Helping Families To Heal & Reunite

NEW BRUNSWICK — Every year the state Division of Child Protection and Permanency removes several thousand of alleged neglected or abused children from their parents’ custody, and about half the kids eventually are returned to the parents. But getting back together again doesn’t happen without lots of interaction beforehand. — a key process experts call visitation, or “parenting time.”

And Monday five families, which went through the process of meeting or visiting regularly with their children while the kids were temporarily in foster care, will be part of a yearly celebration known as Family Reunification Day.

Legal Services of New Jersey (LSNJ), in partnership with the Division, the judiciary and numerous organizations concerned with child welfare, will be sponsoring its annual Family Reunification Day celebration at the New Jersey Law Center in New Brunswick Monday, Sept. 16  to pay tribute to the families that have been reunited and also recognize various individuals who play major roles in the reunification process.

As in such past events, there likely will be hugs and kisses and smiling faces that day, but the pathway to reunification was set the many times earlier when parents had the opportunity to build – or rebuild – their parenting skills and better understand how to improve their interaction with their children during visits with them . That’s why the event is focusing on the importance of visitation between children in out-of-home placements and their birth parents for a successful reunification.

“Federal and state law, as well as humanity and common sense, require that first priority be given to reunification once families become involved with the child welfare system,” says Jeyanthi Rajaraman, supervising attorney for LSNJ’s Family Representation Project.

The event is part of the American Bar Association’s annual celebration of and support for reunification. The ABA this year also is focusing on the importance of visitation, as cited by many experts, including Mary Coogan, a director of Advocates for Children of New Jersey in Newark.

She says the importance of visitation is logical “because if a parent has regular contact with their children, they have the incentive to do what they need to do to fix the problem” that caused the separation in the first place.

Aprille, one of the parents who has been reunited with her children and is among those to be honored Monday, recently spoke about the impact the visits had on her family, “We did a lot of things, like we cooked, and we went to a lot of softball games and just a lot of family outings. So it really helped just to keep the children stable, to make them feel like things were gonna be normal, things were gonna be okay.”

Speakers at the event include Superior Court Judge Hany Mawla; Dr. Gerald Costa, director of the Center for Autism and Early Childhood Health at Montclair State University; and Kara P. Woods, director of the Division of Child Protection and Permanency (DCP&P).

Not only are the five families being cited, but also child welfare advocates who help reunited families and are referred to as Family Reunification Day Heroes. This year they include Jennifer Cunningham from the Office of Public Defender in Atlantic and Cape May Counties, and Nada Solloum, a DCP&P caseworker from Passaic County.

Legal Services of New Jersey, located in Edison, heads a statewide system of seven non-profit corporations which provide free legal assistance in civil matters to low-income people in all 21 counties of New Jersey.

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