Hancock County Judge Trent Favre and Dorothy McKnight reflect on her journey to reunification. 

Ohana means family. Family means nobody gets left behind or forgotten," from the film "Lilo and Stitch"

The Hancock County Youth Court, CASA, and Child Protective Services on Thursday hosted Hancock County's first Family Reunification Celebration.

"We come together to celebrate the people and the efforts that are being made locally here in Hancock County to restore families," CASA of Hancock County's Executive Director Cynthia Chauvin said.

The first reunification event was held nationwide in 2010, she said. In Mississippi, Rankin and Jackson counties established the first statewide celebration events last year.

"The purpose of this event is three-fold," she said. "To celebrate the accomplishments of families who have overcome an array of challenges to reunify safely and successfully. To recognize the vital role of our community partners, including mental health and substance abuse providers, courts, judges, foster parents, and others. And the last piece is to inspire other parents, particularly those going through the recovery process today. That it is possible to confront and resolve the issues that led to the separation of their families and to successfully reunify their families together."

In 2016, when District 4 Supervisor Scotty Adam took office, he said, there were about 400 children in the system. Adam said he received a number of calls about the situation.

Hancock County Judge Trent Favre said that, as of Thursday, 129 children (that number includes sibling groups), have been reunified with their parents or family members.

"We as a board started a discussion about what we can do to help with the crisis that was going on at that time," Adam said. "So we asked about establishing a county court. We as a board passed a unanimous resolution asking the governor for a proclamation to allow us to establish a county court. That happened at the end of 2017."

Before an election could be held, Gov. Phil Bryant appointed Favre to serve as county judge in the interim, Adam said. Favre took office in January 2018. During last year's election, Favre ran unopposed.

"Hope has been something that has been a resonating theme in my mind," he said. "And the people that come into our courtroom have had their children removed and sometimes they don't see hope. I want to make sure that we have a courtroom environment that lets parents understand that their shame can be left at the door. That whatever circumstance they're going through, it's okay, we're here to help and we're going to be with them every step of the way. It's okay to say 'we love you.' It's okay to say 'we care.' That's what these people need to hear and need to feel. That's the environment that I hope we let people know about."

Favre said when he sees the faces of the parents and children enter the courtroom, "I'm looking at these people that need to be together."

"The mindset all across our country is that youth court has been all about the right of a parent to get their kid back," Favre said. "But that's not the case. That is true, but youth court is also about the kid's right to their parent. Children have a right to be with their parents."

Favre said that the word "courage" popped into his mind when he saw the families walk into the celebration.

"There are a lot of parents that did not want to come tonight because they may be embarrassed or shameful of what they had to go through," he said. "They may be worried that their kids may say something that would get them in trouble. They may be worried that the judge is there or law enforcement and all these people that have looked at us before, 'I may say the wrong thing or do the wrong thing and I might end up back in youth court.' So you can understand why a lot of people don't want to come. So I thought about the courage it takes to own the situation and say 'yeah, that happened to me, but I'm here, I own it and I'm okay. I am who I am today and I made it through.' That's something to celebrate."

Pam Cross, regional director for CPS, said that one of the greatest joys for her staff is to "see you get your children back."

"You have done a remarkable job," she said. "I wish there were more families here, but like the judge said, I do appreciate your courage and your bravery to walk in the door. We're hoping that this is the first of many events. So please encourage others to come. Hancock County I believe is on its way to becoming the model child welfare system for the whole state and possibly the nation at some point in time."

Lanie Roussel works as the attorney for parents in youth court and said she originally wanted to work in child advocacy. She said she had never heard of a parent rep position and it has "changed my entire view."

"I sit down with clients these days and I tell them, 'Look, I'm not gonna sugar coat, but you know what, I'm here for you.' My job is for you as a parent. Because as a parent, if they can be the best person they can be, then their family is going to succeed and be the best person they can be."

Roussel referenced the film "Lilo and Stitch" and the use of the word "Ohana."

"The sister takes a motherly role in raising her daughter, but it's a struggle and the daughter adopts this foster alien," she said. "But there's one thing in that movie that sticks out and it's the word 'Ohana.' And in that movie 'Ohana' means family. And then they follow it in saying, family means that nobody gets left behind or forgotten. And I believe that youth court, in its philosophy today, is like that. You get in the situation where you may think it may be the worst thing possible. That somebody's coming into your family or interrupting your family, but it's not. We work every step of the way from the permanent plan of reunification."

