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July 12, 2014

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Recovery:

Road to family’s reunification difficult but doable for former meth-using mother of four

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Sam Morris

Kellie Chapman and her children, Kelise, top, Keion, right, Kathan, seated on her lap, and Kavion, who declined to be identified for this photo, take a break from swimming at their apartment complex May 25, 2013. The Chapman family is being honored later this month by the Clark County Department of Family Services as part of National Reunification Month, which recognizes parents who have lost and regained custody of their children.

With her right ankle cuffed to a hospital bed and a police officer seated nearby, Kellie Chapman welcomed her youngest child into the world July 9, 2009.

Chapman didn’t give the newborn boy a name. It didn’t seem right.

Her infant son, born with traces of methamphetamine in his system, lay in a hospital nursery as Chapman said goodbye, en route to jail with stitches lining her stomach. Her other three children — Kavion, Kelise and Keion — were in foster care.

This is my sign that I should leave my kids alone, Chapman thought.

Her mother disagreed and urged Chapman to name the boy. The logic was simple, devoid of excuses rationalizing her daughter’s life choices.

“Your baby deserves a name,” Chapman recalled her mother saying. “You brought him here.”

So Chapman logged onto the Internet and started browsing names that started with “K.” She chose Kathan. Her son now had a name, just not a mother.

Released from jail shortly after giving birth, Chapman picked up right where she left off: using meth to get high and drown out her life troubles.

•••

Fast-forward nearly four years. It’s a sunny, warm Saturday in late May — in other words, perfect pool weather.

Chapman, 31, is attaching a floatie to Kathan’s little arm as the 3-year-old eyes the pool at the family’s apartment complex in central Las Vegas. Nearby, his older siblings attempt to rock back and forth on a pool lounge chair.

“No, that’s not a seesaw!” Chapman says. “Get off.”

Seconds later, Chapman notices sagging swim trunks: “Keion, pull up your pants. Thank you.”

This is Chapman’s existence nowadays — taking care of her brood and enjoying time with them. Gone are the drugs, wild lifestyle and constant upheaval in her children’s lives, replaced with routines and a sense of calm.

Chapman admits the road to this point wasn’t easy, nor without its missteps. But for a few hours on June 20, she will celebrate her success and new life as a mother.

The Clark County Department of Family Services will honor Chapman and her family during a dinner as part of National Reunification Month, which recognizes parents who have lost and regained custody of their children. The department had its first reunification dinner in 2012 and honored four families.

“Historically, we’ve spent so much time celebrating adoptions that we have not done equal celebration of reunifications, and, in fact, we do many more of those,” said Lisa Ruiz-Lee, director of the Department of Family Services. “And they require a lot of work to achieve.”

Last year, 1,201 children in Clark County were reunified — meaning allowed back in their parents’ custody — compared with 603 children who were adopted, according to data from the Department of Family Services.

The number of days children spend in the child-welfare system until reunification with parents is generally shorter than the wait time for adoptions, officials say.

The median number of days it took for children to be reunified with their parents in the first quarter of this year was 359, Department of Family Services data show. The median number of days until adoption in that same time period was more than double at 859.

“What people don’t realize is that we will have children who won’t get adopted,” said Frank Sullivan, a judge in Clark County Family Court who presides over child dependency hearings. “They’ll age out of the system.”

On average, about 100 children age out of the foster system each year in Clark County, underscoring the need for family reunifications when possible, Sullivan said.

“Those kids are bonded with their families,” he said. “They love their parents.”

A majority of the cases relate to substance abuse and neglect, Ruiz-Lee said. To achieve reunification, case managers work with parents to establish a case plan, identifying problems and steps needed to overcome issues.

Success hinges on one critical question: Will the children be safe living with their parent or parents again?

“I look to see if they demonstrate and articulate protective capacity because that’s what it’s all about — protecting the child,” Sullivan said. “They are not bad parents. They are parents with a serious issue they need to overcome.”

And many do. A smattering of family photographs on Sullivan’s bench can attest to it: They’re from parents who have come through his courtroom, successfully regained custody of their children and have kept in touch with him.

Engaging the parents from start to finish, including during bumps along the way, is key, he said.

