Since 2001, a project called Reunity House has been pioneering a new way to reunite families in the foster care system. And it’s a model that has now set the standard for New Jersey.
According to Jacques Hryshko, Executive Director of Family Connections, the local non-profit agency that created the program, Reunity House was conceived because the Department of Youth and Family Services or DYFS (now the Department of Children and Families or DCF) was concerned about the high percentage of failed family reunifications between children in foster care and their natural parents. DYFS was looking to improve what happened during the visitation process.
Hryshko — who is a Maplewood resident — explained that staff at Family Connections started meeting with parents involved with the system. The feedback was eye-opening. Parents said that the facilities where reunifications were taking place were not comfortable or “conducive” to visitation, visitation meetings were cancelled frequently, and, although visits were monitored by DYFS, there was no staff available to help parents learn to be better parents.
Hryshko said that Reunity House addresses all these issues.
First, it “feels like home.”
“On the second floor, there are two apartments where visits happen,” said Hryshko of the Reunity House location at 122 Irvington Avenue in South Orange. He added that visits were “never canceled — even if it’s a holiday, we reschedule within the week.” He also noted that Reunity House “staff are family therapists,” who help parents plan for visits then review the visits and, at times, review video recordings of the visits with parents afterward.
Hryshko said that families are in the Reunity House program generally for a year and then move to moderated visits in their real homes for a year afterward.
The program has been recognized statewide as the “premiere family visit model. People in the community would be really proud to know that there is an agency like this providing this quality of support for families,” said Hryshko. “It’s unmatched in New Jersey.”
Fourteen years later, the Reunity House program has safely reunited nearly 300 families through its three houses (the South Orange site was ultimately so successful that Family Connections established Reunity House Orange and Reunity House Paterson in 2007). More than 750 children are now out of the foster care system and back with their birth parents and siblings through the Reunity House program.
In a recent interview, Hryshko said he wanted his neighbors in Maplewood and South Orange to know more about the hidden secret that is Family Connections: “One of the reasons I love living in Maplewood is that people want the diversity in this town to work. They want it to be a great town for everybody. I think those people would be very proud of the work Family Connections is doing, not just in Maplewood, but the work that we are doing in Essex County and even in other counties. They’d be proud to know that this is an agency in their community.”
Indeed, Family Connections has a great deal of local representation on its 19 member board, with five Maplewood residents (Clyde Otis, III; Ellen Davenport; Lisa-Renee Dumas; Laura Whitmire; and Jody Lipsky) and five South Orange residents (Alan Levine who is Board President; Reginald Long, Esq.; Sally Monaghan, Esq.; Frieda Friedman; and Jami Thall) serving.
Hryshko himself has been a Maplewood resident for 30 years, joining Family Connections when it was still Family Services and Child Guidance Center of the Oranges, Maplewood and Millburn (“It changed its name around or before the millennium,” said Hryshko). He explains that Family Connections— which provides more than 35 social services programs to communities throughout Essex County — is a private nonprofit community-based agency with 150 staff and a $10 million annual budget that is supported 75% by state grants, 6% by county grants, 8% by private foundations, 2% by corporate grants, 5% by billing, 2% by fundraising, and 1% by investments. (How’s that for transparency?)
Other Family Connections programs include afterschool programs at the middle schools (The Hub) and Columbia High School (The Loft), in-home services for early childhoood development, resources for expectant mothers, in-home senior services programs, mental health services, substance abuse programs, and more.
Besides grants, Family Connections fulfills its mission by raising funds and holding a spring gala each year. Said Hryshko, “The first step with fundraising is for the community to know that we exist. In so many ways we are a secret.”
Find out more about Family Connections by visiting www.familyconnectionsnj.org.
Click on any image below to see a slideshow of image from Reunity House South Orange.