BEULAH — Sally Jo Messersmith has fostered two sets of siblings, with all five children successfully reunited with their families.
Messersmith believes it is because the children had extra time beyond the one or two hours of supervised visits per week required by the state for foster children, something that allowed them to maintain a relationship with their parents.
In most situations children and parents have a bond that is not lost when the child is taken away, Messersmith said.
“It’s worth trying to help the families get back together,” she said.
Messersmith was involved in putting together the new Shared Family Care (SFC) program that aims to give children and parents who have been separated because of abuse and neglect or custody issues more supervised time together.
“This is kind of a dream come true for us,” said Nancy Kida, a retired probate judge who created the program with Mary Manner, coordinator of the Great Start Collaborative Traverse Bay.
The program is free, with mentoring sessions planned for every Thursday evening for parents and kids of all ages at Grow Benzie in Frankfort. For kids 3 and under it will be integrated with the 5toONE program already offered two mornings per month at Grow Benzie.
Getting the SFC program off the ground has been a passion for several years for Kida. It will likely start in late February or early March.
“If we as a society want to reunify families and keep children with their families, we need to provide more time for them to be together,” Kida said.
If that extra time is not provided parents lose hope of ever getting their kids back, Kida said.
“Children just don’t get to see their parents enough and parents don’t see their children enough to keep their bond,” Kida said.
Children are traumatized by the separation, Kida said. Spending more time together in the SFC program will reduce that trauma and make it more feasible for parents and children to be reunited, she said. It also gives parents the skills to make it a lasting reunification.
Time spent in the SFC program is in addition to supervised time required by the state in child protection cases or by the Friend of the Court in cases where a child has an absent parent that wants to come back into their life. Supervised visits let them get to know each other in a secure environment.
The SFC program will have trained volunteer mentors present at all sessions. Kids and their parents can share a meal, do a craft or just visit. Moms and dads will also learn parenting skills during the sessions.
It is offered to parents in Benzie and Manistee counties, as there is currently no such program in those counties. Many parents go to Safe Haven in Traverse City, a Child & Family Services program that offers the supervised visits for a fee.
It’s a long way for some parents who may not have a car or gas money, Kida said.
“We’re trying to offer something right here in our own community,” she said.
Connie P. Krusniak is director of family division services for Friend of the Court in Benzie and Manistee counties. Many parents who need supervised visits are affected by poverty, homelessness, domestic abuse, substance abuse or mental health issues, she said.
“We try to structure some parenting time to make sure everybody is safe,” Krusniak said.
Kida said state funding can be applied for after the program has been in place for a year. The goal is to offer it in more places around the county so it is accessible to more families. She also is hoping it will become a model for other communities.
“It’s all about getting parents family time with their kids and letting them know what resources are available,” Kida said.
A part-time coordinator will be hired to recruit and train volunteer mentors, attend SFC sessions and host monthly volunteer support and training sessions.
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