June 24--The scene at the Pueblo Zoo on Thursday looked like any other party.
But the folks gathering some pizzas and fried chicken, wrangling excited kids and sharing fellowship were celebrating an accomplishment not often recognized.
The 10th Judicial District's best practices team was honoring families for successfully navigating the child welfare system and reuniting.
The Family Reunification Day also honored "kinship providers," family members who aren't directly related to the children, for stepping forward to provide help. "I didn't want to be another statistic," said Shauna Ducharme, who enlisted the help of the Department of Social Services after she and her husband Arthur were unable to find any other help for her son, Austin.
The couple, who have been married for 19 years, took their son to the Parkview Medical Center emergency room because they had found evidence of suicidal tendencies on his Facebook page, but were unable to get help.
Then in October, Austin, 14, was sent home after school officials found a suicide note and law enforcement eventually took him into custody.
Bullying played a significant role in Austin's life at the time, he said.
"I don't know if they meant to bully me, but they'd ask me how come my nose was so big. Or I'd sit at tables and everyone would move away," he said.
There was name-calling and isolation, and for a kid who struggled with his self-image, it all just compounded the problem.
"I took things way too close to the heart," he said.
"People say words don't hurt but they do."
By October, Austin was recommended for residential treatment at a Parkview Medical Center facility, but his mother said the health insurance provider wouldn't cover the cost.
"Basically, I called social services to intervene for help," she said. "I had been asking for a long time to get him psychiatric help and they placed him at El Pueblo for 24-7 supervision."
The time in El Pueblo . . . an Adolescent Treatment Community also put the family through counseling and even inspired Austin's sister, Serena, 17, to take an interest in psychology as a college major.
"This is what I want to do," she said.
Shauna said another benefit of the program was that her son got a psychiatric evaluation that determined he had depression and a high IQ, but didn't suffer from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
He'd been taking medications for the condition for years.
"I would say the meds were doing something to me," Austin said. "When I was off my meds, I was happy."
The family worked with the DSS for about eight months. Austin's stay at El Pueblo was for about 90 days with another 90 days of intensive follow-up.
Austin said he came to love his counselor after a rocky start and was given awards for his progress there.
He didn't enjoy his time at El Pueblo, but the treatment center succeeded in reminding him that he was never as isolated as he felt.
"Being away from them and being locked up and treated like crap, I learned I wasn't alone," he said.
"Because of El Pueblo and how horrible it was, I really don't care what people think about me now."
Austin said he handles the pressures differently now and realized that part of what caused his isolation was his own self image.
He said he has the support of his friends and his family now to get him through.
"After all of this, I think Austin has really grown into a young adult. I really think he's found himself," Serena said.
His parents are relieved. "I thought this was it, that he was going to die," Arthur said. "If we didn't do this. I thought surely we were going to lose him the next time."
Shauna said it was the hardest decision she's made.
"Art and I had to be best friends and we all had to work as a team," she said.
(c)2012 The Pueblo Chieftain (Pueblo, Colo.)
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