Danielle Maslow watched her 8-year-old son slowly sound out the words in a puzzle book he had received at a party thrown by an agency that helps struggling families get back together.
It was a simple pleasure, watching Jamie play and learn -- one Maslow had missed for 18 months while the two were separated and the boy was in foster care because of Maslow's drug addiction.
"Last year at this time I was homeless and I didn't have my son -- I had nothing," said Maslow, who now lives with her son and fiance. She is expecting a baby girl in February and has been off crack cocaine for 15 months. "We're a family now."
Jamie, a third-grader, is among 7,737 children who left foster care in 2006, the majority of whom returned home, according to the Department of Children and Families. Children who enter foster care at his age typically spend about 11 months in out-of-home placements; they are most often removed from their homes because of neglect.
In the Maslows' case, Danielle called the Division of Youth and Family Services herself, asking the agency to place Jamie in foster care after she relapsed into drug abuse.
With no home of her own, she crashed on her brother's couch while waiting for a spot in a rehab facility to open up. She spent the next year getting clean and proving to social workers that she could be trusted again with her own child.
Unlike those who think the agency rips families apart, Maslow is convinced that in the long run, it kept hers together.
She found support through Robins' Nest, a private social services agency contracted by the state agency to help reunite families separated because of neglect or abuse.
"Reunification will always be the goal as long as it's possible," said Kate Bernyk, a spokeswoman for Children and Families.
Children and Families pays agencies like Robins' Nest Family Connections to provide pre- and post-reunification services to children and parents. Those services include parenting classes, counseling and supervised visits; ensuring that children have pediatricians and medical insurance; linking parents to services such as welfare, food stamps and Medicaid; and ensuring adequate housing.
"We move from fully supervised visits to partially supervised visits to overnights and weekends," said Marlene Seamans-Conn, program director of Family Ties, a component of Robins' Nest. "We gradually shift the parenting responsibilities back to the parent. It's a nice transition over the course of several months, with the goal being total unification."
Family Connections maintains Reunity House, where parents and children can interact in a home setting during supervised visits while the children are still in foster care, said Jennifer Kerr, who manages the house.
Cecilia Zalkind, executive director of the Assn. for Children of New Jersey, a children's advocacy group, applauds the use of independent community agencies to help support struggling families.
"These programs have had great success in engaging families in services they need to get their children back and provide an important source of support afterward," she said.
Robins' Nest and Family Connections maintain contact with families long after the state decides parents and children can be reunited. Weekly home visits continue for months, before tapering off to telephone contact. Family Connections stays in touch with clients for at least a year, Kerr said.
"This sends out a powerful message that parents really can reconnect with their children if they work hard on their issues," Seamans-Conn said.