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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘Reunification Day’ celebrates parents getting children out of foster care

At the Reunification Day Celebration at the Spokane County Courthouse, mom Amanda Brown and dad, James Whitney with their son James Whitney, 9 months, are all smiles as they celebrate the closing of their Child Protective Services case Friday, June 2, 2017. Spokane County Superior Court invited the local community to celebrate and honor families that reuniting with their children after successfully completing the rigorous requirements of the Dependency process.  Colin Mulvany/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

When the state took away her two youngest sons and sent them to live with a relative, Marsha Valenzuela knew she needed to change.

But after decades of using meth and toiling through an abusive relationship, she said, change didn’t come easy.

Valenzuela said she weighed 93 pounds when sheriff’s deputies arrested her at her home in Mead in 2001. After that she was homeless.

More than a dozen failed drug tests later, she recalls that her attorney looked her in the eyes and said, “Marsha, if you don’t get your (life) together, you’re not getting your kids back.”

She went to rehab, started eating again and finally secured stable housing. Within 10 months, she said, her kids were back in her care. She’s clean and healthy now, with a job at Partners with Families and Children, a nonprofit. Her youngest son is 17 and studying at Eastern Washington University.

During an emotional event Friday afternoon at the Spokane County Courthouse, Valenzuela joined dozens of other parents who have worked hard to reunite with their children.

Several advocacy groups took part in “Reunification Day,” including the Spokane Parent Advocacy Network and Parents 4 Parents, which is based at the courthouse.

A decade ago, the county began using a collaborative model that helps parents get their children out of foster care, said Michelle Ressa, a Spokane County court commissioner. It brings together lawyers, judges, appointed guardians and social workers to provide a consistency that’s often lacking in family legal proceedings.

Parents can better navigate the legal maze and meet custody qualifications when all those parties work together, Ressa said.

“Ten years ago, parents would get a new lawyer every time they come to court, they would get a new judge every time they come to court,” she said.

Many parents at Friday’s event had recently closed their cases with Child Protective Services. Others regained custody of their children years ago and now serve as advocates. Many told stories of addiction, abuse and stigma that made it difficult to raise healthy families.

In a speech, Ressa urged parents to support one another and talk openly about their situations.

“Remember that shame can only survive in silence,” she said.

Ambrosia Eberhardt said she “didn’t have the tools to be successful and give my children what they needed. I could teach a class on how to screw your case up.”

She overcame a drug addiction, earned a bachelor’s degree from Whitworth University and now works as a Parents 4 Parents advocate.

Destiney McMahan attended the event with her 3-year-old daughter, Ariannah. The two were separated when Ariannah was five days old and reunited when she was 1.

McMahan, 31, also overcame a meth addiction. This week marks her fifth year clean. She now works two jobs to provide for Ariannah andhopes to regain custody of an 11-year-old son who’s in foster care.

Her advice to parents in the same situation: “You’re not alone. There’s people who have been there before, who can show you the way, who can show that there is hope to get your kids back.”