They shared one thing: They’d faced the unthinkable, losing their kids.
Cheryl experienced homelessness, and struggled to keep her teenager in school. Even while undergoing kidney dialysis, though, she followed through on court orders to get her son back from foster care.
Desmond and Lauren overcame substance abuse and mental health issues to get their baby girl back; now he’s in college, and the couple is getting married next Valentine’s Day.
Amanda, Jannelle, Destiny, Danielle, Sanovia, Tevin and Hilda – all New Jersey parents like Cheryl, Desmond and Lauren – beat similar challenges, especially housing instability, before getting their kids back from foster care. Some had narrowly avoided family separation in the first place, the most extreme outcome of New Jersey’s Division of Child Protection and Permanency opening an investigation into alleged child maltreatment.
These New Jersey parents, identified only by their first names, participated in a unique event Tuesday celebrating their family unions.
Many in the public only hear about the child welfare system in the ultra-rare instance where a parent kills a child after an agency failed to intervene, generating horrific headlines. Otherwise, foster and adoptive parents are typically the focus of public attention, or foster youth overcoming great odds. But many parents in low-income communities, particularly in Black and Native American families, see the system as an uncaring menace, with child welfare caseworkers too often confusing poverty and related hardships as child maltreatment.
Cheryl, Desmond and the other New Jersey parents, supporters, advocates and officials from around the country gathered online Tuesday to celebrate the child welfare system’s far more common reality: Of the more than 423,000 children in foster care last fall, 55% had a court-mandated goal of reunification with one or both parents, according to federal data. Of the roughly 250,000 children who exited foster care last year, just less than half left to reunify with their parents.
The 11th-annual Family Unification Day this week was a joyful but also solemn reflection on how that outcome unfolds. It’s a one-of-a-kind event usually hosted in-person in New Brunswick by a pro bono legal aid group, the Legal Services of New Jersey, and features keynote addresses from prominent judges and government officials. More than 100 families have been honored over the years. This year, due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic shutdowns, the celebration moved online.
Legal Services’ Chief Counsel Jeyanthi Rajaraman presided over the 30-minute event, introducing in quick succession the difficult, inspiring stories of her firm’s most memorable clients from the past year, and the people who helped them along the way.
Tevin of Essex County faced housing, unemployment and substance abuse issues. In 2017, he was ordered to repair his relationship with his 4-year-old daughter’s mother. This past February, after what Rajaraman described as significant “personal sacrifice,” he narrowly avoided a permanent termination of his parental rights, completed services, and got his daughter back.
Diana, the child’s state-employed adoption planner, recognized Tevin’s potential and encouraged him not to give up. She pushed his child’s case toward reunification instead of adoption.
“We stand in awe of the Herculean efforts of parents who persevere for the sake of their children,” said Rajaraman, describing how parents overcame looming odds, deprivation, violence and racism, to succeed in rebuilding their families, often with the help of lawyers, or foster parents, or even the sometimes-feared child welfare authorities.
Rajaraman noted the potential tipping point her field has reached: Amid a historic year of protests for racial justice and incremental policy and political gains for the national parent advocacy movement, which her organization supports, she described an opportunity for change “in the governmental response to disadvantaged families’ needs for security and stability.”
She expressed hope the changes could benefit the one-third of New Jersey residents who live in “true poverty.”
Jerry Milner, associate commissioner of the federal Children’s Bureau within the Department of Health and Human Services, delivered the keynote at last year’s Unification Day. He had recently announced a regulatory change that could boost funding to chronically underfunded legal defense for parents and children in the child welfare system, a quality-of-justice improvement that could help keep families together. More recently, Wisconsin Rep. Gwen Moore (D) introduced pandemic-related legislation that would pause federal deadlines for states to file for termination of parental rights.
Parents and legal advocates like Rajaraman have warned that it’s unrealistic to expect low-income parents to fulfill all court-ordered requirements needed to reunify on pre-pandemic timelines, given that courts are shuttered, employment and decent housing is increasingly difficult to obtain and substance abuse and domestic violence prevention classes are hobbled by shelter-in-place orders.
In an op-ed published by The Imprint earlier this year, Milner and his Children’s Bureau colleague David Kelly seemed to agree, warning that local child welfare agencies’ attorneys shouldn’t “weaponize our systemic shortcomings and use them against parents.”
During Tuesday’s event, little mention was made of another common and telling theme among the families being celebrated: Most had been reunified before the coronavirus pandemic began spreading in March.