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Reunited families spend afternoon at Dave & Buster’s

Updated June 22, 2024 - 8:14 am

Melissa and Christopher Walker were separated from their three children in September 2022. In February, they were reunited with their three young boys.

The pair are a Peer Parent Advocate success story. But Friday was full of success stories as the Peer Parent Advocate program celebrated eight reunited families at Dave & Buster’s over arcade food and marble cake.

Offered by East Valley Family Services, the program’s ultimate goal is reuniting families who have been separated by Child Protective Services. Advocates for the program are people who have struggled with CPS cases in the past and were able to reunite with their children.

Melissa Walker, although she’s been reunited with her sons for five months, was happy to get out of the house with her family.

“So blessed, so blessed,” she said, talking about her life now. “Everything happens for a reason.”

Celebrating togetherness

At the event, families were honored with a gift basket filled with family board games, dolls and Nerf guns as well as a plaque congratulating them on a successful reunification. Spirits were high as they enjoyed chicken tenders, pizza, fries, burgers, and mac and cheese before hitting the games.

The Walkers were residing in family transitional housing when CPS separated the family. Their oldest child, Lucas, now 4, kept escaping the room in the middle of the night in his diaper, Melissa Walker said. At the time of the separation, the couple were abusing drugs.

After the kids were taken, Melissa and Christopher Walker were forced to live in the streets, sleeping in a tent near Centennial Hills.

Melissa Walker, 35, talked about the hardships of living on the streets and dealing with drug abuse and the urge to use. Peer parent advocates helped the couple stay focused on the goal of staying clean and getting their kids back.

When Christopher Walker, 37, was reunited with his sons, he said, it felt like his family had “never missed a beat.”

“It was like having life go back into my body,” he said. “With them back, it was like my life was back together. Everything was complete.”

The family was advocate Jocelyn Estes’ first client. The Walkers were apprehensive at first and evaded Estes’ attempts to offer help, but she pushed forward, she said. In October 2023, the Walker’s came to Estes, 42, and told her they were ready for help.

Estes joined the advocacy program because she’s experienced the foster care system as a child and CPS taking her daughter from her as an adult. The advocacy program works to provide a helping hand from someone who understands what the parents are going through. Having had a child taken by CPS, she understands how scary it can be.

“I tell them I’m not your sponsor. I’m not a counselor. I’ve just been there,” she said. “I think that’s what helps.”

Addiction prompted separation

Jessica Valladares, 37, was separated from her son for two and a half years. She left Francisco, 5, alone with her daughter to go grocery shopping, and that’s one of the reasons why he was taken from her. She was also addicted to drugs at the time, a dependence that lasted eight and a half years.

It wasn’t until when her youngest was taken by CPS that she realized she needed a change.

“I had to change my life route, and that’s what I ended up doing,” she said. “In order to fight for them.”

She connected with East Valley Family Services through Family Treatment Court and WestCare, an outpatient facility. The organization provided her with clothes, basic hygiene products and helped her amplify her voice and advocate for her kids, she said.

When she reunited with her boys, Francisco and Nehemiah, 1, on May 23, it was overwhelming and emotional. CPS always told her she would never get her sons back, and she believed them, she said.

“I didn’t think I was ever going to get to this point to have him back,” she said. “It was overwhelming, but overwhelming of joy.”

She missed the overlooked joys of parenting like showering and feeding or cuddling with him.

“When I went to court they said, ‘You’re reunifying with both of your boys,’ ” she said. “That was one of the biggest presents for me.”

Francisco, who was the only child present with her, said he was excited to be with his mom again. Francisco likes to play video games, but Valladares has tried — unsuccessfully, she added — to get him to read more.

Now, eight months after beginning work with the advocate program and almost exactly one month after she was reunited with her sons, she still calls the peer parent advocates for help daily. They’ve always been there for her, she said. Valladares is set to reunite with her daughter, 16, in August.

Contact Ella Thompson at ethompson@reviewjournal.com. Follow @elladeethompson on X.

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