Hinds Youth Court celebrates 185 children reunited with families
June 25, 2021
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.
Runaway Prevention Initiative gives teens Runway to Success
Hinds County Youth Court recently completed its first concentrated program to deal with another issue in family separation and reunification: runaways.
On Wednesday, June 23, two graduates of the 14-week Runaway Prevention Initiative were honored at a ceremony at the Youth Court. The court dubbed the finale Runway to Success. The two young ladies, both 16, walked the red carpet for photos after receiving graduation certificates and gifts, then enjoyed pizza with family and court staff.
The initiative, a collaboration between Hinds County Youth Court and the Jackson State University School of Social Work, invited voluntary participation of juveniles who have run away from home multiple times. Weekly meetings with the former runaways addressed family communications, family relationships, conflict resolution, anger management, adolescent development, peer pressure, social media, dangers of drug abuse, human trafficking and other issues.
Some of the weekly programs included guest speakers. At their final meeting on Wednesday, Jason Quin of Pearl, a money manager, life coach and State Farm Insurance agent, talked to the teens and their families and guests about borrowing, spending, investing, saving money and planning for college and the future.
“I help people figure out where they are going,” Quin said. “Most people don't know where they are going. They are just existing and hoping that life happens and it's a success....If you don't figure out where you're going, you'll never get there.”
“Whatever you want out of this life, you have to work for. Nobody is going to give you anything. All you get is an opportunity, and sometimes you have to make that opportunity,” Quin said. “Set your goals high.”
Crystal Allen, senior intake officer and a 25-year veteran employee of the Hinds County Youth Court, coordinates the runaway prevention program. She has shepherded the teens through transition from rebellious runaways to ambitious adolescents. One recently got a job, excels in math and has plans to be an accountant. The other doesn't have a career plan yet, but is thinking about college.
Allen beamed with pride. “In this program we are not striving for perfection, but for continued progress as they go through life to succeed,” she said.
“Ms. Allen has become almost a second mother to them,” said Hinds County Youth Court Judge Carlyn Hicks.
“You are remarkable ladies,” Judge Hicks told the teens.
The mother of one of the teens and the grandmother of the other said changes in their behavior have been remarkable as they progressed through the program.
The mother said her daughter had been on the honor roll in school, ran track and was a cheerleader. Then she started running away from home, “especially if we wouldn't let her hang out with the people she wanted to hang out with...She just got with the wrong people and made the wrong choices.”
“We couldn't keep her at home,” she said. She ran away about six times. “It is the most scary thing that a parent can go through to wake up in the middle of the night and not know where your child is or where to look.”
Her daughter is back at home, does her school work and chores, and abides by a curfew. “She gained a lot more self-respect as well.”
“I'm proud, and I appreciate Ms. Allen so much,” she said.
The grandmother said she has seen a complete transformation. “The program really has worked. I don't know what I would do without you all. Ms. Allen has always been right there and understood.”
Her granddaughter has volunteered to help mentor the next group of teen runaways. The granddaughter doesn't drive yet. The grandmother plans to bring her to the program. “I hope it helps some others,” she said.