Families Celebrate Fresh, Unified Start 6/13/14 06/15/14 10:14:21 PM
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Debbie Carlson, right, widow of former Nebraska Court of Appeals Judge Ted Carlson, supervises Domesti-
PUPS volunteers attending the Reunification Day celebration.
Families Celebrate Fresh, Unified Start
Julien R. Fielding
The Daily Record
Celebration was in the air last Saturday, at Boys Town. Anyone walking into the Great Hall, between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., might have wondered if he or she had stumbled upon a wedding reception.
Children wearing balloon hats played games. Raffle numbers were being called. Families, sitting together, were enjoying a meal, while listening to a DJ spinning hits. Some responded to those tunes by forming a Conga line, and once that dissipated, they performed synchronized dance numbers. It was noisy, vibrant, and, despite the weather
But this wasn’t a wedding reception. It was National Reunification Day, and, for five years, the Separate Juvenile Court for Douglas County Nebraska, has been inviting court personnel, lawyers, social workers, community service providers and familiesto come and celebrate their success stories; families such as Diana Awtry and her 13-year-old
When asked how she felt on this day, Awtry didn’t hesitate: “Happy and joyful. Next month, it will be one year since I got my son back in my life. I hadn’t thought about that until I was in the parking lot.”
Awtry explained the source ofmher problems: Drug addiction. “I was caught with $20 of meth,” she said. “They told me that I had so much meth in my system that they were surprised I was stillalive.”
Until that arrest, Awtry had somehow managed to keep her drug addiction hidden from her family. But all that changed, and as one might expect the fallout was devastating. “I lost my family; I lost my kids … I lost my world,” she added.
Diana Awtry and her son D-Sean celebrate their success story.
Wanting to rebuild what she had lost, Awtry “gave into the system,” and, with amazing determination and effort, and a lot of help along the way, including the Drug Court and her caseworker, Leigh Gootgeld, she is, today,three years clean.
“My advice is that if your kids are your life, you need to do everything you can for them,” she said. “You have to do what you have to do. I have no regrets. They call meth the ‘devil’s drug,’ and it is. It took my house, my job and my kids, but today life is so much better. I got my dad back in my life. I have a job, a car and a place to live. It was my fault; I didn’t say ‘no.’”
Substance abuse, domestic violence, mental illness, poverty, neglect … all of these conditions,may result in a child being removed from his or her home. How long before that child can be reunified with his or her familydepends on the situation.
But even though situations may,differ, one condition remains the,same: If parents are motivated, stay in the program, and work on their issues, they can be successful.
“If they follow through, I promise they will turn their lives around,” said Judge Doug Johnson of the Douglas County Juvenile Court, who attended the festivities with his standard poodle Finnegan, a Domesti-PUP intraining.
“It happens more often than not.”
He said the families there “believed in themselves and successfully completed their juvenile court journey.”
According to Johnson, when juvenile court has to intervene in the lives of families, its goal is to protect children and preserve and reunify families where abuse or neglect has occurred or when youth on probation have been placed outside of their home. Each year that goal is accomplished in Douglas County for hundreds of families.
The idea for a reunification celebration started in the late 1990s, on the tail of President Clinton’s proclamation that November would be National Adoption Month. Although adoptions are “great,” Johnson explained, the majority of child removal cases result in reunification, “and we needed to celebrate the journey that families had made.”
Nick Juliano, senior director for Community Impact/Business Development at Boys Town, agreed: “You read a lot about child removals, but never about reunifications. They are very common, yet rarely celebrated. We wanted to raise public awareness of those people who get their lives back.”
A call went out, far and wide, to other “stakeholders” who wanted to help plan a reunification day event, but it only came together after Judge Connie Cohen, Fifth Judicial District of Iowa, gave them that final push. “She said, ‘We’ve talked about this enough already; I’m doing it. Get it going,’” Johnson said.
And the Douglas County Juvenile Court judges did, but not without the assistance of many partners over the years, including Boys Town, Nebraska FamiliesCollaborative, Health and Human Services, CASA, Foster Care Review Board, ConAgra, LuederConstruction, Your Way DeeJay,Studio C41 and a host of local attorneys who work in Douglas County Juvenile Court.
In the beginning, the local Reunification Day event took place in Elmwood Park. This year, it changed venues for several reasons. “Our planning group decided to have it at Boys Town, because we have a nice lake and picnic area,” Juliano said. “At Elmwood, we had people walking through; it wasn’t just dedicated to the families. With the rain predictions, we decided to move it indoors.”
RSVPs were up significantly this year, Juliano said. “These things start small. Every year we see a few more people. And we have some families who come back every year. It’s a good way for everyone to come together and
celebrate what they’ve done.”
The local Reunification Day is held in conjunction with the nationwide celebration. Organizations involved in National Reunification Day include the American Bar Association National Project to Improve Representation for
Parents Involved in the Child Welfare System, the ABA Center on Children and the Law, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Casey Family Programs, the National Association of Counsel for Children, the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, the National Foster Care Coalition and the National Quality Improvement Center on Non-Resident Fathers and the Child Welfare System.
Also in attendance at the celebration were about half a dozen Domesti-PUPS, part of a service organization headquartered in Lincoln, with satellite operations in Omaha and St. Joseph, Mo.
Its mission is to improve the quality of life for persons with special needs through the assistance of animals and to promote awareness through education. Domesti-PUPS provides service dogs for persons with disabilities, pet therapy programs, classroom dogs and educational programs. The pups are also turning up in courtrooms, where they provide a calming influence during stressful situations. Domesti-PUPS serves
clients locally, regionally and nationally.