July 18, 2024 11:13 pm

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Snohomish County courts recognize and celebrate family reunification

EVERETT—Snohomish County Courthouse held its first ever family reunification ceremony at the Denney Juvenile Justice Center followed by a picnic in Everett on Friday, June 14, in honor of June being Family Reunification Month.

The American Bar Association has recognized June as Family Reunification month since 2018, a counterbalance to National Adoption Day.

The honorable Judge Jon E. Scott took the bench where he reviewed, and subsequently dismissed, three cases in which children had been separated from their parents after the courts: parents Rochelle, Taylor, and Angel.

snohomish family reunification
A father holds his son close as Judge Scott dismisses his case, Lynnwood Times, Kienan Briscoe

Rochelle Greene has worked diligently with the court system to be reunited with her daughter Alice and has continually prioritized her daughter’s own interests over her own throughout her case, her attorney presented in court.

Each family with a dismissed case was presented with a certificate and plaque by the court in honor of their hard work and ultimately reunification.

“With a dependency case the north star for us is to ensure the safety, health, and welfare of the children,” said Judge Scott. “Sometimes that requires the placement of the children be placed away from the care of their parents. The law recognizes that in those cases the best result, when out of home placement is required, is the reunification of the family and the law demands that we work towards that goal.”

snohomish family reunification
Judge Scott sits behind the bench at Denney Juvenile Justice Center in Everett, Lynnwood Times, Kienan Briscoe

A lot of moving parts go in to making that happen, Judge Scott continued, beginning with Washington DCYF social workers and carrying through foster care providers, caregiver placements, relative placements, service providers who provide counseling and guidance, Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) and Guardian Ad Litems, assistant Attorney Generals, and attorneys working tirelessly and diligently toward the best outcomes of the parents and families.

“Like most litigation dependency cases is an adversarial process. What makes it unique is, even though it’s adversarial, the law requires that both sides be commanded to seek the same result. Where it’s adversarial, the ultimate goal is recognized in the law to be reunification. Everyone who is in this process makes that goal possible,” said Judge Scott.

Joining Judge Scott in the courtroom was Judge Edirin Okoloko and Judge Patrick Moriarty.

snohomish family reunification
Rochelle Green and her daughter Alice, reunified at least, Lynnwood Times, Kienan Briscoe

Judge Okoloko informed the Lynnwood Times it’s a “very joyful feeling” to witness a family be reunited and overcome adversity, whether it be substance abuse issues or behavioral health issues, continuing their path to recovery.

“I’m very happy for the families, I’m very happy for the children and it is also an event that overcomes my heart with gladness because this is what we seek to happen, this is what we want to see happen, that at the end of the day the children can be reunified with their families,” said Judge Okoloko. “It’s a very happy occasion for the families, it’s a very happy occasion for the courts and I’m very happy to participate in a ceremony that recognizes the efforts these parents have overcome adversity.”

snohomish family reunification
A packed courtroom witnessing reunification cases, Lynnwood Times, Kienan Briscoe

Following the ceremony at Denney Juvenile Justice Center a community picnic was held across the street at American Legion Memorial Park featuring crafts, games, and speakers who shared their individual stories and struggles.

One of these speakers, Dana Gibson, was reunited with her son five years ago after being separated due to her substance abuse problems. Gibson is now five years sober and works at the YWCA as a Coordinator for the Parents Program – a parent who has been reunified successfully through the Child Welfare system.

Throughout the five years she was separated from her son, Gibson underwent treatment, became homeless, and worked tirelessly with her OPD social worker and lawyer through the dependency process. She now works with other parents as they walk through the system themselves.

“I would have never believed five years ago that my messy life could have been the testimony or the support of someone else,” said Gibson. “I was relieved and ecstatic [when I was reunified with my son] and I was incredibly grateful to be back supporting my son, being the one to take him to school or pick him up off the bus – just the little things. The laughter of kids was what I missed most when he was not there.”

