A tender moment played out last week at the beginning of Friends and Family Day at Maryville Academy in Des Plaines, when a mother and son reunited after not seeing each other for seven years.
"I wasn't sure it was him; I haven't seen him since he was 8," said Tammy, a single mother who traveled from southern Illinois for the event. "I'm overwhelmed."
She and her son, Henry, held each other in a long embrace, leaving caseworkers and others observing the moment in tears. Afterward, mother and son found a quiet table where they could look over photos and get reacquainted.
This was the fifth year of the Friends and Family Day event at Maryville, whose residential programs offer treatment for adolescent boys with mental illness and developmental disabilities and cannot live in their homes.
A similar family event plays out each year at Maryville's Eisenburg Campus in Bartlett, where teenage girls and young women live and are treated.
"We go to great lengths to keep these children in touch with their families," Maryville spokesman John Gorman said. "If they don't have a family member who can come, we make sure to find someone else, whether it's an extended family member, coach or a friend.
"If they still don't have someone one of our staff members stays with them throughout the afternoon."
Jack, a 16-year old from Maryville's St. George Program, sat at a table with his grandmother and older sister. They talked about everything from his love of music to his favorite food: hamburgers.
"I try and see him every other week," said his grandmother, Ann. "It's very important, he's my favorite grandson."
It rained in the morning Thursday, moving everything indoors. But that seemed to help the disc jockey, who ramped up the party atmosphere and played music to accompany games of basketball and volleyball.
"If you look at the experience of our children, something happens in their family lives where they are mistreated or a situation occurs that is so severe, the children have to be taken out of the family," Sister Catherine Ryan, executive director of Maryville, said.
"We try to preserve and strengthen the good parts of those family connections," she added. "Family never stops being family."
Maintaining family connections is an important initiative of Richard Calica, who in December took over as director of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. Kendall Marlowe, one of his deputy directors, said the agency applauds activities like the Maryville event for not pushing families aside after children have been removed their homes.
"There is a large body of research that shows children do best when they maintain ties with their families, even when their family situations are problematic," Marlowe said. "When youth leave the child welfare system, they inevitably return to their extended family."
Children fare better, he added, when child welfare professionals acknowledge that reality and help them understand and improve those relationships, as Maryville attempts to do each year with the family day barbecue.
"There's a hole in their hearts," Marlowe added, "that we cannot deny."