NEW PORT RICHEY — For two decades, drugs and bad decisions wreaked havoc on Michelle Perreault's life.
Twice, the state stepped in to remove her daughter, Mara, from Perreault's Zephyrhills home. She went through a succession of abusive men. She couldn't hold a job. She drank and drugged her way through a pregnancy that ended with the 2010 birth of a drug-addicted boy. The state took Mara, and Perreault gave the baby up for adoption. It was the only thing she could do for him, she figured.
Losing Mara a second time pushed Perreault to do something she hadn't tried before. She went to a 12-step recovery program, asked for help, got honest, and tried hard — for real this time — to get sober. She put some clean time together and did everything her caseworker told her to do. She got Mara, now 14, back in October and has remained clean and sober for 10 months. Her case is now closed.
"I love my daughter with all my heart," Perreault said. "I owe her a huge apology."
Perreault, 37, shared her story Friday at a family reunification event called "Reunited: A Celebration of Families," hosted by Eckerd Community Alternatives, the lead agency for child welfare services in Pasco and Pinellas counties. Partners such as Youth and Family Alternatives, Guardian ad Litem, Pasco County courts and Gulf Coast Community Care also participated. This is the third year for the event.
The event, held in the jury pool room of the West Pasco Judicial Center, featured mostly moms and their kids posing for family portraits, young children bopping each other with balloon animals and parents shaking hands with judges and other officials, posing with certificates and picking up gift bags. Perreault grinned through it all.
"I am so blessed, so grateful," she said.
Mara, too, appreciates the difference in her life, compared to just a couple of years ago. She's adopted an 11-month-old puppy, Shara, and plans on a career as a veterinarian. She and her mom lie around in bed sometimes, just talking and watching television. They shop, and Mara accompanies her mom to 12-step meetings.
"She's a better person, and she has good people around us now," Mara said. "She listens more."
Patsy Fields of New Port Richey also shared her story, of how her addiction and an arrest for drug possession led to her son, Brian Haley, being taken away. He lived with his grandmother for eight months while Fields, 36, got clean, got a job and followed her caseworker's directions. She's been sober for 14 months now and works for a Hudson heating and air conditioning company. From the podium, Fields expressed her love for Brian, 16, and apologized for what she put him through.
"I will never again leave you or cause you heartache or pain," Fields said.
This is the third year Eckerd has given special recognition to families who have reunited; this year, the event is part of a monthlong "Family Reunification Celebration," proclaimed by Gov. Rick Scott to be held between Mother's and Father's days. Officials noted that 6,034 children were returned to their parents in 2011 throughout the state; in Pasco County, 175. So far this year, there have been 140.
Unified Family Court Judges William Webb and Lynn Tepper each congratulated parents for the work they did to get their children back. The court's goal, Tepper said, is to make sure children are in safe and loving environments, while doing what they can to strengthen child-parent relationships.
Tepper choked up as she described some of the challenges she watches parents go through in order to reunite their families — unemployment, homelessness, domestic violence, substance abuse and neglect, to name a few.
"Don't ever undercut the strength and courage it takes to get through these," Tepper said.
Webb noted that in the big picture, material possessions don't bring lasting happiness. Quality time with family does.
"Go forward and create new and lasting memories," he urged parents.
Perreault plans to do just that. Years ago, she promised her daughter a trip to the Florida Aquarium in Tampa, but with most of her money going to booze and drugs, she could never afford it. Now she has her own business, cleaning houses, and enough money to keep her promises.
"We're going to the aquarium," said Perreault, smiling.