"Penelope Said 'I Need My Mommy'"
Two-year-old Penelope is at peace with her father as they watch Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Of course, that is only when Little Baby Bum is not on the screen.
"Penelope loves daddy. She's a daddy's girl," stated her mother, Shani. "Kevin sings nursery rhymes to her and she jumps, smiles and laughs."
For Shani, Kevin's time with Penelope frees her to care for two-month-old twins, Olivia, who "listens wide eyed," and K.J., who "gazes with love." With three young children at home, Shani reflects on the moments in her life where due to medical complications, she did not believe she would be able to have children. "I can't believe it still," she stated.
The love and pride Shani and Kevin have for their children is palpable. They eagerly told their story about involvement with the Department of Children and Families, a period of intensive emotions while being separated from Penelope, partnering with the "best social worker ever," a team of community providers they embraced and how they are now giving back to the community.
"I found blessing in such a terrible situation," stated Shani.
Shani and Kevin relocated to Connecticut from Florida a year prior to Penelope's birth. When hospital staff expressed concerns at the time Penelope was born, the couple found themselves with scarce supports and it was determined she needed to come into care.
"I didn't sleep since the day they took her," stated Shani. Her fierce determination to be reunified with her daughter resulted in separating from Kevin temporarily, countless trips to the courthouse to find services, staying at a domestic violence shelter, and a hotel. "I did everything," she stated.
"I am woman, hear me roar when it comes to my child," stated Shani.
Shani also met Penelope's foster parent. They exchanged numbers and Shani was sent pictures of Penelope during milestone events. It was not enough. During this time, Penelope experienced feeding problems requiring frequent trips to the hospital. Shani would attend and work with the medical professionals to support her little girl.
Kevin's journey to care for his daughter saw him residing in a halfway house run by Community Partners in Action, staying on the couch of a friend and those days where he slept in a car - brushing his teeth and shaving in the reflection of the window - in preparation for work that day.
He too embraced supports from community agencies including the Fatherhood Engagement Services (FES) through My Peoples Clinical Services. "They were very good for me," Kevin stated. "I took a lot from what they had to offer. They worked wonders."
A common thread of Shani and Kevin was their desire to receive help and come together as a family. The most important common thread was the relationship they established with DCF Social Worker Lissette Harrison.
"She listened to me, saw me as a regular person. Rather than reading a paper thinking that is who I was," stated Shani. "Amazing" is how she describes Lissette and that in speaking with her, "I felt heard immediately." Shani also pointed out the involvement of DCF Social Work Supervisor Sara Wood and one touching moment in the hospital with Penelope. Shani was crying over the thought of missing Penelope's first bath. "You don’t have to miss it," Shani recalls Sara saying. "She can have it right now." Together, they gave Penelope a bath.
Kevin's statements were equally as powerful. "I love the DCF staff. They were empowering to a certain extent." Despite describing himself as a "man's man" Kevin admits "everybody needs help." He was especially complimentary of Ernst Racine Jr. from Merveille Support Services who would bring Penelope to him for visits. "He was a big help as well. He was real good," stated Kevin recalling how they would sit and discuss the importance of being a father. In one documented interaction, Ernst wrote that Kevin leaned in and said to Penelope, "I am so proud to be your father."
During Penelope's time in care, she experienced feeding problems requiring frequent hospital visits. "She would not eat unless it was mommy, daddy or Lissette feeding her," stated Shani.
A mother's intuition and insights saw much more than a little baby with a medical condition. She was convinced the only way Penelope would get better would be if she was cared for by her parents. Also, that Penelope was sending everyone a message.
"Penelope said I need my mommy," stated Shani. Her little girl was telling her she needed to come home.
Shani began residing at Inter Community - Coventry House, a 10-bed residential substance use program for women and their children. Here, she engaged in counseling and groups with other women in a similar situation. Shani was a leader in the program. She engaged in the Circle of Security parenting course, a program designed for parents and caregivers of children who want to strengthen the bonds with their children and build secure relationships, with a focus on attachment.
With supports in place, the decision was made for Penelope to be reunified with Shani at Coventry House. "I finally got a good night's sleep," stated Shani the night Penelope came home. In contrast to the sleepless nights without her daughter.
After a period of time, Shani and Kevin began residing together again in their own apartment.
"It was our pleasure to partner with Shani and Kevin in their journey with the Department. They took every opportunity that was offered to them to improve their lives and overcame the many obstacles they faced," stated Social Worker Lissette Harrison. "This family lacked resources, finances, and natural supports but they were able to persevere through it all. They also were faced with their daughter having many medical complexities which added to their stress."
"We believe that this family made a lot of gains as a result of their work with the Department, however, I believe myself and Social Worker Harrison learned just as much from them through the process and for that we will forever be inspired, and we feel honored to have been able to work with them. They touched our lives, and we wish the best for them going forward," stated Social Work Supervisor Sara Wood.
The couple has an active house. Penelope was diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy and receives weekly physical therapy, speech and occupational therapy at Connecticut Children's Medical Center as well as Birth to Three visits. "We have a great team," Shani stated. The twins require full-time attention and are still up frequently during the night. "We have it under control," stated Shani. "I love the expression on their faces."
Shani is taking on-line classes to achieve a degree in Business with the long-term goal to obtain a Master's in Business Marketing.
The couple has also found time at Coventry House and speak to the children there about relationships, substance abuse, healthy choices, parenting and staying on the right path in life. "I speak what I feel. Tell them my own story," stated Kevin.
What would they say to other parents about working with the Department of Children and Families?
"Do it. Work with them and not against them," Shani would tell others. "Follow the roadmap. If you work with DCF, you will see they help you more than you realize."
"DCF is for you and not against you. Open up. Do not be afraid," stated Kevin. "They are allies for your children."
Note: The names have been changed in this story to protect the identifies of the family.