At a Burlington park on a muggy afternoon in August, 8-year-old Tyler Pike flips a water bottle into the air for nearly an hour, trying to get it to land on the ground right side up.
After landing the bottle on its cap, he heads off to the playground slide to challenge himself on the slippery slope. His father, Craig, joins in with a Gatorade bottle, high-fiving his son each time he succeeds.
“Everybody says I’m such a great dad and awesome guy in recovery, and I don’t even see it, you know? I just do it. I don’t even think about it. It’s just what I do for my kid,” Craig Pike says.
At 49, Craig Pike is a full-time single father of a son with autism.
He’s also one of hundreds of Skagit County parents who in the past decade have fought to get their children back after they had been removed from the home by Child Protective Services.
Each family’s story is distinct. Some are happy, others are sad and most are bittersweet.
For the 220 children in Skagit County currently under the care of CPS, there is a group of people, from department staff to court advocates, working tirelessly behind the scenes to get them home.
But a child’s first hope is their parents.
Like many cases, Rebecca Wilber’s first interaction with the child welfare system began with a phone call.
When her daughter Rylie was born with traces of cocaine and marijuana in her system in 2009, the hospital contacted Child Protective Services.
Rylie was just one such “request for intervention” of more than 100,000 in the state each year, and one of about 6,000 removed from the home for what is considered “imminent harm.”
Rylie was placed immediately with her grandmother while Wilber went to treatment. Within two months, Wilber arrived home and was reunited with her daughter.
Though Wilber was able to get her daughter back quicker than most, the process can be lengthy for parents whose reunification with their children depends on sobriety. In order to get their children back parents must make changes to make their home a safe place.
It means getting clean and staying clean, and devoting oneself to intensive programs, parenting classes and meetings. For some, it requires securing housing, a driver’s license and a source of steady income.
These are all elements Skagit County Superior Court judges will look at when considering reunification.
“I think parents that go through this are certainly going to be stronger as parents,” said Skagit County Superior Court Commissioner Gwen Halliday, who oversees Family Treatment Court, a voluntary nine-month therapeutic program to support parents with substance abuse problems who are in the dependency court process.
Burlington married couple Stephanie and Eva Rentz-Goudelock have had three children taken away from them.
When their son Paul was born in September 2014 addicted to heroin and taken from them, the couple didn’t go to treatment.
“We were down in Everett getting high when Eva went into labor,” Stephanie said. “Yeah... when she went into labor I was high. When Paul was born, I was high.”
Like Wilber’s daughter, Paul was taken by CPS immediately and placed with family.
“We stayed in the hospital for about 24 hours, and then we left to go get high,” Stephanie said.
In that situation, social workers may reach out to the parents to connect them with services, but they are not required to and are almost never insistent. The responsibility falls to the parent to engage.
Mere months after Paul was taken by CPS, Stephanie was arrested and sent to Florida to serve time in prison for breaking the terms of her probation.
Without Stephanie, Eva was left alone to pick up the pieces.
“It was a struggle for me. (Stephanie) wasn’t here. (I was a) new mom, still in active addiction and didn’t really know what to do. My heart wasn’t in it, because that’s how I coped,” Eva said.
Craig Pike had similar struggles when his 3-month-old daughter Mattie was removed from his care in 2010.
“She was just a baby, and I was going to visitations high on meth. I just was crying the whole time, because I knew I wasn’t doing right,” Pike said.
Halliday said it can often take a while for parents to engage fully in services to get clean. Sometimes parents never show up.
After multiple tear-filled visitations, Pike realized he needed to change: “I already missed my kids. I had already been a single father, and I was just tired. I was tired.”
He decided to get clean.
For Eva and Stephanie, it took roughly a year before they decided to fight for their child. By then, Stephanie was back from prison and pregnant, and local social workers and advocates from the state Department of Children, Youth and Families were looking to move 13-month-old Paul toward adoption.
It was then that it clicked for Stephanie. It had been about a decade since she had given birth to a son, Chad, and had her parental rights terminated as a result of addiction. She realized she couldn’t go through the pain of that experience again.
“I was like, ‘Oh my God,’” Stephanie said. “My world ended. Like I felt like this big piece on my chest just ripped out, and I was like, “Oh, they’re going to take the other one too. We can’t do this anymore.”
Eva reached a similar conclusion after having a difficult conservation with her social worker.
“She pretty much told me I didn’t have a chance in the world (to reunify with Paul),” Eva said. “And I literally was balling with snot and everything. I looked her in the face and said ‘Prepare to be amazed, because this is gonna happen.’”
For Eva and Stephanie, who had long struggled through addiction and a turbulent marriage, it was a moment decades in the making.
“Finally, we just both clicked,” Eva said.
