CLEARWATER — Lakiesha Debarros had a restraining order against her ex-boyfriend. But on a night in June last year, police responded to a domestic violence call from the mother of three.
An investigator with the Florida Department of Children and Families also responded to the call. It wasn't the first time Debarros, 24, was told to keep herself and her children away from her ex. Debarros told the woman she couldn't tell her what to do.
The next day, her three young children were taken away.
Debarros went through more than six months of family counseling and classes for domestic violence victims. At times she wasn't allowed to see her children, ages 1 to 6. She cried a lot.
"You want to give up," she said, "but you can't give up because it's your kids."
Debarros, of Clearwater, was one of about a dozen parents who were honored Friday at the county's Criminal Justice Center for earning back custody of their kids.
"Everybody here today, the families here, have really worked hard," said April Putzulu, spokeswoman for Eckerd Community Alternatives, the nonprofit agency that oversees child welfare and foster care services in Pinellas and Pasco counties.
With the help of Eckerd; the state Department of Children and Families; guardian ad litem, mental health and drug abuse treatment services; and other partner organizations, 425 Pinellas County families were reunified over the last year.
About 100 parents, teens, children, volunteers, caseworkers and other agency employees attended the event.
Kids are separated from their parents for many reasons, but abuse of alcohol and prescription drugs is "our No. 1 cause for the removal of children," Putzulu said.
Domestic violence also is a big problem.
"They had to learn to pull away from that cycle of going back to abusive men," she said.
The rate of domestic violence in Florida is going down, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, though one in four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime.
Single moms headed many of the families at the ceremony. Domestic violence specialist Barry Greer said abuse was a factor in every case.
Once the state takes children away, they are placed with relatives or family friends, or, as a last resort, put in foster care.
Parents must go through counseling, substance abuse treatment, parenting classes, life skills training and home visits to prove they can raise their children.
But "every case plan is very individualized based on the family's needs," Putzulu said.
She said that 70 percent of the children who are taken from their parents eventually are reunited.
At the Criminal Justice Center on Friday, happy little kids wore balloon crowns, played with balloon ray guns and carried balloon flowers. Children posed for family portraits and decorated frames.
A few parents stood in front of the crowd and shared their stories of hopelessness, perseverance and love.
Heather Harwood, 38, of Seminole laughed, smiled and cried as she spoke about her experience.
She said she had been in multiple abusive relationships and had overcome a prescription drug addiction. A caseworker taught her that "just because you love someone doesn't mean that they're good for you," she said.
She thanked everyone who helped her and then turned to her two teenagers.
"Thank you for not giving up on me," she said, "for forgiving me for the most unforgivable things a mom could do."
When she was given back custody of her kids and they started living together again, her daughter wasn't sure if her mom had changed.
"I was still skeptical about her," said Allison Gurganus, 15. "I didn't trust her to be honest."
But Harwood kept her promises.
"I learned what they needed me to be," she said, "and I learned I kind of like what they needed me to be."
Now, she said, her family is stronger, healthier and more open. But every day she remembers the moment two years ago when her son flushed her pills.
Jason Gurganus, 14, said he was happy to live with his mom again, though he was nervous at first.
But "because of how hard she tried to get us back, I'm pretty sure she's not going to do that again."
Alli Langley can be reached at [email protected]