A few of the parents spoke about their experience with the reunification process.

Dorothy McKnight is the mother of three children and said it has been a "long journey."

"I was jobless, homeless, an addict, and mother, and I lost my children," McKnight said. "But everybody rallied around me. I didn't see my kids for almost two years, but when I did see them, it was like I'd never left."

McKnight said she completed the rehabilitation program at Jacob's Well, which she said "changed my life and brought me back to where the pain all started."

"We don't grow up and say 'I want to be an addict,''' she said. "There's something there that causes that. They brought me back and I realized that I had been through trauma in my life. It wasn't that I was a bad mother, it was that I didn't know how to mother correctly and didn't have the tools that I needed."

McKnight and her children, Savannah, Donald, and Edith, were reunited last summer.

McKnight said thanks to DHS, CASA, Canopy, Hope Haven, and the Hancock County Resource Center, she now has those tools.

She is also a graduate of the HCRC's Navigator program.

"My children have stood behind me," McKnight said. "They don't hold it against me. They were separated. It's been a long journey for them, too, I know. They're all teenagers now and they forgive me, I hope. I'm in recovery and I will be forever. And I take one day at a time. Judge Favre sealed the deal when he gave me my children back. I couldn't have been happier."

McKnight encouraged people to have "trust and faith" in the community and the organizations that are designed to help you.

McKnight said that she is now two-and-a-half years sober and also had her first job interview on Wednesday.

Savannah, 13, said as soon as she saw her mom again, she was "so happy."

"It was hard sometimes because we (the siblings) were separated," Savannah said. "I would cry and miss my mom. I always knew it (reunification) would happen. It was like a dream."

Jason Fazekas said he has been out of Angola Prison for about a year.

"Shortly after I got to Angola, my son's mother lost custody of our son and his older brother, which is 10 years older than him," he said. "CPS got a call. There was drugs involved. My son and his brother tested positive for meth. My son was two, his brother was 12. A lot of disappointment and regret for me. One thing, not being out to make a difference. A lot of anger built up in me for something like that to be able to happen to my son, his brother, or any child for that matter."

During his incarceration, he said, he developed a relationship with God and other mentors.

Fazekas said his own parents were unable to care for his son Luke at the time.

"So the foster family stepped up and said we'll take the baby until Jason can get out and prove himself fit to get him," he said.

Fazekas said his parents also brought Luke to Angola to visit.

"I had this big fear that he was not going to know who I am when I get out," he said. "Well he didn't forget who I was, through pictures and them bringing him to visit me."

Fazekas said he served two years at Angola and is now in the aftercare program, which can last from two to three years.

"It's kind of like a long-term extension drug court," he said. "I'm in Phase III now. I only go to court once a month now. When I first got out, I was going to court once a week."

Fazekas said he also has a full-time job in Louisiana, with employers who knew about his past when they hired him.

Fazekas said he also needed to obtain a pass in order to visit his son in Mississippi.

"I immediately started building a bond with my son," he said. "It's just been wonderful to know that I have a purpose and it's not just a selfish purpose to keep insisting that I go in and out of prison or that I put my family through a bunch of turmoil."

Fazekas said he has been convicted on charges dealing with marijuana, cocaine, synthetic marijuana, and opiates.

"I wanted to make a change and try to give something else a chance," he said. "When I was there (Angola) I met some people, that unless something drastically changes for them, they're going to die in prison. And not all of them are in there for rape and murder. Some of them are in there for multiple drug offenses, whether it's trafficking, distribution. So I got to see the reality of going to prison as a multiple offender, you just might not get out."

Fazekas said that just prior to Thanksgiving, "this judge gave me back my son."

He said his son was in the system for two years.

"Instead of terminating parental rights, they let it last longer because I was in contact with each of the social workers, trying to find out the update status on Luke and how he was doing," he said.

Fazekas said that he completes drug screening twice a week.

"My past is not defining my present," he said.

Luke will begin kindergarten this year and has already been "through so many adjustments."

"I still take him to see the foster family at least once a month and to see his older brother, who's been the only constant in his life," Fazekas said. "He has a good relationship with his foster brothers and the foster parents. He's built a real good bond with my mom and dad. Just as much as I know that he needs a father, he needs to live with his biological family. He needs me, but at the same time, I need him. I can't think about anything that I used to think about if I think it's going to be any effect to him in a negative way. It has to be about him. It's not about me anymore."

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