Earlier this year, Kristina Helmer was living in a drug house, using methamphetamine and abusing alcohol. Her children were taken from her March 27.
On Friday, Helmer and other families celebrated their reunification with their children and successful navigation of the court system at the Spokane County Courthouse.
“Today, I’m feeling amazing,” Helmer said. “Like, I have my kids back. I’m happy they’re happy. We’re not perfect and we’re not exactly where we need to be quite yet, but we’re getting the help that we need to, to be able to get there.”
The celebration, a collaborative effort from Spokane County Superior Court, Spokane Parent Advocacy Network, Parents for Parents program and other entities and stakeholders, was the first of two Family Reunification Day celebrations this month. The next is 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. July 30 at the Franklin Park gazebo in Spokane.
June was Family Reunification Month in Washington, and courts and counties across the state this summer are recognizing parents who worked to bring their families back together after a period of struggling, according to a Washington Courts news release. Spokane County Superior Court Commissioner Michelle Ressa told those in attendance Friday that Washington has celebrated Family Reunification Day since 2010 and the country has recognized it since 2007.
More than 8,000 children live in foster care in Washington, according to Washington Courts. Safe reunification of families is the primary goal of dependency, the legal process in which dependent children are taken into the oversight of the state because of deficiencies in care and safety in the home.
About 60% of children separated from their parents return home after parents make improvements guided by child welfare workers and monitored by courts.
At the Spokane County Courthouse Friday, the reunified families enjoyed snacks; took photos with superheroes, like Batman; and grabbed free toys, including board games and stuffed animals.
Helmer was one of the raffle prize winners as she took home a soccer ball, goal, air pump and a $25 gift card to Target for her and her four children – 18, 7, 5 and 2 years old. Helmer is also pregnant.
She reunited with her children June 16, meaning it took less than three months to gain custody again. She said sometimes it takes two years for parents or guardians to get their children back.
“I was willing to decide to put my kids first and decide that I needed help for myself and for them,” she said.
Helmer said Rising Strong, a program under Catholic Charities Eastern Washington, provided substance abuse and mental health treatment, parenting classes and other assistance so she could get back on her feet and reunite with her children.
Helmer said she was homeless for about two years and essentially on the streets until she walked into the Rising Strong door.
She credited the program for helping her to get where she is today.
Helmer said the last few months were “unbearable,” and she did not think she could get through the program.
She said she put her children in this position and could not bear to leave them there, so she planned to do everything to get them back.
“I knew that I didn’t want to leave my kids feeling abandoned like I felt my whole life,” she said.
Ressa called parents in attendance Friday “cycle-breakers” because they broke generations of trauma in their family and said, “This ends with me.”
“Never underestimate a cycle-breaker,” Ressa said.
Helmer related to Ressa’s message.
She said she came from a long line of alcoholics and abusers .
“I don’t want to be anything like them, and I want to teach my children not to be,” Helmer said.
Joe Gutierrez, a social worker for the Washington State Office of Public Defense, said he advocates for parents going through the Child Protective Services process by helping them engage in services, like housing and career, to make them successful.
“This is exactly what the work is about,” Gutierrez said of Friday’s celebration. “This is what I love about my job, is the success stories.”
Success can be defined in many ways, he said.
“It’s not always about reunification, but those ones are the most special because they’ve worked so hard to achieve their own personal goals and their family goals,” Gutierrez said.
“For them to be here and for them to have the opportunity to be celebrated for their accomplishments, for their hard work, it’s what makes the job feel wonderful,” he added.
Gutierrez received a 2022 Spokane County HOPE Award Friday for “going above and beyond” in his child welfare work. The HOPE award is a collaboration from the Spokane Parent Advocacy Network and the Parents for Parents program.
Ambrosia Eberhardt, one of the founding members of SPAN and the family impact manager for Children’s Home Society of Washington’s Parents for Parents program, said she navigated the child welfare system 22 years ago, so she understands what parents Friday experienced. SPAN helps parents struggling with CPS issues.
“For me, it means that I get to continue to see families heal and get back together and celebrate mine at the same time,” Eberhardt said of the celebration.
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