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Sharon Ernest accepts a gift basket at Wednesday's reunification ceremony held at 18 Degrees. She was one of three families congratulated for overcoming obstacles that kept their children in foster care. Ernest is currently a college student.

Three Families Celebrated on County Reunification Day

By Brittany PolitoiBerkshires Staff
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18 Degrees President Sarah Cook says some families need help and guidance on the path to reunification. 

PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Varying circumstances led the Ernest, Hernandez, and Hendrickson families to be separated by the child welfare system but they are now whole again.

The three families celebrated Berkshire County Reunification Day at 18 Degrees on Wednesday. They were reunited within the last couple of years after a great deal of hard work and perseverance.

"We know that the families we work with have strengths and talents, capacities and capabilities, and sometimes it's hard to access these when life and circumstances get in the way. Social, health, environmental issues can hinder all of our abilities to achieve our dreams, and can confuse and complicate our everyday choices," President and CEO Sarah Cook said.

"And that's where working together through support and guidance and a path that we jointly identify, our program participants can start taking the steps they need to move forward on. The path sure has stops and starts barriers and challenges yet when our community unites to support families when the light shines on the path ahead, we are able to grow stronger, we are able to come back together and so are our families."

Raymond Hernandez, the father of 11-year-old Devon and 8-year-old Angel, thanked the organization, the court system, and everyone involved in getting his sons back home.

"It was a great experience and I just want to let the fathers out there know that you can make it. If I could do it, you could do it," he added.

"It doesn't really take much just follow the rules, follow the steps, and whatever your heart's desire of doing the right thing, just do it. Your children deserve you. Your children deserve to be home and that felt really hard because nobody's perfect, we fall, it's what you make out of it after and I got myself back up, dusted myself off and I'm here."

Devon and Angel sat together in the front row of the ceremony, giggling and enjoying each other's company. The family's attorney Jessica Instone highlighted the importance of the boys' relationship.

"We know the sibling relationship is the longest relationship someone has in their life and it's the most important but it's the best protective factor for children in foster care and thankfully, Devon and Angel were able to be together the whole time," she explained, adding that their father worked to ensure that they maintained a sibling bond.

Lindsay DiCiccio, a social worker at the Department of Children and Families, explained that she met the boys in 2017 after an incident that led to them coming into foster care and said since day one, Hernandez has done everything asked of him and more.

"Since returning home, Raymond has continued to work hard maintaining sobriety and a stable home for the boys," DiCiccio added.

"I often see them in the community, they're always so happy and it's so clear how much they love each other and how proud Raymond is of the life he's created. I'm also super proud of how far he's come."

Kaitlyn Hendrickson says she and her 8-year-old son Jaxon are "two peas in a pod." She pointed out that the ceremony is to honor all of the families that have been brought back together.

"I'm glad that I could be here to support all the families who have been reunified," Hendrickson said.

Attorney Krista Wroldson Miller said Hendrickson has always been and continues to be an amazing mother and despite having time apart, has always had a positive relationship and strong bond with her son.

She reported that during the case of scheduled trial, the court recognized that Hendrickson went above and beyond what has been asked of her and her son to be unified.

"All of the hard work that Hendrickson has done spoke for itself," Wroldson Miller added.

"She was ready to have her son home with her, she continues to be an amazing mom, and years after re-unification with all of her hard work and everything she has learned along the way, we anticipate that she will continue to be a wonderful mother as Jaxon continues to grow and thrive with her."

Each family was presented with a certificate and a gift basket to mark the occasion. Sharon Ernest accepted the offerings before getting her re-unified child back home so she could attend college classes.  

Ernest was praised for her accomplishments academically and in her family life. She was also described as a "smart cookie."

Berkshire Juvenile Court First Justice Joan McMenemy could not stop smiling at the ceremony and said that on days like this, she is one of the "luckiest judges."

"In our child welfare system, we never forget and we must never forget that every single case file, every single docket number, every single piece of paper is about a family and it's always about the family," she said.

"It's about the strong, resilient parents who want to do well for their families and it's about the strong and courageous and fun and funny children who need their parents and their grandparents and their guardians and their family's guidance to show them their way in this world and to make beautiful memories and to weather the lows together and celebrate the good times and celebrate the victories and just live your best life."

McMenemy later added that being a parent is the "hardest job in the entire world" and that life can sometimes "stack the deck against families."

Raymond Hernandez says he worked hard and followed the rules to ensure that his sons could return home. 

She highlighted the courage, determination, and strength of the families and the unsung heroes such as social workers, therapists, clinicians, court-appointed special advocates, volunteers, and attorneys.

Jacquelyn O'Brien, managing director of the state's Committee for Public Counsel Services, Children and Family Law Division, told the families that they are a "shining example of the power of love."

She reported that DCF's annual report stated that there were nearly 8,500 children in foster care at the end of 2021, which is a downward trend from earlier years, and not quite half of those children were unified with their parents within the first year.

"I would love to see that number go down even further and it's the work of the families along with the work of the providers and DCF and CPCS and the court that can make it happen," O'Brien said.

The reunification celebration was held for the first time in 2016 and occurs every two years. In 2020, it was virtual due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

It was hosted by 18 Degrees, DCF, Berkshire Juvenile Court, and CPCS.

Gift baskets were donated by Ayelada, Berkshire Theatre Group, The Bookloft, Ready Set Play, and the reunification day planning committee.


Tags: 18 degrees,   family,   

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