When we considered our extensive list of concerns, one concern consistently rose above the others. That is, our concern about the amount of time children spend in out of home placement with foster parents or relative placements while their parents are addressing parental deficiencies identified by the Children’s Department and Court. An adjunct to this particular concern is the variation in interpretation of what is the best interest of the child in the decision to return home or for the parents’ rights to be terminated.
Currently, the law states that if a child has been in out of home placement for 15 of the last 22 months, the Children’s Department must file a Termination of Parental Rights. In this period of time, parents of the child are given the opportunity to address their parental deficits with court ordered services. Too often, we, the CASAs for the child, have seen parents who do little or nothing to address their issues, many of which are drug related. Time passes, the child becomes bonded to a foster parents and siblings and there is stability and order where chaos may once have reigned. Then, close to the 15 to 18 month mark the parents may show a desire to make changes. In all of the cases on which I have been assigned CASA, parents have been given adequate opportunity to avail themselves of services. During the often long periods of inactivity, the child’s life goes on.
Our proposal is to allow parents one year from the Fact Finding Trial to address their deficits. Immediately following the trial, at which the child becomes a dependent of the State, a timeline would be set up with checkpoints and evaluations at 3, 6, and 9 months. At each stage, the parents must show completion of established court required services for that time period. For example, a Drug & Alcohol Assessment may have been ordered. If at 3 months this has not been completed it can be deferred to 6 months. If at that time the assessment is not completed then the Department begins the process of filing a Termination of Parental Rights.
During this one year period, we also recommend the following:
- That parents sign a contract lining up services and dates to be completed. They would be given clear markers for their journey. A journal and calendar would be helpful.
- True intervention for the parents utilizing different therapies. Also included would be hands on parenting classes.
- Consistent communication and collaboration between the biological parents, the foster parents, and the Children’s Department. Adopt strategies to lessen the frequently adversarial relationship between bio parents and foster parents. Instead, encourage relationships and teaching opportunities.
- Educate about and encourage open adoption plans. Many parents have chronic issues that they are not ready to address in a timely manner. Open adoption would allow them to remain somewhat involved in their child’s life.
- Thoughtfully consider the bonding that occurs between a foster child and his/her foster family in any decisions that involve removing the child from a long term placement. An entire family suffers loss and and that loss needs to be handled sensitively.
- Close the loopholes that allow for cases to drag on well beyond the 15 month point. This could be facilitated with a carefully monitored timeline for parents.
- Examine the policies surrounding parental incarceration and the likelihood of healthy reunification between parent and child.
- Examine the policies surrounding drawn out appeals to Termination of Parental Rights.
Children have no pause button that can be engaged when their parents are making the decisions necessary to address deficiencies. Often they are victimized not only by their parents but by the very system that is in place to protect them.