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CROSSING THE OCEAN TO REUNIFY ERIC

How far do you go for a nine-year-old boy who needs the father he never met?

For three professionals at the Department of Children and Families’ Manchester office, the answer is at least 3,600 miles. That’s the distance between Connecticut and the European country that the father now calls home.

Tanya Cruz, a Department social worker for 4 years, Becky Fournier, her supervisor with 22 years of experience, and Eddie Salinas, a program supervisor who started with the agency in 2007, had a difficult case. There was nothing about the initial report in 2017 to indicate just how complicated it would be.

A school in East Hartford reported to the Department that Eric (not his real name) frequently missed school and was threatening teachers, throwing objects and engaging in other very difficult behavior when he did attend. The nine-year-old boy lived with his mother and other relatives. But mother would not answer when the Department came to the door to talk with her about the concerns. And she withdrew Eric from school – and from outside eyes.

Also worrisome to the Department team of Ms. Cruz, Ms. Fournier and Mr. Salinas, the school was telling the Department that “something wasn’t right,” – although specifics were lacking other than Eric’s concerning behavior at school.

Faced with a choice of either closing the case or going to court – the Department went to juvenile court and filed petitions. The court responded by ordering the mother to allow the Department into the home with a court-appointed attorney present. Both the Department and the judge asked mother who the father was, and mother said she did not know.

The judge ordered an evaluation, which resulted in a number of recommendations, including counseling for mother and Eric, an in-home clinical service for the family, and enrolling Eric in an education program. Mother, however, refused to abide by the court orders.

Time stretched on.  For a year, the Department continued to visit twice a month with the lawyer present.

Meanwhile, the judge’s concern was growing as well. Mother would not provide the Department her phone number, would not say where she worked, and continued to refuse to identify father. Mr. Salinas remembered that the judge said this was one of the most concerning cases she had ever seen.

In response to continued concerns, the judge took the unusual measure to commit Eric to the care of the Department from the bench during a routine hearing and he went to live with relatives.

Meanwhile Tanya Cruz, the social worker, refused to give up on finding father. This was no accident as she plays an important role in the Manchester office’s efforts to improve its work with fathers. For a number of years now, the Department has focused on improving how it engages with fathers through a multi-pronged effort that includes staff training, community awareness, and specialized services. Living up to the ideal of fatherhood engagement, however, often requires persistence and can be difficult.

“I was asking questions of the aunt at every visit,” Ms. Cruz said, but only received vague responses.

A number of months later, she hit pay dirt. Ms. Cruz turned the case upside down by searching a specialized database that connected the name of a man with Eric’s mother at around the time of Eric’s birth.

“I was so excited that I had found a guy,” Ms. Cruz said, “because up until then, we had nothing.” That led Ms. Cruz to conduct another data base search, known as Lexus Nexus, and she came upon a maternal aunt. When Ms. Cruz called the aunt, “She told me I would have trouble locating him” because he was in Europe!

Ms. Cruz would not let trouble interfere with securing a permanent home for Eric – especially now that she may have located his father. She called him internationally and had a two-hour conversation with Colin (also not his real name) and his wife. During that conversation, Ms. Cruz recalls father saying, “I always thought I had a son.’”

Eric’s court-appointed attorney, Stein Helmrich, said Ms. Cruz tried many ways to find the father until finally coming upon him through the data base. “That was one of the more amazing things I have seen,” Attorney Helmrich said, adding that the name Ms. Cruz found allowed him to contact the father on Facebook at about the same time that she was speaking with him on the phone.

After connecting with father, the first task was to establish paternity through DNA testing. That testing confirmed paternity and provided the breakthrough the team sought. “Tanya came into the office and said there was hope,” Mr. Salinas recalls. “Those results were the moment when we knew what should happen. We knew there was the chance to obtain the permanency Eric deserved.”

