Good reason to celebrate: Berkshire parents reunited with children

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Photo Gallery | Reunification Day Celebration

PITTSFIELD — Once torn apart by medical, financial and other hardships, two families were reunited with a strengthened bond before an audience of social workers, lawyers, judges and others who helped them get there.

Amy Nechtem, chief justice of Massachusetts' Juvenile Court, lauded the Reunification Day Ceremony held at Berkshire Children and Families on Tuesday as a potential trendsetter.

"You really are trailblazers," Nechtem said. "This event is really the first of its kind in the commonwealth. What an awesome opportunity to celebrate what we work so hard to do in the judicial court, which is strengthen families."

The mother of one of the families, who wished to remain anonymous, stood minutes later to recount how domestic abuse and addiction nearly ruined her life.

It did not. She stood before the dozens assembled with one daughter in her arms and the other holding her hand, fiancee by her side.

"If it wasn't for the social workers keeping on my butt, I don't know where I'd be right now," she said.

She added, "I had to fix myself before I could help [my daughters]. Now I have a wonderful family. And I met [a new boyfriend]. He proposed on Friday."

The room burst into applause.

The second family being celebrated on Tuesday, the O'Neils, brought a full house to the party. The pair have eight children aged 6 to 18.

"It's work, no question about that," George O'Neil said. "Every day is a struggle, but that's what I'm here for, to take care of them all, and that's where I want to be, raising good kids."

Attorney Sally Vincent, who worked with the O'Neils, said "their plan is to give back in every way they can."

Victoria Bleier, a staff attorney with Pittsfield's Committee for Public Counsel Services, was credited with making the event happen, after she heard of similar ceremonies held elsewhere in the U.S.

"It's something we've been talking about for years, and finally we decided to stop talking about it and see if we could make it a reality," Bleier said. "[Family reunification] is the goal of the child welfare system. That goal is not always met, which makes the efforts of these families even more heroic. It's nice to bring attention to the families who can overcome struggle and successfully reunite."

It fell in conjunction with the American Bar Association's National Reunification Month, celebrated "to honor the importance of the reunification of children with their families in the child welfare system," Bleier said.

Commemoration of National Reunification Month began in 2010.

The American Economic Review found that children fare better in the long run with their parents in consistent, safe and loving homes.

In order to get there, to see children taken away by the state returned to their birth parents, the research also shows that the parents' problems must first be addressed by a robust support structure of social and legal workers and government agencies.

"We need heroes," said Judge Joan M. McMenemy, first justice of Berkshire Juvenile Court. "Parents who overcome incredibly tough issues to be the parents they know they can be, they were meant to be, and hardworking professionals on the front lines, day in and day out, understanding the need for compassion, humanity, help and hope."

Contact Phil Demers at 413-496-6214.


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