Cassandra Myers looked under the Christmas tree and knew things had spiraled out of control again.
With the holiday just a few days away, no presents had been bought or wrapped for her 2-year-old son.
Bad things were creeping back into the family's life, things she and her boyfriend Alex Younkin had worked hard to escape.
Drugs. Alcohol. Domestic violence.
The couple had tried to leave it all behind in 2006. The 2007 birth of their son, Ricky Younkin, added to their resolve. Then things started to fall apart.
On Dec. 21, 2009, Myers and Younkin reached the breaking point. Ricky was taken into protective custody. Getting him back required treatment, counseling and the completion of a long list of required tasks over seven months.
The journey transformed the two parents and reunited them with their son.
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Myers and Younkin met at a friend's apartment in 2003.
He was originally from California, but had bounced from state to state. He drank and used drugs, spent some time in carnivals and some time behind bars. He had a son from a previous relationship.
She hadn't felt right since she was 15, when her mother died in a car accident on the ride home to Bullhead City from a Laughlin casino. She used drugs and alcohol to make her feel different, to make her feel nothing at all. She had two daughters as a teenager. They grew up with their father's family. She wasn't as close to them as she wanted to be.
Myers and Younkin saw themselves in each other. They began dating. Not long after, they decided to get clean. They used some inheritance money to buy a six-bedroom house near the Strip. They moved in and rented out the extra rooms.
Myers didn't think she could get pregnant again. She calls her son a blessing. He was born in January 2007. They named him Richard after Myers' father.
At night, the family of three used to sit outside and listen to tourists shout from the top of the Stratosphere. But things started changing at the end of 2009. Good roommates lost jobs and left. Old friends with bad habits took their places.
Myers got sick. Younkin lost his job as a welder.
They both relapsed.
Myers felt the pressure building. She knew a fight was imminent. She asked a friend to take Ricky to the park.
Plates crashed and glass broke. Myers hit Younkin. He left.
"I'm not doing this anymore," Myers told herself. "This is not going any further."
She walked to a neighbor's house, called the police and turned herself in.
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The Clark County Department of Family Services investigates thousands of cases of child abuse and neglect every year. The investigation into Myers and Younkin determined it was unsafe for 2-year-old Ricky Younkin to return to them. Myers' brother, Jochen Myers, took Ricky in.
Myers pleaded guilty to one count of domestic violence. She would spend 22 days in jail.
She remembers having just one question before leaving the courtroom.
"Does everybody have a chance to get their kids back?"
In 2011, 865 children were reunified with their parents after the families worked with the agency and successfully completed their case plans.
Myers was told she and Younkin would get their chance as well.
But first the parents had to take responsibility for what went wrong.
"Many families, it takes them six months before they start accepting responsibility to move forward," District Judge Frank Sullivan said. "The good thing about Cassandra and Alex was, after the initial denial, they realized they had problems with domestic violence and substance abuse."
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The couple moved into a smaller, less expensive house when Myers was released.
They met with Sara Evans, a Clark County Family Services worker, to find out what needed to be done.
Evans said getting Ricky back would require mandatory drug tests, support groups, substance abuse treatment, and classes to help them be better parents and avoid domestic abuse.
Both parents acknowledged a need for help. They said they wanted to start classes right away.
"I was impressed with them right off from the beginning," Evans said. "Right from the get-go they were like, 'We messed up. We need help. Can you show us the way?'"
Myers and Younkin were never late to a meeting. They sat in front of their classes and asked a lot of questions. When their red Chevrolet truck stopped running, they took the bus.
Myers learned how to take a breath. Younkin learned to walk away.
Parenting class taught them simple things that made big differences, such as how giving a child a five-minute warning is better than telling him it's time to go right now.
Their substance abuse support group was mandatory at first. They kept going even when it wasn't.
Sometimes the parents got to visit Ricky for an hour under supervision at Child Haven, the county shelter for abused and neglected children. It was hard when the short visits ended.
"It was the parts where we would see him for a while then watch him go away," Younkin said. "That's what was frustrating. When we would get home, we would sit and reflect on what went on. And that was even worse."
Myers and Younkin completed their case plan in November 2011. They did it quickly, in an almost unheard of seven months. Both say it's the most important thing they've ever accomplished.
"Every time we completed something and did what we were supposed to do, it was strength," Myers said. "At the end, we knew we deserved our son."
The family decorated Ricky's new room together. He wanted SpongeBob everything.
Jochen Myers saw a difference in his sister and Younkin when he sent Ricky back to his parents for good.
"They know where their priorities are," he said. "It was a blessing in disguise. It made the family closer and it made them realize what is important in life."
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Clark County Family Services had its first reunification ceremony at the William Pearson Community Center in June.
Four families back together for a year or more were honored.
For Ricky and his parents, who are now engaged, it has been a year and seven months.
They have moved again, to an even smaller house that is more affordable while Younkin looks for a full-time job.
The three eat breakfast together each morning and give thanks before dinner every night.
They shop for groceries together, barbecue and sometimes, when it's hot, make a trip to the sprinklers at a nearby park.
Mostly they keep to themselves because they have each other, and that's all they need.
Ricky is 5 years old. He likes to play with his Transformers and Hot Wheels in the backyard. He looks at the pictures in his books while his parents help him with the words. He starts kindergarten in the fall.
The boy with shoulder-length brown hair stood next to his mom and dad at the reunification ceremony. He had a red Kool-Aid mustache above his lip.
Sullivan, the judge who closed the couple's completed case file, handed the parents a certificate of congratulations.
The judge met Myers and Younkin at their lowest point in 2009. At the ceremony he shook hands with two parents he would be surprised to see in his courtroom again. Most parents who complete case plans believe the system helped them, he said. But few are willing to share their experiences as fully as Myers, 41, and Younkin, 43.
The mother took the framed award, wiped her tears away and spoke into a microphone.
"All I can say is this is awesome," Myers said in a shaky voice. "For you guys that helped us, this experience has changed our lives."
A photographer snapped a picture.
It showed the Myers-Younkin family together.
Contact Ben Frederickson at email@example.com or 702-224-5512.