The establishment of paternity set off a series of events, some required by the legal process and some at the insistence of lawyers and the court. For example, father had to be added to the court filings, which raised concerns for Eric’s safety. He needed to be moved to a different foster home.

Ms. Cruz wanted Eric to maintain the connections he made with friends, schoolmates, his clinician and the school in the town where he used to live. So, she drove him from the new foster home, in a completely different town, back and forth daily to his original school to ensure continuity. Her work also encompassed driving him to day camp once summer vacation began, and to counseling.

“We want these children to feel connected,” Ms. Fournier said, “to feel some continued familiarity.”

Perhaps most sensitive of all was the need to “introduce” Eric to even the concept – let alone the reality -- of having a father.

“Eric never met this man,” Ms. Fournier noted. “We didn’t know what was in Eric’s mind about this man” that mother may have established along the way.

“We had to do this in a therapeutic way,” she added.

So while the identification of father was a huge breakthrough – a tremendous amount of intensive, painstaking work remained.

“It wasn’t as easy as sending a child to Florida,” Mr. Salinas said. “We would be sending him to another country. We were meeting every day – multiple times a day – to plan this case. We had an agenda, and then the next day (something would happen and) we had to change it.

“We wanted the best for Eric, but it was so hard,” Mr. Salinas added.

Ms. Cruz talked to father and his wife on a daily basis. Much of the conversation was about how they best could inform Eric of the monumental news that his dad was found and wanted to meet and get to know him.

Ms. Cruz had on numerous occasions asked Eric about having a father, but Eric did not have much to share on that subject.

One day, Ms. Cruz had just taken Eric to a therapy appointment, and the two were sitting in a state car at a gas station. It was that moment; Eric was told about his father.

“Eric, I have something to tell you . . . I actually found your dad,” Ms. Cruz recalled. “He was shocked. He said, ‘You did?’”

Ms. Cruz had brought with her a map that showed where Eric’s dad was in relation to Connecticut. And she also had a video on her phone from his dad, which she played for Eric.

“Hi Eric, my name is Colin, and I am your father,” he says into the camera with a warm and meaningful smile. “I just want to let you know that I am very excited to meet you, and I hope you are excited to meet me. I know you like Star Wars -- so do I. Maybe if you come down here, we can watch the Star Wars flick together and talk about it. I can’t wait. I am excited to meet you.”

In the hours of phone calls, Ms. Cruz shared with dad that Eric was a big Star Wars fan. Dad smartly incorporated that inside information in his very first message to his son.

“He was so happy,” Ms. Cruz said of how Eric responded to the video. “He was shocked, but he was so happy. I told him his dad is Puerto Rican and that he is half Puerto Rican.”

The next day, Eric made this video to send to his dad:

“Hi Dad. I am excited to see you too,” says Eric, scratching his leg and wearing a colorful tee shirt featuring some funny/scary monster on the front. “I’ve never seen you before, and I am excited to do some fun stuff with you. I’ve heard some information that you have a reptile shop or something like that. And I’m very excited to see it, and maybe I could see you and do so some pretty cool stuff with you.”

It is a video exchange that would melt any heart. And, yes, dad does own a reptile shop, said Ms. Cruz.

Ms. Cruz facilitated daily phone calls for the next two weeks, and shortly after the video exchange, in late June 2019, father flew to Connecticut to meet his son.

“It was amazing.” Ms. Cruz recalled of the first meeting, which occurred in the Middletown office of Eric’s therapist. “They first saw each other in the waiting room. They hugged and dad brought him a gift. Dad teared up and was very nurturing. I don’t think Eric ever experienced that before.”

There was also a sense of relief. Understandably, both dad and Eric were nervous - so when the pair felt so comfortable together, it was like they “took a breath of fresh air,” Ms. Cruz said.

