'People can change': Navarre mom shows happy endings to foster care is possible
NAVARRE — Ashley Sims spent a lot of years doing the wrong thing, and she and her family paid dearly for her misdeeds.
In 2009, Sims lost custody of her young son when her great-grandmother was granted permanent guardianship to raise him. That could have been the sad end to a tragic and all-too-familiar tale.
But to Sims' eternal credit, she fought back. In 2020, after a stint in prison, she undertook a tedious process that ultimately would end with her reuniting with her now 11-year-old child.
"It's the most amazing feeling to be a mother again," Sims said. "They say people can't change, but that's not true. People can change their lives in a positive way."
With June being National Reunification Month, the folks at the FamiliesFirst Network, Northwest Florida's leading child welfare agency for foster care, decided to celebrate by having a gathering over Zoom for those with success stories like Sims and some of the people who helped make those stories happen.
"It was our first celebration of families who have overcome a lot of obstacles in their life," said Mark Jones, president of FamiliesFirst Network. “I think many people don’t realize that the first goal of the child welfare system is reunification. Parents face challenges, but there are resources to help most of them get through it.”
Among those sitting in on the June 10 Zoom meeting were Okaloosa County Circuit Judges Terry Ketchel and Mary Polson, both veterans of the Family Law Division. Each judge spoke of how gratifying it was to see success stories within the foster care system, according to Tish Pennewell, who helped publicize the event.
The gratification for judges and case workers like Stacy Henderson comes with the realization of how difficult it is for a parent to achieve reunification. Henderson, who was Sims' case worker, said she was a client who was willing to put in the work.
"She was on fire to work the case," Henderson said.
Equally as important, Henderson said, Sims had strong backing from her family, including both the great-grandmother who had for so long held custody and Sims' son.
"She had the most supportive family in child welfare I have ever seen," Henderson said.
The fact that biological parents of children who had been placed in foster care participated in the Zoom call alongside the foster parents who had been given temporary custody was something of a FamiliesFirst Network coup.
"Comfort Calls," wherein foster parents take a co-parenting approach with biological parents became a law this year, but won't be implemented across the state until July 1. However FamiliesFirst Network already has begun coordinating communication between biological parents and foster parents
"We are just that much further along with trying to create the best environment and circumstances for children and families to experience less trauma and encourage more successes and reunifications," Pennewell said. "Before there probably wasn't a whole lot of communication between biological parents and foster parents. We're trying to ensure a congenial relationship rather than an adversarial relationship."
Sims said she achieved the reunification goal by following the steps placed by caseworkers in front of her. She said she actually enjoyed parenting classes offered at Bridgeway Center that taught her "parenting skills I didn't know existed."
Sims also said she learned that she had what it took to succeed in life and as a caregiver through working with animals while in prison. She trained rescue dogs and later worked with support dogs.
"It gave me responsibility and accountability," Sims said. "It taught me I have a purpose."
Today in Navarre, she's an assistant manager at an animal grooming center and is looking forward to her first summer vacation together with her son, well aware that her focus should remain on baby steps, taking one day at a time.
Sims said Thursday's event provided a big boost for her and her family.
"The whole experience was really amazing," she said. "It was definitely nice to have a day for all the parents and children that have tried to get their children back and succeeded. I really enjoyed that."