LARGO — Mary Jackson's worst day was the day the state took her four kids away.
But in a turnaround both for her and the foster care system, she was invited to a ceremony Thursday with balloons, snacks and visiting dignitaries to honor parents who have worked hard and regained custody of their children.
Jackson covered her face in her hands, overcome with emotion, when she stood up to be recognized. Later, she said that after going through the agony of temporarily losing her kids, the ceremony sent "a positive message that there is hope and people do care." She said it shows that while parents sometimes make mistakes, "after mistakes are made, they can still be a good parent."
This is something new for the foster care system. Although the system has always tried to reunite families, many parents have felt child welfare caseworkers were enemies conspiring to take their kids away. Now officials are making a point that keeping families together is their ultimate goal.
"There are no words that can express our sincere gratitude and appreciation for all you have done," said Lorita Shirley, executive director of Eckerd Community Alternatives, addressing about a dozen families. Eckerd supervises foster care programs in Pinellas and Pasco counties.
As several officials pointed out Thursday, studies have shown children often do better when they grow up in their own flawed families, compared to foster care.
Department of Children and Families Secretary George Sheldon said that even with high-quality foster care, "if a child is in five different homes, I don't care if they're the best homes available, that child ultimately begins to believe they don't belong anywhere."
The bottom line, he said, is that the system needs to concentrate on keeping families together.
"In the last 31/2 years, there has been a 37 percent reduction in children in out-of-home care, from 29,000 to 18,000," Sheldon said, in remarks interrupted by applause.
Even though the law has long required caseworkers to try to reunite moms and dads with their kids, it's now emphasized more, said Catherine Babcock, director of operations of Eckerd Community Alternatives.
Gov. Charlie Crist has declared this "Family Reunification Week."
Jackson, 32, of Palm Harbor, said her case began when she was working overnight as a waitress, and left her four children at home, but they locked the babysitter out of the house because another relative told them to.
Her children were removed temporarily. "Nothing worse could have happened, except me dying," she said. The criminal charges of child neglect were dropped, but she still had to work on a "case plan" with various tasks before she could get her children back.
She said her caseworkers were helpful and supportive. She and other families interviewed Thursday said their caseworkers never felt like enemies.
Ruthie Behan, 36, of New Port Richey, another mother honored, said she struggled for years with alcohol, and lost custody of her 11-year-old son. But she got sober, worked hard and won the right to welcome him back home.
"I was just the bottom of the bottom, what they would consider a hopeless case," said Behan. Losing custody of Eli, after a night of drinking, just made her worse.
"Never in a million years" did she expect to be invited to a ceremony in her honor, she said. She called it a miracle.
Times Staff Writer Curtis Krueger can be reached at (727) 893-8232 or firstname.lastname@example.org.