ALEX CHADWICK, host:
This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Alex Chadwick.
One of the most difficult decisions a state social worker makes is whether to take an abused or neglected youngster away from their parents forever. And once a child has been taken away, it's often really difficult for parents to regain custody.
Reporter Nancy Solomon follows one New Jersey mom as she navigates a state program that might help her get her daughter back.
NANCY SOLOMON: Although most state child welfare agencies list family reunification as a priority, where is the state that does the job well? Yet, models for how to safely reunite children with their birth families do exist.
AYANA(ph): Where's mommy now?
Unidentified Woman: Up there.
SOLOMON: It's June 2006 and eight-year-old Ayana has just arrived at Reunity House, a private, non-profit that supervises visits between foster kids and their birth families in South Orange, New Jersey.
Ms. YOLANDA JOSEPH (Attending Reunity House Program): Hello. How are you?
SOLOMON: Ayana's mother, grandmother and sister are here for the visit, which is chaperoned by a social worker and held in a spacious two-room apartment that is used for overnight visit.
AYANA: Can we play, mama?
SOLOMON: Most family visits occur in sterile state offices with no privacy. Reunity House gives families a semblance of home life, even if just for a night, with a kitchen, bedroom and comfortable living room. Parents attend group therapy, learned parenting skills, and many go to drug-treatment programs.
Ayana's mother, Yolanda Joseph, needed it all and then some. She used crack, struggled with depression, and is HIV positive. At this point, Yolanda has been clean for four months and must complete the Reunity House program to convince the judge she should get Ayana back.
Ms. JOSEPH: I worked so hard in wanting to keep my family together. And it just bugs me that my eight-year-old daughter is not a part of my life.
SOLOMON: During this visit, the family plays a therapeutic board game with questions like what do you do when you're angry? Or how do you feel when you said goodbye? When Yolanda is asked what feeling she keeps inside, the question taps into a potent emotional current that runs through this family.
Ms. JOSEPH: I want to be the one to take child for. Dress my child in the morning, be the one to clean his feet at night. And that bothers me. I'm not that person, who am not.
SOLOMON: Ayana and her adult sister Loshanda(ph) both begin to cry. The social worker, Jennifer Kerr(ph), allows the hurt and sadness to come spilling out.
(Soundbite of child crying)
SOLOMON: And then guides the family back from the brink.
Ms. JENNIFER KERR (Social Worker): Sometimes really happy moment that we're all together can bring up a reminder of the fact that you are for it. And so, you don't have to have all those good families or all these bad families, sometimes you're all mixed together at the same time.
SOLOMON: Out come cold drinks, lots of tissue and a smile slowly returns. They ordered out for pizza and begin to relax again. Later Kerr explains how Reunity House tries to help with the powerful feelings families often experience when children are placed in foster care.
Ms. KERR: There's a lot of pain and a lot of guilt that Yolanda feels now that she's becoming healthy and becoming a mom. You know we have a therapeutic presence but we've also created this culture where part of them coming here is not just to visit, but it's to heal.
SOLOMON: Successful reunifications have an impact beyond the individual family. The more children a state has in foster care, the more stress there is on every step of finding those kids permanent homes.
Peg Hash researches and consults on visitation programs across the country. She says returning kids to their original families is key to stabilizing their lives, yet studies show one-third of all reunifications fail.
Ms. PEG HASH (Researcher): Children's literally live their lives coming in and out of the system.
Hash says Reunity House is one of the rare models that works. Its success has caught the attention of Kevin Ryan, New Jersey's commissioner for the Department of Families and Children. Ryan is now spending state funds to support Reunity Houses work and to replicate the program in other parts of New Jersey.
Mr. KEVIN RYAN (Commissioner, Department of Families and Children): The vast majority of children coming into these systems not because they have been severely abused and neglected, but because their families are poor and the kids have been neglected. And it often reflects a lack of political will that we wait for kids to experience abuse, neglect, or harm before we partner with the families to help them become strong again.
SOLOMON: Ryan attended a home for the holidays party at Reunity House earlier this month, when dozens of families were invited back to celebrate their successful reunifications.
Mr. RYAN: Today we want to celebrate your journey. All the hard work, all the sacrifice, all the struggle, all those dead times. Today your families are back together and we are thrilled about that.
SOLOMON: Ryan hands out multiple gifted wrapped presents for each kid.
(Soundbite of children)
SOLOMON: Yolanda Joseph and her daughter Ayana are missing among this joyful throng. It's been 15 months since Yolanda regained custody, and Reunity Houses lost track of her. In fact her phone is disconnected and she's no longer at the same address. After a lot of leg work from the Reunity House staff, they find her for me in Wilmington, Delaware.
(Soundbite of ringing)
Ms. JOSEPH: (Unintelligible).
Unidentified Woman: (Unintelligible).
Ms. JOSEPH: Good afternoon. My name is Yolanda. Someone has (unintelligible) and face a treatment…
SOLOMON: Yolanda is back in rehab, a structured program that has her living in a house with other women, sharing a bunk bed and attending daily sessions of group therapy. She'd return to smoking crack cocaine after Ayana moved in with her last fall because she says she couldn't handle the stressful transition. Then the addiction once again took over her life.
Ms. JOSEPH: My (unintelligible) got behind. It kind of like showing on my door because I have fell out, because she was really stressed out. It was like limited food in the house, even I will love myself. You know, my dignity, everything.
SOLOMON: Ayana now lives with Yolanda's mother and she sees them rarely. Her determination to be a mother to Ayana is now tampered with reality. In the language of rehab, that means taking life one day at a time. It certainly not the outcome, at least in the short term that Reunity House was aiming for, but the staff will understand just how difficult it is to put broken families back together again.
For NPR News, I'm Nancy Solomon.
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