BAY ST. LOUIS, Miss. (WLOX) - June is Foster Reunification Month, a time to recognize families that have changed their lives to get their children out of the foster care system.
For the first time, Hancock County Youth Court, CASA Hancock County and Child Protective Services Hancock County hosted an event Thursday evening to recognize those families.
“My kids got taken and a family member took them. If it wasn’t for her, I would not open my eyes and I would not have my kids today," shared one mother at the event.
Parents stood up and shared their experiences with losing their children to the foster care system, but they don’t want people to feel sad for them.
Youth Court Judge Trent Favre explained, "What we really heard about were the people that were involved in their lives that stood shoulder to shoulder with them.”
The event celebrated their individual journeys to recovery and the milestone of bringing their children back home.
“At least I can see a future. Before I didn’t know what the future was going to bring,” said Dorothy McKnight, who reunited with her kids in 2017 after being separated for two years.
McKnight says she has struggled with addiction her whole life. “It’s ongoing," she said. “It’s a struggle everyday but I thank God that he gave me a second chance on life."
Jason Fazekas said while serving time at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola, he learned his son was in foster care.
“He was a bout one and a half years old. I was incarcerated. When he was around two, his mother lost custody to the state of Mississippi," said Fazekas.
When he was released from prison, he knew he had to make significant changes to his life.
“I wanted to be a good dad to him," he said. “I wanted him out of foster care. I knew he needed me. I said I’m going to do what these people ask me to do. I’m going to go to meetings, I’m going to submit the drug screens.”
Judge Favre granted Fazekas full custody of his son in November 2018 just days before Thanksgiving.
His son joins numerous children who have left Hancock County’s foster care system since early 2018.
“When I first took the bench in January 2018, we had 389 children in custody," said Judge Favre. “Today we have 152 children in custody. That’s over a 60 percent decrease."
One report claims Mississippi’s Child Protective Services agency failed to meet standards that protect the state’s at-risk and neglected children. Judge Favre says while he cannot comment for the entire state system, Hancock County is working hard to be model for foster care across the state.
“Mississippi is comprised of 82 counties," said the judge. "We’re doing what we can here to look at our processes, to ensure safety of children and to make sure that all of our partners are invested.”
There are many reasons CPS would take a child away but parents who have gone through the reunification process say there’s only one way to get them back: to turn your life around.
“You have to change your lifestyle," said Fazekas. "You have to change your thinking. If you can change your thinking, you can change your life.”
With local partners that help parents with anything from legal issues to fighting addiction, Hancock County Youth Court says it is possible for parents with children in foster care to have a second chance.
“I think I’ll be in recovery forever but I take it one day at a time and its an amazing feeling to know that I’ve overcome what most said I wouldn’t,” said McKnight.
Foster Reunification Month was started in 2010 by the American Bar Association.