Children reflected in mirrors as they walk in the hall of the Leroy H. Smith School in Winterport in March. The school has installed mirrors with affirming, positive messages that are intended to make them smile and maybe feel a little better about themselves. Credit: Gabor Degre

Two mothers, with the pseudonyms Angela and Jessica, recently described for the BDN what it was like to have their children removed by the state and to have to prove they were worthy enough to get them back. Angela was a victim of domestic violence, and Jessica experienced addiction and mental health issues. Both detailed a challenging and shameful experience, but in the end their babies came home.

Their stories should be remembered not just now, as the Maine Legislature has approved a first round of changes to state child welfare laws, but in general whenever someone runs the risk of stereotyping families. Not all child protective cases involve substantial abuse of children. And a significant percentage of kids will return to their parents. In 2016, about 41 percent of all children who left foster care reunited with their parents. A similar percentage of children were adopted out of foster care.

Maine cannot forget to rely on the available evidence. The research shows that in cases that aren’t cut and dry — where caseworkers’ decisions are clearly subjective, and one official might push for reunification while another might not — the children who return to their parents tend to do better long term. That means they’re less likely to commit crimes and become teenage parents, and more likely to earn greater incomes later in life.

So what can people learn from Angela and Jessica? Their stories reveal a few key facts:

Reunification takes time and work. It took 2 ½ years for Angela to regain custody of her children. Doing so required intensive therapy, supervised visits with her children (where a social worker watched and took notes on Angela’s parenting), domestic violence support group meetings and parenting classes.

It took Jessica 10 ½ months to regain custody of her child. During that time she also attended therapy sessions, court-supervised visits with her child and parenting classes. Each month, family members, service providers and her caseworker would gather to assess her progress.

“It’s exhausting and really draining to be in a position, rightfully so, where you have to prove to a lot of people that you’re safe enough to be a mother,” Jessica said.

Reunification doesn’t make life perfect. Angela’s youngest child had grown up in a foster family and had bonded with the foster mom. It was hard for Angela to see her youngest leave the only home the child had known. And Angela’s older children had a lot of questions that were difficult to answer.

Jessica said she and her child also had a lot of healing to do. She had to face her newfound protectiveness: She was reluctant to let her child attend sleepovers, not wanting to give up the time that she had fought to get back. She also had to face the judgment of family members.

Despite these challenges, success is possible. Two of Angela’s children have completed high school, and one is in college. Angela is working full time after earning a college degree. Jessica is also working full time, and her child is in middle school. She married and has even kept in touch with her caseworker.

“I wish it hadn’t happened,” Angela said of her experience with Child Protective Services. “But if it didn’t, I don’t even really want to think about what life would be, because it wouldn’t be pretty.”

It’s common when people hear about child protective cases to assume the worst. While Maine has seen its fair share of horrific child abuse cases, it’s important not to forget that a substantial portion of children will, and need to be, with their biological parents, like Angela and Jessica.

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