Krystal Nevarez was 5 when she got her first experience of the child-welfare system in Tuolumne County..

Nevarez spent two years in foster care before being reunified with her family, only to re-enter the system again at 15.

The trauma Nevarez experienced as a child led her on a path to addiction as an adult that resulted in having her own kids taken from her.

Now at 30, Nevarez uses the experiences from her past to help other families heal and come back together at the Tuolumne County Child and Family Visitation Center in Sonora.

“I can say, hey, I failed, but look at where I’m at now,” said Nevarez, who’s pursuing a degree in social services and raising two children.

Nevarez started working with families at the center in March as a volunteer with AmeriCorps, which provides her a living stipend and money for college.

The center was created by the county Department of Social Services to provide a safe, home-like environment for children in the system to visit with their families.

Since opening in 2017, the center has helped to reunify 106 children with their families out of 169 who were separated by Child Welfare Services due to abuse or neglect.

Those that weren’t reunified either aged out of the system as adults or exited foster care through adoption or guardianship.

Two visitation coaches at the center monitor and guide the interactions between the children and their families, while a foster care liaison connects parents with their child’s foster families.

Nevarez has also taught classes in parenting and nutritional cooking for families at the center.

Such support in the county didn’t exist when Nevarez’s kids were taken by Child Welfare Services, though she believes things could have turned out differently for her if they had.

“There weren’t all these supportive people showing me what I needed to do,” she said. “They just told me what I had to do.”

The center is located in a county-owned building behind the former Tuolumne General Hospital.

Inside the center is a large community room with a TV, toys for kids, children’s books and computer with Internet, as well as two private visit rooms that are monitored by camera.

There’s also a kitchen that was fashioned by volunteers from the Twain Harte Soroptimist Club and outdoor area with a lawn that was built by the county Chamber of Commerce’s Leadership Tuolumne class of 2015.

“The idea was to create a home-type center where families and kids can hang out together,” said Wynter Garcia, the center’s office assistant. “Families can watch their kids play and interact with each other.”

Garcia is tasked with scheduling the visits at the center, of which there are an average of 120 per week.

The length of each visit can vary depending on the orders from the court, but Garcia said they are generally about two to four hours each.

Michelle Clark, program manager for the county Department of Social Services, said visitation is the strongest indicator for the chances of reunification.

Clark said families would previously have visits in a room at the county Social Service building on Cedar Road.

“Families would feel watched and nervous in the previous setting, like they didn’t know if they were not something right,” Clark said. “You get better quality visitation here.”

There are 14 families having visitation time at the center each week, but that’s only a portion of the total amount in the system.

Cori Allen, deputy director of the county Department of Social Services, said about half of the county’s foster children and housed outside of the county with a family member or because they couldn’t find a foster family in the county that would be a good fit.

Allen said the largest percentage of child-welfare cases are due to neglect, typically related to drug use, but removing the child from their home is done as a last resort when other forms of intervention don’t work.

The reunification rate has also been improving since opening the center, from 52 percent in 2017 to 60 percent in 2018 to 80 percent through the first three quarters of this year.

“It’s a pretty significant increase in the numbers of families that are reunified,” Allen said.

The center was recently one of 51 county government programs to receive a Challenge Award of Merit from California State Association of Counties, which selected the winners from a pool of 284 entries.

Tuolumne was the rural county to win the award in the category of health and human services.

Contact Alex MacLean at amaclean@uniondemocrat.com or (209) 588-4530.

24170154