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The Power of a Helping Hand

mother_daughter_hands_psAnn Williams is more than willing to admit she’s dug some of the holes she’s found herself in over the years. A mother of four children, Ann’s life took the first of many wrong turns in 1984 when she developed a cocaine addiction that would set her on a cycle of relapse and recovery for years — all the while struggling to provide for her family.

Her family’s future was at its bleakest in November 2009 when she relapsed and was faced with falling back into addiction and not being able to care for her youngest son, Nehemiah.

To take responsibility for her own actions and get help for her family, Ann called the New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS), the state’s child protective agency. Nehemiah was immediately removed from her home and placed into foster care, leaving Ann with an uncertain path to repair her fractured family.

After months of strained interactions with caseworkers and struggling to regain custody of Nehemiah, DYFS finally referred Ann to a therapeutic visitation home called Reunity House in South Orange, NJ. Run byFAMILYConnections, an organization that provides a variety of educational, therapeutic and prevention services to over 4,400 children, adults, and families each year in New Jersey, Reunity House gives parents the tools to successfully reunify their families and keep them together.

“Reunity House was the best thing that ever happened to me,” said Ann.

She describes a “home environment” that helped her relax during her supervised visits with Nehemiah. When she wasn’t visiting her son, Ann attended classes designed to improve her parenting skills and had regular meetings with a therapist.

New Jersey’s child welfare system didn’t always have these services. The system was once plagued by a lack of resources, inadequate leadership, and failed policies — and that’s when Children’s Rights stepped in. The landmark settlement from our class-action lawsuit helped create policies that finally prioritized and invested in family-focused services like the ones offered through FAMILYConnections.

“When the settlement first happened, it was a wonderful time to build services. We had the expertise to make a difference and the settlement made sure the money was there to do just that,” said Paula Sabreen, executive director of FAMILYConnections.

The success that families are able to achieve at Reunity House comes from the organization’s commitment to understanding the situations their clients face.

“When we work with parents, we understand that they’ve been brutalized by the system,” said Sabreen, “A lot of systems just assume parents are bad parents without thinking about the violence and poverty in the communities many of these parents are trying to raise a family in.”

Taking into account their clients’ many challenges is only the beginning though. The program at Reunity House also emphasizes turning their clients into the best parents they can be.

“We set clear expectations from a strengths-based approach. We basically look at everyone as having something to offer,” said Sabreen, “We’re just there for them and that makes a big difference.”

According to Sabreen, 100 percent of families that complete the Reunity House program remain stable and together for at least a year.

As for Ann and Nehemiah — after lots of hard work on the part of Ann and with the help of Reunity House — they have been successfully reunified.

A family once on the verge of being torn apart forever is now building a better future, together.

These are exactly the kinds of results for kids and families that Children’s Rights fights for — not just in New Jersey, but across the nation. And we will continue to do so until every family is able to get the same chance at happiness as Ann and Nehemiah.