In NYC, parents facing removal of their children are asked to attend a Child Safety Conference, where a decision is made whether or not a child will be placed in foster care. Many other jurisdictions hold similar conferences.
As a Parent Advocate, I have supported parents in hundreds of conferences. When parents come prepared, it can increase the chances that children remain at home, and it shows that you are committed to resolving concerns about you.
1st STEP: WHETHER TO GO
Some parents don’t go to the conference because they’re scared and angry. One risk to going is that everything you say and do at the conference will be documented.
But going does show that you care enough about your child to show up.
It also gives you a chance to give your side of the story. The report the department has from the State Central Registry cannot be changed. But anything that you say is not true about it will be written down and given to the judge if the case goes to court.
Lastly, the conference is a place to show your strengths, which may help you negotiate for a better outcome. A strength might be that you are working to improve your family’s finances, that you always go to your child’s school meetings, or that you have people who support you.
WHAT HAPPENS AT A CONFERENCE?
Be prepared to attend for at least 90 minutes. At the beginning, the facilitator will go over the rules of conduct and state the conference’s possible outcomes—everything from dismissal of the case to removal of the children.
After that, there is a discussion of Concerns, Strengths, Ideas to Keep the Children Safe, and Outcomes. The group makes lists and discusses possible outcomes. If everyone at the table is in agreement about what should happen, that’s what will happen. If there’s no agreement, Child Protective Services has the final say.
At all conferences, the facilitator says that there will be no blaming or shaming. But it can feel embarrassing and depressing to talk about your family at a conference. Parents often feel even angrier when they have a child welfare history. In those situations, CPS is mandated by law to speak about your past.
Hopefully, knowing this in advance can help you prepare emotionally so you don’t get so upset that you hurt your case. If you’ve addressed problems from your past, find ways to show the changes you’ve made.
PLANNING WHAT TO SHARE
It’s important to plan all the good things about your family you want to share, as well as how to explain anything about the allegations that is false.
Parents are asked questions like, “Did you leave your child home alone?” or, “Do you use drugs?” It can help to show that you are engaged in resolving the safety concerns raised about you. For instance, a parent might say, “I know my child needs supervision after school when I can’t be there. I would like to ask for help finding an after-school program so he will be safe until I get home from work.”
Other times, though, answering questions can make it harder to resolve the situation. For instance, CPS will often ask about drug use even if the initial allegation has nothing to do with drugs. If you don’t want to answer, you can say something like, “I don’t see how that question relates to the allegations in my case.”
In many conferences, you will be asked to sign a blank HIPAA form, which gives CPS the right to information from any doctor, therapist or provider who ever worked with you or your child. To limit access, you can ask them to write on the form who they will get information from, and from what dates, before you sign it. You can also not sign, but CPS may believe you have something to hide.
WHO AND WHAT TO BRING
You can bring anyone with you except a lawyer, such as family or friends, a religious leader, or someone from a program you participate in. People who can speak about your family’s strengths are good to invite. You do have to be comfortable having them know your business, though. And you certainly don’t want to bring someone who has a short fuse, or who tends to share too much.
You should also bring names and numbers or letters from people who can speak positively about you. Bringing immunization records, report cards, IEP evaluations, school attendance reports and information about your child’s extracurriculars shows that you are on top of your child’s well-being.