"I am complete. My happiness finally arrived on my doorstep."
During the height of the COVID-19 Pandemic, what felt like a system stacked against him with countless barriers, waiting lists, court delays, cast judgment, and misconceptions became a motivating force for one father on a mission to get his daughter back home.
From the moment that Olger Zuniga’s daughter Aynara was placed in foster care, he worked tirelessly to prove to the Department that she belonged at home with her father. He ensured that he maintained a stable job, had no criminal involvement, a safe place to live, extended family to help him care for Aynara, and a true desire to do whatever it took to reunify with his little girl.
Separated from their child’s mother, Mr. Zuniga focused on himself and Aynara, complying with all the Department’s expectations and accepted services that were offered to him. They were comprehensive and included Child first, Circle of Security, Fatherhood Support, individual therapy, parenting classes, and Reunification and Therapeutic Family Time (RTFT), a program created to determine a family's readiness for reunification that works with the child, birth family and foster family to support a healthy and successful transition back home.
Hearing from professionals that the child welfare system is set up to favor a mother’s efforts, Mr. Zuniga felt that he had to work harder and beg to be seen. "A piece of me was missing, it was a very, very sad time," he said.
Mr. Zuniga grew from never being a primary caretaker, to cooking healthy meals, setting up Aynara's bedroom, learning positive parenting skills, and participating in shared parenting with his daughter's foster parents. Since reunification occurred, he has set scheduled weekend visits for Aynara to continue having regular contact with her siblings.
It was a beautiful experience to witness the whole village support this father’s role and ultimately ended with this child achieving permanency," stated Britanny Sanchez, Director of Child Welfare Services from Child and Family Agency of Southeastern Connecticut.
Sol Vega, Mr. Zuniga’s DCF Social Worker, shared that she had never before worked with a father so dedicated and determined to be reunified with his daughter. She expressed pride in Mr. Zuniga for his commitment to Aynara and his progress with the department. “After he was reunified with his daughter his face completely changed, he seemed alive, so different, smiling all the time and excited. He thanked me for giving him his life back, but it was because of his openness, patience, and grace that his daughter was able to come home to him."
Mr. Zuniga expressed deep gratitude for Ms. Vega. He believes it was because of her honesty and unconditional support that the two developed a trusting relationship. “She kept her word," Mr. Zuniga explained. "She believed in me at a time when a child’s mother seemed more valued than a child’s father," he added.
"Mr. Zuniga graciously navigated extensive court delays due to the pandemic and legal maneuvering. He chose to look at the situation from a positive point of view, rather than giving in to frustration and assigning blame. His perseverance paid off, and after many delays, he was successfully reunified with his daughter," stated Social Work Supervisor Erika Striebel.
“There is a light at the end of the tunnel," explained Mr. Zuniga. "You might not see the light at the moment, or it might not be that bright, but the light is there, and you have to move towards it.”
Reunification with Aynara was that light, and he never gave up.