch while waiting for a spot in a rehab facility to open up. She spent the next year getting clean and proving to DYFS that she could be trusted again with her own child.

Unlike those who think DYFS rips families apart, Maslow is convinced that in the long run, the agency kept hers together.

She found support through Robins' Nest, a Glassboro-based social services agency contracted by the Children and Families to help reunite families separated because of neglect or abuse.

"Reunification will always be the goal as long as it's possible," said Kate Bernyk, a spokeswoman for Children and Families. The agency co-hosted "Home for the Holidays" parties in Glassboro and South Orange attended by 42 families reunited this year.

Children and Families pays agencies like Robins' Nest and Family Connections in Essex County to provide pre- and post-reunification services to children and parents. Those services include parenting classes, counseling and supervised visits; making sure children have pediatricians and medical insurance; linking parents to services such as welfare, food stamps and Medicaid; and ensuring adequate housing.

"We move from fully supervised visits to partially supervised visits to overnights and weekends," said Marlene Seamans-Conn, program director of Family Ties, a component of Robins' Nest. "We gradually shift the parenting responsibilities back to the parent. It's a nice transition over the course of several months, with the goal being total unification."

Family Connections maintains a remodeled Victorian house, Reunity House in South Orange, where parents and children can interact in a home setting during supervised visits while the children are still in foster care, said Jennifer Kerr, who manages Reunity House.

Cecilia Zalkind, executive director of the Association for Children of New Jersey, a children's advocacy group, applauds the use of independent community agencies to help support struggling families.

"I think it is very difficult for DYFS to be a policing agency and a family support agency," she said. "These programs have had great success in engaging families in services they need to get their children back, and provide an important source of support afterward."

Robins' Nest and Family Connections maintain contact with families long after the state decides they can be reunited. Weekly home visits continue for months afterward, before tapering off to telephone contact. Kerr said Family Connections stays in contact with its clients for "at least a year" after reunification.

The families at the parties were testimony to the success such reunification programs can have.

"This sends out a powerful message that parents really can reconnect with their children if they work hard on their issues," Seamans-Conn said.

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