MIAMI — It was not your typical Florida Department of Children and Families press conference. The agency that usually faces the press to either tout its adoption success or answer to yet another mistake instead asked members of the media to help celebrate children being returned from state to parental custody.
On Monday afternoon, Oct. 20, staff and administrators from DCF, The Village substance abuse treatment facility, the media, birth parents and their children jammed into a small meeting room to recognize four women who battled drug addictions to reclaim their lives and the ability to provide for their children.
DCF’s regional administrator, Alan Abramowitz, led the brief press conference, presenting certificates and colorful toy gadgets to each woman.
“On behalf of the community, we really appreciate what you have done. You are truly an angel for child. Thank you very much,” Abramowitz said in what represented a significant departure from the community’s perception of the department as “child snatchers.”
Abramowitz, who has been dispatched throughout the state to beef up the department’s family preservation and reunification efforts, has cut the agency’s child removal rate in Miami by more than 30 percent in the past eight months.
Audra Williams, 29, who has been clean and sober for two years, said of DCF’s recognition, “It was an honor.”
The mother of two said, “I was willing to do whatever it took to get my life back and to get my kids back. I also wanted to get me back. Whatever I was going to do had to be better than what I had been doing.”
What she had been doing was abusing alcohol, marijuana and cocaine, leading to her child’s premature birth. The little girl arrived weighing only one pound. Williams, who is employed at a Marshall’s clothing store, said her daughter is healthy today and that the family now has a house with a back yard for her two children.
Matthew Gissen founded The Village 35 years ago, and its Families in Transition (FIT) program 15 years ago. Gissen, who retired last year, said the FIT program was one of eight across
“the United States that allowed families…to come into treatment together,” referring to the concept as the “best treatment dollars we can spend.”
The program offers residential treatment programs that last from 30 days to 12 months, depending on the severity of the client’s drug addiction, their support system and the number of previous attempts at rehabilitation. There is no limit to the number of children that each family can bring into treatment.
In addition to the substance abuse recovery program, clients are also provided assistance in seeking employment, housing and other support services to help make their transition back to the “real world” as smooth as possible.
Gissen agreed that DCF has changed: “You know they’re so quick to take children away from family. The difficult task and more important task is to keep families together as productive members of our society.”
He commended Abram-owitz for the celebration and new family-centered philosophy.
Frank Rabbitto, a former administrator with DCF who is now CEO of The Village, said he is keenly aware of the department’s former image.
“The state was more inclined to remove children from home and focus almost essentially on adoptions, which in and of itself is not a bad thing,’’ he said. “But also it is the mission of the state as well as our mission here at The Village to reunify children with their natural parents, their biological parents, and we do a heck of a job at it.”
Angela Oria, 35, has been clean for 67 days following a three-year drug addiction. Although her eight-month-old twins are still in foster care, she anticipates regaining custody prior to Thanksgiving.
“If you work it, it works with you,” Oria said.
Rabbitto is especially proud of the women whose successes were celebrated.
“A lot of hard work these moms in particular put into their recovery,’’ he said. “All of the work that has gone into keeping drug free, finding a place to live, finding a job, doing everything that a mom needs to do, a parent has to do to support their children. They’ve done that. Their children are back at home with them and it’s all good.”
Photo by Khary Bruyning. Audra Williams, left, has been reunited with her son, Jamareis Williams, 3.