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10 years after losing family, man recounts journey to find his children

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- Jon Church was working the night shift at a meatpacking plant in 2005 in rural Oklahoma. After arriving home from work early one Sunday, he said his wife asked if he would go to church with her and their three children. He de...

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Jon Church sits with his family - son Jonathan (from left), wife Donna, daughter Ciriniti, and son James in their Grand Forks home on Monday. (Photo by Nick Nelson for the Grand Forks Herald)

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- Jon Church was working the night shift at a meatpacking plant in 2005 in rural Oklahoma.

After arriving home from work early one Sunday, he said his wife asked if he would go to church with her and their three children.

He declined, explaining he was too tired.

"That was the last time I saw them," he said.

With little money but determination to find his family, he bought a cheap car from a friend, who also let him use his credit card to travel. Church drove to Arizona, California, Colorado and a few other states where he thought his family could be living.

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After a few weeks, he returned to Oklahoma, out of luck and out of money.

"I was pretty much torn up about the whole situation because my kids were my life, you know," he said. "But I eventually snapped out of it. I went back to work. I started to pick myself back up again because I came to the realization that I may never see my kids again."

Then, in May 2009, he received a phone call from Traci Van Beek, a foster care supervisor with the Grand Forks County Social Service Center, informing him that his children were in foster care in Grand Forks.

Still suffering the effects of a 2007 car accident, he left his life in Oklahoma, taking a bus to Grand Forks, where he checked into Northlands Rescue Mission and embarked on the arduous task of getting his children back.

In 2009, Jon Church shared his story with Grand Forks Herald readers when that leg in that journey began. His identity was disguised.

Today, about a decade after losing his children, Jon is remarried and is living in Grand Forks.

He and his wife, Donna, have full custody of Jon's children, 14-year-old twin sons Jonathan and James and an 11-year-old daughter, Ciriniti.

They're observing Thanksgiving in their Grand Forks home today, along with a few other family members and a couple of neighbors.

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"We have so much be thankful for," he said.

A long road

Church recalls the battery of exams and a series of classes that took several months to complete.

"I did my best to try to earn Traci's trust," he said. "She didn't have to believe me."

By the end of 2009, he had moved into a three-bedroom apartment.

In early 2010, he was granted supervised visitation of his children. That was followed by unsupervised visits, in-home and then overnight visits.

"I got everything else set up for my kids to move back in," he said. "I mean, I worked hard to get my kids back."

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He then gained full custody and, finally, legal custody in the summer of 2010.

Church met his current wife about that time at Freedom Church in downtown Grand Forks. They were married in October 2010.

"We were good friends for six months. Now we're best friends," said Donna Church, who was raised in Devils Lake but has been in Grand Forks since 2002. She also has two grown sons, both who live in Minot.

Jon Church worked a series of jobs, each one paying a little more or providing more hours than the one before. However, physical ailments dating back to that 2007 traffic accident forced him to go on disability.

"I couldn't be on my feet very long," he said. "It was a mess."

He has had a series of surgical procedures -- on his feet, ankle and neck -- over the past couple of years, spending about 16 months on crutches.

Looking ahead

Jon Church is now recovering and looking to the future. He has started looking for a job, applying at a few local factories and other businesses.

"I want to be able to give my kids not just what they need, but what they want," he said. "I can't do that on disability.

"I've been taking pretty good care of my family with the means I have, keeping my head up high and trying to encourage my family to push through, to persevere, to work hard, to be diligent," he said. "I try to teach them how to live according to God's word, to be honest, to be faithful to your family and friends and to serve God and go to church."

Van Beek said the Church family story is inspirational.

"Children need and deserve family connections," she said. "(His) journey to North Dakota to reconnect with his children was an uphill battle, but one he was willing to fight. The outcome was clearly worth all the effort. It's the highlight of my job to see families safely reunite."

Jon Church also has a message for families who might be struggling through difficult times, and especially those enduring the trauma of family separation.

"Never give up hope," he said. "Social services are not there to tear families apart but to improve families and parenting for the children. I know it's hard going through it--despair, depression, unhappiness--when you know you've lost your children. But there's always a light at the end of the tunnel."

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