Let me start by saying below are what is supposed to happen - but I've NEVER seen it actually work this way. So, at the end (or maybe in another post) I will tell you about some of the barriers to this process going along by the books.
********* Court Timeline Facts**********
When a Hotline Call is made and the DCP (Division of Child Protection) Investigator decides that a child is not able to be safely maintained in their home, the child is removed from the home under "Protective Custody". No court order is needed for PC - it is at the discretion of the DCP worker and their supervisor. PC can also be taken by only 2 other professionals - Doctors and Police Officers. I, as a Child Welfare Caseworker/Social Worker have no authority to remove a child from a home - I have to call the Hotline just like everybody else. (More on that later.) Protective Custody only lasts 48 hours (unless it happens on a Friday in which case it will lapse on the next Monday).
During that 48 hours two things could happen:
- The parents could rectify the safety concerns that caused the children to be removed (such in the case where living environment is deemed hazardous and could be cleaned).
- DCP could decide that the child needs to be kept in care longer (usually with more serious allegations such as physical abuse/sexual abuse/etc.)
If #1 happens, DCP will allow "PC to lapse" and the child can return home and the family is then referred for "Intact Family Services". If # 2 happens, the case must be discussed with a State's Attorney to determine if there is enough evidence to warrant the case being hear in court to purse further custody. If the State's Attorney believes they have enough evidence, a Shelter Care Hearing must be conducted before that 48 hours lapses. (This is the only time frame that is strictly followed.)
At a Shelter Care Hearing, the judge decides if there is "urgent and immediate necessity" to keep the child in an out of home placement. If the judge decides the child can not be safely returned to the home, then the child stays in care until an Adjudication Hearing can take place. This is now called "Temporary Custody" (instead of Protective Custody).
From the moment a child comes into temporary custody, it is a social worker's job to be putting services into place as quickly as possible so that the parents can begin working towards having their children returned home to them. This is to prove that the state has made "reasonable efforts" to return a child home should it ever come to a termination trial. These services are specific to the reasons that the child was removed from the home. They may include any and all of the following:
- parenting classes
- substance abuse assessment and following recommendations
- mental health assessment and following recommendations
- domestic violence classes
- safe and stable housing
- stable income
- loooonnnggg list of other stuff that comes up
From this point forward the child could return home at any court date - either because there is not enough evidence to keep them in care or because the child could be safely returned home with the family participating in further services and monitoring. So, I will only describe what happens if the judge does not deem the home safe for the child to return.
The next court date should occur within 90 days - it is called the Adjudication Hearing. Adjudication is the "trial" to prove that these two things are true:
- There is reasonable evidence to suggest that the child was abused or neglected.
- The abuse or neglect was perpetrated by the parent(s).
**Please note that Juvenile court differs from criminal court in that it does not have to be proven "beyond a reasonable doubt". It only has to be proven that there is "reasonable evidence to suggest". So, when people ask "Why wasn't this parent charged for their crimes against their child?" This is the bottom line reason that you almost never see a parent charged and convicted of child abuse/molestation/endangerment. Because if charges are pressed and the parent is found 'not guilty' - the child would have to be returned home. But by having the case go through Juvenile court, at least the child is removed from the unsafe situation. Despite all of the terrible stories I have heard and seen, I have only known ONE parent who served time for what happened to their child. **
If the judge finds that both of these things are true, and that the safety of the child can not be achieved by putting services into the home, the child remains in care and a date is set for a Dispositional Hearing.
A Dispositional Hearing (or just called "Dispo") must take place within 60 days of Adjudication - but very often it happens on the same day. The judge will take into consideration the testimony of key players including the social worker, service providers, and possibly parents. Then the judge must decide if the parent is "unfit, unwilling, or unable" to care for the child at this time.
If the judge makes the ruling that the parent is "unfit, unwilling, or unable", then this is where the child is actually made a Ward of the State. Up until this time the child has been in the custody of the state, but the parent is still considered their guardian and they have their full parental rights. Sometimes, a child may become a Ward of the state - but be returned to their parents' custody. Its confusing and I promise that I will try to explain it thoroughly in my next post.
A date is then set for the very first Permanency Hearing. The Permanency Hearing is where a Goal is entered for each child in a particular case. Permanency Hearings are then held every 6 months and are also sometimes called Permanency Progress Hearings. The Goal for each child is evaluated and a recommendation for continuing or changing the goal is given by the social worker and each lawyer (one lawyer for Mom, one for Dad, and one for the child). The judge then decides what the goal will be for the next 6 months.
