JANS – One hundred and eighty-five colorful balloons were released Friday morning, June 25, at the Hinds County Youth Court, each representing a child who has been reunited with family during the past year.
June is National Reunification Month.
“In Hinds County, we have been dedicated to the safe reunification of children and parents, and engaging with family early and often,” Hinds County Youth Court Judge Carlyn Hicks said as a cloud of balloons floated skyward.
A year ago, Hinds County led the state in the number of children living in foster care after having been removed from parents’ custody due to allegations of abuse or neglect. Judge Hicks said that 396 children were in foster care when she was appointed Youth Court Judge in July 2020. During the past year, 241 Hinds County children have exited the foster care system, and of those, 185 went back to their family – either parents or other family members. The official count June 1 was 277 Hinds County children in foster care, and some of them have since gone home, Judge Hicks said.
Judge Hicks said, “We are talking about children. We are talking about families. We are talking about real people who deserve to be safe, supported, and nurtured.”
“The goal is reunification at the outset,” Judge Hicks said. “Children deserve connections. They deserve their community and they deserve their family if possible.”
Judge Hicks views foster care as “an immediate emergency intervention” if there is concern for the child’s safety. If children can’t be safely returned to their parents, Child Protection Services social workers look first to other relatives who can take care of a child.
After a child is removed from a home, CPS social workers and the Youth Court establish a plan for the family. The Youth Court sets requirements which parents must meet to regain custody of their children.
The work of putting the families back together means connecting them with a network of people and services that can help parents change their behavior and living conditions as they work toward reunification with their children.
Department of Child Protection Services Director Andrea Sanders said the idea is “meet them where they are, and get them where they need to be.”
Sanders said Hinds County’s progress is an inspiration for change statewide. “If we can move the needle in Hinds County, we can move it everywhere in the state,” Sanders said. “The impact we can make on children at this level can expand to all of this state.”
“Our workers do the toughest job there is,” Sanders said.
Judge Hicks presented Reunification Hero awards to the Hinds County CPS Office and to five individual social workers. Those honored for their work included Area Social Work Supervisors Tameka Hart, Patricia Smith, Ramona Goodson, and Priscilla Bates Brown and Western District Field Operations Director Viedale Washington. Goodson and Brown were unable to attend the ceremony. They were out in the field working on cases.
Judge Hicks noted that Hart helped 50 children exit the foster care system and return to their families during the past year. At the balloon release at the start of the program, Judge Hicks said that some of the balloons representing Hart’s cases had to be distributed to other social workers. “We didn’t want Ms. Hart to be floating away.”
Judge Hicks also honored Resident Jurist John Hudson of Natchez with a Reunification Hero award. Judge Hudson was appointed by the Supreme Court on July 24, 2020, to preside as a special Youth Court judge in Hinds County to assist Judge Hicks. Judge Hudson heard cases through March 31.
Judge Hudson said, “It’s been a real joy to have a front row seat to the change in Hinds County.” He said, “It’s wonderful to see their faces light up at the table when you tell them, ‘Your child is going home today.’”
CPS workers chose six families to be honored for their progress. Each family received a certificate of appreciation for their efforts toward reunification. Their names were not made public due to confidentiality requirements in Youth Court.
After the awards presentation, the Youth Court served sandwiches and desserts and hosted a paint party for the families. Social workers and the families and children painted colorful floral wreaths. Family members added their fingerprints as leaves of the wreaths.