On Jan. 11, 2013, Julie Johnson’s daughter, Anna, didn’t come home from day care. At first, Julie didn’t know where Anna was, but at least she knew who had taken her: the state of Arkansas.
Before long, she began to appreciate why. She and her estranged husband were meth addicts, and their homes were no longer safe.
Eight months later, Julie (whose name and Anna’s were changed for this story) was getting the help she needed, and Anna was back in her custody. On June 6, 2014, their case closed for good.
How did Julie get her daughter back, and her life? With help from people who cared.
Before losing Anna, Julie and her husband had been traveling a downward path. She’d immigrated from Australia, married, and settled in Mountain Home. They started using methamphetamine. Eventually they separated, and Anna split time between their homes. There were sessions involving the Department of Human Services. One day, Julie’s husband was doing a drug deal and didn’t pick up Anna from day care. The owner took her home, DHS was called, and Anna was placed in foster care.
From that point, Julie’s downward path became a spiral. Heartbroken and guilt-ridden, she began using more drugs to ease the pain. Her husband moved away. She slept at his office with other drug addicts, but no one was paying the bills and they couldn’t stay. Eventually they divorced, and she became involved in an abusive relationship, allowing herself to be beaten almost daily because she thought she deserved it.
Eventually she sought shelter in Gamma House, which serves homeless women and children in Mountain Home. She was given a voucher to rent a one-bedroom place. Her DHS caseworker, Chuck Hurley, would drive her eight hours round trip to see Anna, who was staying with her foster parents, Nanny and Pop.
They were, she said, “the sweetest people.”
“I was just so thankful, because that’s where Anna began to really shine and feel like she was in a family again, and I just thank them for being the people that they were and for looking after my child when I couldn’t,” she said
She eventually spent five months at Arkansas CARES, a rehab facility in Little Rock operated by Methodist Family Health for women with small children and for pregnant women. It was a tough program that emphasized accountability. While there, Anna was returned to her on Sept. 19, 2013, a moment that felt “like a part of me was back.” She and the other residents’ children were bused to a nearby school.
After Julie completed her program, they moved back to Mountain Home. She became a Christian, found a job at a pet boarding facility, and married. She now supervises four employees.
Julie gives much of the credit for her comeback to Chuck, her caseworker who still provides her an occasional helping hand.
“He never gave up on me, even though there were times through the process he could have or should have,” she said. “If I did slip up, of course he was disappointed, but he always told me that he believed in me. … He was like the only solid, normal person, if you want to say, in my life.”
An agency employee since 2012, Chuck said parents like Julie need lots of contact with the caseworker, adequate services, a support system, and time with their children. Having to explain to a five-year-old why he can’t be home with his parent can be difficult, but you have to approach it with respect.
Even when living in a loving and stable foster home, children still have an attachment to their biological parents, he said. That’s one reason Arkansas’ system is oriented toward reunification. In fiscal year 2017, 41 percent of the almost 4,000 children discharged from foster care returned home. Another 27 percent went to a relative, while 23 percent were adopted by another family.
Many people invested time, money and effort in helping Julie recover: Chuck, Nanny and Pop, the staffs at Gamma House and Arkansas CARES, the boyfriend’s sister who took her to church before she even went to rehab, and others. Donors and taxpayers funded much of the costs.
With their help, she went from being a meth addict whose daughter was taken from her, to being a married mom and taxpaying employee supervisor. And Anna’s at home.
Thank goodness for Arkansas CARES, and for Chuck and all those others in Arkansas who cared.
Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist in Arkansas. Email him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.