Together, they got clean on Aug. 16, 2016.
Their daughter, Mia, was born three weeks later, healthy and happy. The couple had prepared a room for her, but as a precaution CPS decided not to allow the newly-clean couple to bring their daughter home.
In that moment, Stephanie felt completely helpless.
“You feel defeated. You feel completely defeated,” she said said. “I felt like we were never going to get them back.”
Then she decided to fight.
“That pain kicked me into full gear,” Stephanie said. “I was like, ‘Oh, no, they’re not going to take my kids. To get my kids (back), I’m going to be the best freaking recovering addict I can be.”
Eva and Stephanie enrolled in Family Treatment Court and put all of their energy into getting their children back.
It took six months from the time the couple committed to reunification that their children were returned to them on March 26, 2017. Paul was 2 1/2 years old and Mia was 6 months old.
Now three years sober, Eva and Stephanie are satisfied with where they are and looking toward the future. Eva is looking to change careers and Stephanie is going to Skagit Valley College to get a certificate in chemical dependency counseling.
With the sun shining brightly overhead on a recent day, the couple watched as Mia and Paul played in a splash pad at their local park, smiling as the kids screamed with delight at the little jets of water spraying their faces.
“We call them our little angels. They saved us,” Eva said, eyes brimming with tears. “One time, Paul said, ‘Mama when I grow up I want to be a superhero’ and I said ‘Pa-Pa you already are.’”
Though the Rentz-Goudelocks were able to get their kids back by getting clean, for some, getting clean is only the first step.
Though Pike enrolled in a drug treatment program three months after Mattie was taken from him, reunification is about more than getting clean. Without housing or a steady income, Pike wasn’t able to become a safe caretaker for his daughter.
Mattie remained in CPS care for two years before a judge terminated Pike’s parental rights and adoption proceedings began for the foster parents who had cared for Mattie for nearly her entire life.
The court does not take these decisions lightly, said Halliday.
“Permanency for children is really important,” Halliday said. “These kids need permanent lives and permanent situations — you can’t just keep them in limbo indefinitely.”
In about one-third of cases, judges decide reunification isn’t in the child’s best interest.
“When kids come into care, they’re fully traumatized already. They’ve been taken away from their parents, they have no idea what’s going to happen to them, they don’t even know if they’re going back,” said Stacie Ziegler, the supervisor of Skagit County’s guardian ad litems (GALs) and court appointed special advocates (CASAs), groups that watch over and advocate for children who have been taken from their parents.
The job of the Department of Children, Youth and Families is to minimize trauma for the children in its custody. If parents aren’t able to make the changes needed to provide their children a safe home — or if it takes too long — the court may move toward adoption or guardianship to prevent future trauma.
Still, the parents have the opportunity to reunite with their children right up until the end.
“It’s just hard. They’re kids. They’re people. And whatever you do is going to affect them for the rest of their lives,” Halliday said. “You sometimes lose sleep over it wondering: did I do the right thing?”
Losing Mattie shook Pike to his core, especially after her adoptive parents changed her name and limited visits to two hours once every two months.
But he stayed clean, and stepped up when his ex-girlfriend gave birth to a baby boy, Tyler.
When Tyler’s mother descended into drug use again, Pike became his son’s rock. Within weeks after Tyler was taken away, the case was dismissed and Pike was granted full parental custody by the court.
“My kids are my life. I loved them so much, but I couldn’t get out of addiction,” Pike said. “Thank god, I’m doing it now.”
Wilber is still fighting to make that a reality for herself.
After relapsing when Rylie was 10 months old, again when she was 6 and recently at age 9, Wilber is still working to stay clean.
Over the years, she has tried hard to ensure Rylie is safe. Her addiction just keeps winning.
“I’ve been in and out of this process a few times, and it kind of scares me just how many times I’ve relapsed,” Rebecca said. “I hope that I can get it this time.”
Wilber has been sober since Valentine’s Day 2019, and has been working to get Rylie back ever since.
She goes to a minimum of one meeting a day for relapse prevention, urinalysis testing or intensive outpatient programs. Most are in the middle of the working day, and often require her to take a bus or walk.
Because of this time commitment, Wilber has been forced to quit her full-time job, something Halliday said is quite normal.
“For these families, it’s really hard,” said Halliday. “Having a job can be very difficult when going through this process.”
Each week, Wilber is allowed two two-hour visitations with Rylie. Recently, the court has decided to allow for weekend-long visitations due to Wilber’s dedication.
“It’s hard, but I also feel really strong. I’ve done this a few times,” Wilber said. “The times when I work on myself, I feel like I’m gaining more knowledge into being able to handle it appropriately instead of giving in and getting loaded — because that’s the easy way out.”