LIHUE, KAUAI (HawaiiNewsNow) - A ceremony in Lihue on Wednesday paid tribute to a Kauai mother and daughter who have endured a difficult journey.
Estrella Barnett and her 8-year-old daughter, Alexi Audiss, were separated by Child Welfare Services two years ago. Now that they've been reunited, their bond is stronger than ever.
The transformation wasn't easy for the single mother.
"I felt so empty inside that every day I masked that emptiness with alcohol or substance to fill the void of unhappiness," said Barnett.
CWS officials separated Barnett from Audiss after a car crash in August 2016 left both of them hospitalized.
"I was scared because I thought I was going to lose my mommy," said Audiss.
Barnett entered rehab and could only have supervised visits with Audiss, who was living with Barnett's parents.
"I was just torn away from her. They did what they had to do to open my eyes. They put my daughter first because she is the most important thing," recalled Barnett. "That is what saved my life, them being hard on me.
They were finally reunified after a year of living apart.
June is National Reunification month. The "Reconnecting Hearts" event also recognized Kauai Child Welfare Services.
About 1,100 children are placed in foster care in Hawaii annually, according to CWS officials. Of the 2,627 keiki in foster care statewide in fiscal year 2017, 714 keiki were reunified with their parents.
"It takes support from the department and from families and other agencies to help bring the family back together," explained Monica Ka?auwai, Kauai liaison for Partners in Development Foundation, Hui Ho'omalu Program. "Our number one goal is reunification."
There have been cases, however, where a child has suffered or died after being returned to a home. Child welfare officials said they use different strategies to try to protect keiki from abuse or neglect, including having other relatives help monitor parents to provide another safety net.
"The providers are watching and they're helping. There's assessments being done, not only in the beginning, not only when we remove, but also the point of reunification and the point that we close the case," said CWS branch administrator Elladine Olevao.
As for Barnett, she said maintaining her sobriety is a daily struggle, but she has definitely learned her lesson.
"Life is not easy. It's hard and I couldn't have got here without my family and without God," she said.