Sunday, December 27, 2009

Together Again: Home for the Holidays (Their REAL Homes!)

Reunion is ultimate reward for families

Sunday, December 27, 2009
Erin Duffy
HAMILTON -- Beaming with pride, Samuel Burrell says he has received the best gift any father can get: After more than a year of separation, he's finally got his son back.

Focusing intently on his plate of macaroni and cheese, little Samuel Burrell, about 18 months old, paid his father and mother, Verona Burrell, little attention.

But his father can't stop smiling.

"This is the best Christmas gift anyone could have," he said.

The Burrells joined about 15 other families from Mercer and Burlington counties who celebrated their togetherness at Dec. 15's "Home for the Holidays" event at the Nottingham Ballroom.

The event, held by the Division of Children and Families (DCF) and the nonprofit Drenk Center, was one of five held in honor of families throughout the state who have been reunited with their children after losing them to foster care.

Kimberly S. Ricketts, the commissioner of the DCF, said such family reunions are much more common than some may think.

According to department statistics, there are currently 8,300 children in the state's foster-care system.

While some may be adopted or moved to different foster homes, 80 percent of kids placed in foster care because of abuse or neglect are eventually reunited with their families, Ricketts said.

"It's the families who wanted it," she said. "If they didn't want it, they wouldn't be here tonight."

Around the gaily decorated ballroom, parents chased after wayward toddlers and snapped pictures of kids sitting on Santa's lap, sharing glimpses of the domesticity that, in some cases, has been achieved only after tough battles.

For many of the parents at the event, it took more than a year to successfully petition for custody after their children were removed from their care by the state Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS).

Burrell, a Trenton resident, said he and little Samuel had been apart since the toddler's birth and were reunited only two months ago.

"Sometimes I felt discouraged, going back and forth to court," he said, "but it was well worth it. It's been a long-awaited blessing."

Ricketts and Harry Marmorstein, president and CEO of the Lester A. Drenk Behavioral Health Center, said the process of reunification is neither easy nor quick for many families.

The Drenk Center, which is headquartered in Hainesport but has offices in Hamilton, has a specific program, Mercer Reunification Services, that focuses on working with local parents whose children have been removed from their homes.

"These folks have worked real hard to get here tonight," Marmorstein said. "It can take a year, 18 months for a family to reunify."

Families often start out with supervised visits at the Drenk Center offices, where therapy sessions and parenting classes are also offered.

From there, families can work toward observation sessions, followed by home visitations. The Drenk Center and DCF typically follow reconnected families for a year, offering support and resources in case families hit rough patches.

The data show that once reunited, families usually stay that way, officials said.

According to 2007 statistics from the Chapin Hall research center at the University of Chicago, approximately 94 percent of New Jersey children reunified with their parents do not suffer substantiated abuse or neglect within 12 months of the reunification.

Parents like Adriana Mendez, from Trenton, and Kywana Edwards, from Asbury Park, said they are just grateful to have a second chance at a life with their kids, especially at holiday times.

"It feels good, because last year I didn't have the chance to spend the holidays with them," said Mendez, speaking through a translator. Mendez is the mother of 1-year-old Hailey and 4-year-old Wesley.

Edwards has four children, including two adopted to other families after being placed in foster care. Blinking back tears, she hoists up 2-year-old Elijah and points across the room to 10-year-old Tramel, with whom she was reunified after two years apart.

Tramel is on the honor roll, she boasts, and says he wants to follow in the footsteps of President Barack Obama one day.

"I'm just grateful to be here, because I did what people thought would never happen," she said. "I'm blessed, so blessed, that's all I can say."

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