Gibson’s son Zackariah is now 19 and is graduating from Mariner High School this summer. Gibson is an active member of Narcotics Anonymous and shared with the Lynnwood Times that her “whole life is about recovery.”

snohomish family reunification
Reunification picnic at American Legion Memorial Park, Lynnwood Times, Mario Lotmore

Ann Brice organized the first reunification picnic outside of Denney Juvenile Justice Center in Everett over 13 years ago. What started as just serving cookies and refreshments, hosting families who would share their stories and journeys, has since expanded to what it became today.  

In addition to families who have been successfully reunified, families currently in the process of working with the court system to be reunified are also invited to the picnic to see that they’re not alone in the struggle and they too can make this journey.

Brice represents parents who are represented by the Child Welfare system and acts as a guardian Ad Litem in a number of cases and has now for the last 26 years.

“We see families who are sometimes not at the best – sometimes they’re really struggling. There’s a lot of historical trauma, there are a lot parents who they, themselves, were a part of the system a number of years ago. There’s a lot of difficult scenarios that we see but our job is to help guide those parents through the process, to advocate for them through the court system,” said Brice adding that seeing a family reunited ultimately makes it all worth it.

snohomish family reunification
Reunification picnic at American Legion Memorial Park, Lynnwood Times, Mario Lotmore

Brice shared with the Lynnwood Times having a community gathering event is “incredibly important” for families for a number of reasons; For one it serves as a reminder that people can change, and the courts can reunite families.

“Sometimes this work can be really hard so it’s really important to honor the people who have made a really difficult journey and celebrate success stories,” said Brice.

One of the primary goals of Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) is to advocate for the reunification of families whenever it’s safe to do so.

“We believe strongly that it’s within the best interest of a child to be reunited with their family,” Anthony Erickson, Division Senior with CASA, told the Lynnwood Times. “We are very much in support of celebrating the reunification of families.”

The Office of CASA is a volunteer-powered agency that relies on the generosity of individuals to step forward and help our community’s most vulnerable population, our children. CASA volunteers provide best-interest advocacy for children and youth who have experienced abuse or neglect as they move through the court system. CASAs follow the guiding principles of family preservation, restoration, and the understanding that each person’s family is as unique as their cultural values, history, and traditions.

Children who have a CASA volunteer advocating for their best interests are half as likely to reenter foster care, and more likely to find a safe, permanent home.

“We lead with our guiding principles from the start of these cases throughout the end and that is where we live – family preservation and reunification, and today is a celebration and a reminder of that hope that can happen when we work closely with these families,” said Joelle Kelly, Division Manager for the office of CASA, one of the organizers of Friday’s event. “At CASA we hope to appoint [CASA volunteers] at the start of their case so that they can help amplify the voice of the children and speak for their best interests.”

June is National Family Reunification Month. Snohomish County proudly joins the statewide celebration of Family Reunification Month honoring the families who have successfully reunited after overcoming challenges.

Parents, dependency court staff, social workers, and social service providers work tirelessly to ensure safe reunification.

For most children in foster care, reunification with their family is the best option for a permanent and loving home. Each year, thousands of children are successfully reunited with their families after parents work hard, gain new understanding and skills, and partner with social workers and courts to meet extensive requirements.

While some courts have held family reunification celebrations for many years, the Washington State Supreme Court Commission on Children in Foster Care was excited to proclaim June 2024 as a statewide celebration of Family Reunification Month among courts and communities across Washington, and to sponsor the annual commemorations.

snohomish family reunification
Denney Juvenile Justice Center, Lynnwood Times, Kienan Briscoe

For 2024, the statewide celebration is not focusing on one specific month but rather encouraging and supporting celebrations at any time that works for a court and community.

Safe reunification of children with their parents is the primary goal of the dependency process, which strives for learning and healing. The Commission on Children in Foster Care encourages everyone to join in celebrating families that have worked so hard and succeeded in reunifying.

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