Thurston County Reunification Day celebrates parents who fix their families

Sometimes the best way to fix a family is to break it apart.

The annual Thurston County Reunification Day was held Wednesday at the Legislative Building in Olympia with the theme “People change, families reunite.” The event was a celebration for local families who have reunited with their children after foster care – or are working toward it.

Most parents lose custody of their children because of substance abuse and related neglect, said Mark Collins, a social worker with the state Office of Public Defense. The idea is to collaborate with parents on recovery so that they’ll have more incentive to get their kids back, said Collins, adding that there were 150 such cases in 2013.

“Even though substance abuse is what brought them to the attention of the state, all these other issues, when they come into the system, we assess them,” said Collins, referring to mental health problems or past trauma. “The family system is broken down.”

According to DSHS, about 70 percent of children who are removed from their homes and placed into foster care are able to return home.

Tumwater couple Doug Girardeau and Stephany Baker are six weeks into recovery after hitting rock bottom with a meth addiction. The couple’s 5-year-old daughter, Sam, and 3-month-old son, Charles IV, are staying with Girardeau’s mother.

“We were desperate for something to happen,” Girardeau told The Olympian.

After overcoming the initial shock of losing custody of their children, Girardeau and his wife have found resources for recovery that they didn’t know existed.

“We’ve both been super surprised at how supportive everyone has been,” he said. “It’s been a positive experience for us. It got us into recovery and holds us accountable.”

At Wednesday’s event, Olympia resident Melena Powers and her two children attended under the supervision of a social worker. Powers, 27, said she has been clean and sober for nine months. Her two girls – Irish Rose, age 3, and Ariyah, 16 months – were taken into custody last October.

While recovering from a severe meth addition, Powers said she has learned to set goals and improve her life.

“A lot of us are learning how to become people,” she said of recovery. “I’m doing this for myself and my children.”

The ultimate goal is to keep families together, said Kui Hug, DSHS area administrator for Thurston and Mason counties.

“The best place for kids is with their parents,” he said.

Judges and law enforcement are the ones who determine whether a children should be removed from a home, Hug said. However, for social workers, the act of removing children is often difficult and emotional – regardless of the choices made by the children’s parents.

“It’s hard to put into words. Nothing really prepares you for that moment,” Hug said. “It’s a tough decision that’s not black and white.”