Last week I went to Washtenaw County's first-ever Family Reunification Day. The event, held in honor of National Reunification Month in June, celebrated four families who managed to complete their court-ordered permanency plan and be reunified with their kids.
When a family enters the child welfare system, the primary goal is, more often than not, reunification. Foster care is supposed to be a short-term intervention to help families suspected of abuse or neglect, but it doesn't always turn out that way. A lot of kids end up aging out of the system or being adopted instead of returning to live with their biological family. But not these families.
I was told by more than one person that I just had to talk to someone named Nathan Smith. As a father who worked to get his kids back, Smith's story is not only rare but worth some extra attention.
After finally chasing down Smith and his kids on the playground, I learned that Child Protective Services removed Smith's kids – two, seven, and ten years old – a couple years ago because of his substance abuse. "For many years, I was just in a deep, dark, miserably lonely spot with my addiction," says Smith. Once his kids were removed, he was told he had to complete court-ordered parenting classes and pass drug screens in order to get them back.
Smith says connecting with a 12-step program was vital to his success. Once he stopped using, he said it was easier to complete the court-ordered programs. Last year, Smith welcomed his kids back home.
Smith’s kids know that recovery is a big part of his life. “I’m very open and honest with them because I want them to be open and honest with me.” Smith says there was a time when his kids didn’t trust him, which he can understand, but they do now.
Smith spoke at Family Reunification Day and shared his message for families going through the system: "I've been there, and I got three of my kids back. It is possible."
It involves work, though.
"It's the willingness to change and keeping an open mind to suggestions and stuff," Smith says.
Smith and his kids were given a gift basket, including tickets to a local water park, and a framed family portrait at the event. Event planners say they're looking into holding Family Reunification Day statewide in the future, much like Michigan Adoption Day.
Michigan Supreme Court Justice Bridget McCormack supports this.
"It’s a wonderful event because of all of the families that end up in our family court system, they’re struggling, they’re working through hard issues in all of their lives and it’s really nice to be able to celebrate the ones that successfully worked through that."
The day was important to her personally, as well.
"For me, as an appellate judge, I don’t get to take my robe off and look them in the eye and say 'well done' very often, but I get to do that today," McCormack says.
While his family was going through the system, Smith said he had a lot of resentment – toward lawyers, the courts, and the list goes on. But now, Smith sees the system way differently. "It not only saved my life, but it gave my children a life worth living."