April 21, 2017 was the worst day of Tara Davis’s life.
Her four-month-old daughter, Elita, had been hospitalized over what her then-husband told her was a fall from the couch. Elita had a skull fracture. And due to the severity of the injury, the child welfare system had gotten involved.
“I got a phone call from them,” recalled Davis, now 38. “They said you need to leave the hospital now. We’re going to take your daughter and put her into foster care.”
Davis was angry, terrified and heartbroken. She was devoted to her only child. How could this be happening?
“I cried, I hugged her, I told her mommy would be right back,” she said. “Then I lost it and I cried all the way home.”
While Elita’s health continued to improve and she was soon released from the hospital, Davis’ situation was getting more dire. In court a few days later, the State Attorney’s Office recommended terminating the parental rights of both Davis and her husband. No reunification plans were discussed. Instead, she was told she should start looking for someone to adopt her daughter.
Shortly after the hearing, Davis learned that her husband hadn’t been truthful about how Elita had been injured. That’s when she made her choice.
“I told him he was on his own,” she remembered telling her now ex-husband. “I said ‘My daughter is not going to get adopted or go to foster care. I’m not going down without a fight.’”
And so Davis started fighting. She gave up her condo, moved into a domestic violence shelter and filed a few injunctions against her husband. She showed up every day for her job at an insurance agency, went to every visitation with her daughter and found stable housing. The State Attorney’s office took notice of her efforts, stopped talking about terminating her rights and began recommending reunification.
That’s when Davis got linked up with Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services and its Family Reunification Services program. The program is designed to complement case management services by providing intensive in-home family engagement, to ensure the reunification is safe and permanent.
Davis remembers the first time she met with her caseworker from the agency. She’d mentioned during a phone call that she needed to baby-proof the outlets in her new home, and the caseworker showed up with a package of outlet plug covers.
“It seems really small, but it made me realize how much these people genuinely want to help,” Davis said. “If this service was offered up front, I think we’d see a lot more success in reuniting families and keeping them together from the start.”
Davis continued her hard work and in November of 2017, she and Elita were reunited just in time to spend their first Thanksgiving together. They’ve been joined at the hip ever since.
With pride in her voice, Davis describes her now 3-year-old daughter as “The Trifecta” – beauty, brains and brawn. There’s been no residual damage from her injury.
“She’s very smart, very imaginative and she loves to act out princess movies,” Davis laughed. “I always have entertainment.”
Although more than three years have passed since that terrible day in April, Davis continues to be involved with Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services through the agency’s Parent Advisory Connection, a support group that meets monthly.
“It’s great to be able to encourage parents who are in various stages of going through the child welfare system,” said Davis, who helps facilitate some of the meetings. “We talk about how we’ve dealt with issues and how we’ve survived them. I love that we can share these stories and celebrate our victories.”
The group’s members also spend a lot of time talking about how they can make the harrowing process easier for others who are just beginning the reunification process. For Davis, that means helping build confidence in those who have had their lives upended, just like her caseworker did for her.
“I didn’t realize how much of myself I’d lost during this experience,” she said. “Then Gulf Coast comes around and says, ‘look at all these great things you’re doing.’ Who wouldn’t gain a lot of confidence from that?”
Jennifer Colton, director of the agency’s family reunification team, praised Davis for her tenacity and spirit in the face of adversity.
“Despite the challenges and hardships Tara has faced, she fought through the obstacles and owned her journey,” Colton said. “She is a true inspiration, and proof that with the right support and resources, we can all be a success story.”
To find out more, listen to episode 069 of St Pete X with Dr. Sandra Braham, CEO of Gulf Coast Jewish Family & Community Services