Mr. Salinas said they wanted to make the following visits between father and son as normal as possible. Dad was staying in Connecticut with his sister, brother-in-law and their children. So that home became the site for Eric to visit dad where he also met and played with the cousins he never knew he had. “We became creative and gave them the opportunity to get to know each other without the Department being there. We needed to normalize it,” Mr. Salinas said.

While the team now clearly saw the right course, they still had to ensure that father could provide a safe and loving home. The Department’s interstate compact unit – which facilitates placements to other states – suggested that the team consider using a private agency to conduct the home assessment in the father’s country. But when the organization said it would take six to 12 months to get it done, the team decided another approach was required given the need to unite Eric and father without undue delays. “When we told the judge, it would take 12 months, we knew we had to send Eddie.”  Ms. Fournier said of her boss Mr. Salinas.

Mr. Salinas crossed the Atlantic to assess the home for three days where he witnessed a cohesive and loving family that included three of their own boys and that was well suited for Eric. When Ms. Cruz explained to Eric earlier that he had brothers, he seemed to not even understand the concept. That soon would change.

The team went before the judge again in July so Mr. Salinas could report his home assessment to the court. The judge then ordered the Department to transition Eric to live with father and his family.

While the Atlantic Ocean -- as measured in miles -- presented the largest crossing that would be required to unite Eric with his dad, there were many other complicated and time consuming challenges that would need to be met. Most involved coaxing slow-moving bureaucracies to move faster in the interest of allowing Eric and his father to be together without a long wait. Eric would need a passport. Eric would need a new birth certificate with the name of his father. Eric’s education records had to be secured. And all the documentation required a special level of legal notarization to gain the recognition of the international authorities.

“It took a lot of time for Tanya,” Mr. Salinas said of the social worker who also had to balance the demands of all her other 15 or so cases. “But she made it happen. She got it all done.”

Attorney Helmrich said it was an impressive example of the Department acting on the principle of keeping families together to avoid a prolonged and difficult stint in foster care. “So much was done in a very short time to make sure he didn’t have to be bounced around in a number of foster homes,” he said. “Then to get father here and introduce him (to Eric) and make sure it was okay was another example of going above and beyond.”

After Eric asked Attorney Helmrich if he would come with him and Ms. Cruz to his new home, the three of them embarked on the trip to a new country for the 9-year-old boy. Understandably, Eric was nervous and neither he nor Ms. Cruz slept.

Ms. Cruz and Attorney Helmrich spent three days with Eric in Europe. On the last day before the planned departure, Ms. Cruz asked Eric if he wanted to come back to Connecticut. “No, I want to stay, and I feel safe here,” Eric told Ms. Cruz. “I never saw him so happy as the day we left,” she remembers.

Ms. Cruz maintains contact with the family through phone calls. She said Eric has shown off some of his newly learned language skills -- as different dialects are spoken in his country. The family is responding appropriately to some of the expected behavior issues that Eric brought along with him from Connecticut, Ms. Cruz said. “He is doing good and learning the language,” she said. “He said school is good and he’s going to therapy.” She notes that Eric calls his step-mother “Mom.”

This work with Eric brought the three team members to a new relationship as professionals.

“Some cases connect with you on a different level, and this is one of those cases where we all said this needs to happen, and we worked together toward a goal that we put in place,” Mr. Salinas said.

“He is with the person he needs to be with,” Mr. Salinas added.

“Eric is in a good place,” Ms. Cruz said. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity – it was an amazing experience. I’m just happy for Eric. He had a very sad life and taking him out of that environment changed his life. He was so happy to be with his dad. I haydn’t seen him like that in three years.”

The team was certain that the monumental effort was well worth it.

“Look at all the resources, all the time that this took,” Ms. Fournier said. “Now he is with blood, and this is his forever home.

“We do a lot of good work here at the Department,” she continued. “But it does not get a lot of credit. This is a success story with all the work that went into it. You just figure out what needs to happen, and you just get it done.

“This little boy didn’t know his dad existed, and now he’s with him.”

With him for the holidays!