Once enough time has passed and a parent has not made progress on their service plan, then we would recommend that the Goal be changed away from Return Home. If it is decided that adoption is in the best interests of a child, everyone involved begins to move forward towards a Termination Trial.
Prior to that though, the case must pass Legal Screening - which is where the Social Worker must bring all of the important case information including Social Histories, reports from service providers, court orders, birth certificates, visitation records, proof of diligent efforts to find any parent that hasn't been involved thus far, permanency commitment form signed by a pre-adoptive foster parent, and about a thousand other documents to the State's Attorney's office and they determine that it will be enough to warrant filing the motion for termination. This in and of itself could take forever because here is the "catch 22" - Goals are determined by the "best interests of the child" but for a parent's rights to be terminated it FIRST must be proven that they are "unfit, unwilling, and unable" to care for the child permanently. So, it could be in the best interests of the child to have their parent's rights terminated for many reasons including trauma, special needs, attachment to the foster parent etc - but none of that can even be discussed until it has been proven that the parent is unfit, unwilling or unable.
******End Lecture/Begin Discussion******
Bottom line: In the eyes of the law, the rights of the parent still come before the best interests of the child.
Now, the parents are only supposed to be given a maximum of 2 years from the date of the first Permanency Hearing to complete their plan and have their children returned. I have never seen that happen. I have worked on cases where the children have been in care for over 2 years and the Disposition Hearing has not even taken place. But once a goal of Return Home has been set, the parents have a minimum of 9 months to make progress on their goals. The state can not pursue termination of parental rights until that time.
As I said in this post, every child comes into care with a goal of "Return Home" and that goal is assumed and unofficially set by the agency up until this hearing. At the Permanency Hearing the goal is officially decided by the judge and set by the court. The social worker must work towards this goal. They can not begin to work away from this goal until the judge changes it to something else. Even if I didn't think it was in the best interests of the child, I had to continue working towards the goal set by the court.
"Or what might happen?" you may ask.
At best, I could lose my job. At second best, I could be officially reprimanded by the court. The worst that could probably happen directly to me is that I could be held in contempt of court and put in jail. But absolute worst thing that could happen for the case (in my opinion) is that the judge could make a ruling of "no reasonable efforts" against me and my agency. The reason that is important is twofold:
- At any point, one of the lawyers could claim that "no reasonable efforts" are being made to provide services towards reunification. If this happens, the timeline for parents automatically starts over.
- If it ever comes to a Termination Trial - where the state wants to try to terminate the parents' right - they have to be able to prove that "reasonable efforts" were made by DCFS. If they can't prove that those efforts were made, the case will not pass termination and the timeline for reunification starts over for the parents.
So basically, if I don't do absolutely everything in my power to try to get that parent to complete their services to have their child returned home - I could be responsible for the timeline getting started all over again.
Which means what?
That child sits in foster care, without permanency, for at least another 9 months - probably longer. The parents get to have another 9 months to make (or not make) progress towards their children coming home. Oh, and did I mention that any evidence, testimony, and reports that were collected prior to the "no reasonable efforts" finding get thrown out? Yeah, they do. Essentially, the case must start from scratch.
Now, I understand the reason for the rule about "no reasonable efforts" completely. Because I have met some parents that have been completely and utterly screwed over by the system. Who have never been offered the appropriate services, who have never been informed of their rights and responsibilities, and who are left completely to try to wade through the chaos. I fully support that every child and parent should have the chance to be together. Because I truly believe that a child should be with their biological parents if at all possible.
But too often the parents' lawyers try to use the "no reasonable efforts" card as a ploy to buy their clients time and more chances. So, Social Workers will do just about anything to avoid this ruling. And when some people wonder why a Social Worker will try to offer every possible service, rearrange everything (numerous times) to accommodate the parent, drive them to/from every visit/assessment/service/meeting/court date and make things seem way too ridiculously simple - hopefully this helps explain why.
So, is that a completely overwhelming amount of information? Does anyone have a question, want clarification or have anything to add? Please do!! I really want this to be like a discussion! Feel free to comment below or just write your own blog post on it and leave a link for me below just in case I don't yet have you in my Google Reader! Thanks for joining in!
PS - I think the next 'class' will be on Foster Care Placement Issues! What do you think? Have any questions for that one that I can maybe answer?