“There’s nothing better than when you see a system work,” Sullivan said.

•••

Child welfare investigations typically begin at the home.

“They do exactly what you think they would do,” Ruiz-Lee said, referring to child welfare investigators. “They knock on the door and introduce themselves. They talk really fast so the door doesn’t get slammed in their face.”

Chapman’s knock on the door came at the end of January 2009. But she wasn’t home.

The man Chapman and her kids were living with had called police to report she was attempting to sell food stamps to make money. Police accused her of neglecting her three children. She later pleaded guilty, according to court records.

Chapman, who left home as a teen and started using and selling drugs soon after, describes the arrest as the best thing that ever happened to her. Eventually, her father retrieved some of the children’s belongings — an event that highlighted the seriousness of their removal from her custody.

“I felt like if I let it go, I would never see them again,” she said, tears streaming down her face. “I was just tired of living the way I was living.”

At the time, Chapman was pregnant with Kathan. His birth, and subsequent removal from her custody, plunged her into deeper despair.

Then came Feb. 20, 2010. It’s one of many dates she will always remember — this time marking the beginning of another stint in jail.

“Literally, I could feel God’s arms wrap around me,” she said. “I had never felt peace like that in years.”

When a judge granted Chapman’s release, she enrolled in a rehabilitation center in Pasadena, Calif. After six weeks, she transferred to a faith-based recovery program in Las Vegas, visiting with her children each week.

It seemed to work. The program helped her secure a three-bedroom apartment complete with bedding, furniture and toys, and her children moved in with her at the end of August 2010.

“It was awesome,” she said, before pausing and adding: “I didn’t know how I was going to make it.”

Her fears proved true. She relapsed by December, back in the throes of a meth addiction. A month later, she lost custody of her children again and wound up in jail for six months.

By this point, Chapman had blown a series of second chances — an all-too common scenario for people battling drug addictions, officials say.

That’s why child welfare workers consider their role as facilitators, not hand-holders, Ruiz-Lee said.

“At the end of the day, (the parents) are the ones who have to walk that walk,” she said.

After another release from jail, Chapman gave rehabilitation one more try and enrolled in a residential treatment program at WestCare, a Las Vegas nonprofit that specializes in substance abuse treatment.

It taught Chapman an important lesson: Use her voice.

“I was always finding my identity in some guy or in drugs,” she said, reflecting on her tumultuous teens and 20s.

The epiphany led Chapman to devise her own plan for regaining custody of her kids, one that ensured she had her “legs under her” first.

More dates she will never forget followed — this time, for good reasons.

• April 13, 2012: Keion, now 5, and Kathan moved in with her.

• June 9, 2012: Kavion and Kelise, now 12 and 9, respectively, joined them.

Melinda Pacelli, a family services specialist for Clark County, served as Chapman’s case manager for three years. Pacelli said it was likely the longest time she had ever had a case.

“I remember (Chapman) saying, ‘I like to have someone to call when I need help,’” Pacelli said. “I think it was a matter of her building up her confidence.”

Pacelli said she was excited to see where Chapman would go in life now that she has been successfully reunified with her children for more than a year.

“I think she’ll do well,” Pacelli said. “She had a really long road.”

The quest for drugs no longer consumes Chapman’s thoughts. Instead, it’s a constant, goal-oriented to-do list: Further her cleaning business. Enroll her daughter in dance classes. Take her son to basketball practice. And on and on.

“If I can do it, anybody can do it,” she said of her recovery. “You have to stop thinking you have the best ideas.”

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  1. It's refreshing to see a success story, where someone has actively turned their life around for not only themselves but their children.

    Great work Kellie!!

    From one mom to another, you've got the right stuff! Keep going!

  2. What beautiful kids. But, she has enough of them now. Love and care for these kids before falling for some man's song and dance. Ms. Chapman is smart enough to know that an arrest helped her. She HAS TO make it now or never.

  3. "Success hinges on one critical question: Will the children be safe living with their parent or parents again?"

    Valley -- all this and not a word anywhere in it about their fathers. Is it they don't matter to you, or they don't matter to this system falling all over itself to crow about its rare "successes"?

    "The child is not the mere creature of the State; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations." -- Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 268 U.S. 510, 535 (1925)