Good Intentions, Mixed Outcomes
To give families a fair chance, ASFA must clarify the supports that child welfare systems, courts and lawyers must provide.
As a parent advocate at a foster care agency, I work with parents to help them reunify with their children. In ten years of working with families, I’ve seen the positive and negative impact of ASFA.
For children whose parents cannot or will not change their behaviors, and who are lucky enough to find caring adoptive parents, ASFA can provide permanency, stability and a loving family. But for parents who want to reunify with their children, ASFA can either be a godsend or a nightmare.
Its short timeframe for reunification can give child welfare professionals, lawyers, judges, and parents the push to move quickly toward reunification, helping families heal. Or it can be too quick a deadline for troubled parents working with a dysfunctional system, destroying a family.
Motivated to Reunify Quickly
I’ve seen how ASFA’s timeline can motivate parents. In one case, I met a parent after almost nine months had passed since her children entered care. This mother hadn’t completed any part of her service plan. She had either left or been dismissed from treatment programs and had never finished a parenting skills class.
I asked her, “Do you know what ASFA is and what it means for you?” “Yes,” she said, but with such hesitation that I had doubts. After I explained that she had 15 months to get her children out of care, she told me,
“No one ever explained the law so that I really understood what it meant and I was afraid to ask.”
Once mom realized how little time was left for her to get her act together, she buckled down and did the right thing. I am happy to say that her son is visiting over the weekends and they’ll soon get to trial discharge.
On the other hand, I am sorry to say I know too many families that have been destroyed by misuse of the ASFA law—parents who didn’t understand ASFA or weren’t properly advised about their rights; parents who were assigned caseworkers or lawyers that were either overworked or who just didn’t care; parents who faced judges that overlooked the agency’s failures but not the parents.’
I don’t know if all of these parents would have been able to reunify with their children in a reasonable amount of time if they’d been better informed and better treated by the professionals charged with helping them rebuild their families. But I do know that they faced not only the obstacles of poverty, addiction, or emotional distress but also the obstacles created by ASFA and the child welfare system itself.
Clearer Standards for Supporting Parents
I believe fundamental changes must be made to ASFA so that it is fair and functional in the real world. The most important change is that the federal government must define what it means when it says that agencies must make “diligent efforts” to help parents reconnect with their children.
Some agencies connect parents to high-quality parenting classes, family therapy, and treatment programs, and give parents frequent visits with their children, visit coaches, and visits in positive locations like libraries and parks. Others do little to connect parents to services. I’ve seen caseworkers tell parents with a drug problem that they need to seek help but do nothing more than give the parents a list of programs.
Agencies need clear standards, and they must be required to document their efforts. Judges must be required to suspend the 15-month timeline if agencies do not provide appropriate services to parents.
Parent advocates help ensure that parents know their rights and responsibilities, and they inspire hope.
ASFA could also require agencies to use parent advocates (parents who have successfully reunified with their children) to assist workers in making these “diligent efforts” and to support parents in getting the help they need.
Better Legal Representation
My biggest complaint is about the lousy legal representation most birth parents are provided. Many lawyers don’t return phone calls or even speak to their clients until five minutes before court. In court, I see lawyers sit there and never open their mouths. Then they shush parents who try to speak on their own behalf. I understand that lawyers are overworked, underpaid and overwhelmed, but parents can’t be held to higher standards than their lawyers!
For parents to reunify with their children quickly, they need lawyers that protect their rights, push for services and insist on regular visits. In New York City, we now have organizations that provide each parent with a team—a social worker, parent advocate and lawyer—and that seems to help parents reunify more quickly. ASFA needs to set standards for parents’ legal representation. Again, judges should suspend the ticking clock if court-appointed lawyers don’t do their jobs.
Flexible Custody Arrangements
I believe ASFA is most unfair to parents who are unable to reunify with their children because of factors beyond their control—prison sentences or drug treatment programs longer than 15 months, court delays, or mental illnesses that may prevent parents from ever having sole custody.
For parents in these common situations, ASFA must provide clear guidance to judges and agencies, allowing them to create flexible custody situations instead of permanently terminating parental rights. Some parents are able to voluntarily relinquish their rights, signing agreements about the contact they will continue to have after they lose custody. All parents facing a termination of rights should have this option, and these agreements must be legally binding.
Rewards for Reunification
Finally, I believe that the way ASFA is financed sets systems against parents. Agencies that are paid per day that children are in care already have a powerful incentive not to return foster youth home quickly. Adoption bonuses also reward child welfare systems for not reunifying children with their biological parents.
As parent Lorie Cox has written, “It seemed like the social workers lined up foster/adoptive parents quickly, but took their time in getting me referrals for any services that were court ordered, such as drug treatment, therapy, and parenting classes I needed.” I would like ASFA to reward agencies financially for achieving timely reunifications.
A Tool for Helping Families Reconnect
In the stories that follow, you’ll see why these changes are so important. Lawrence loses a year with his son because of court delays. Jackie nearly loses her rights until a Child Protection Service worker fights for her. Jeanette’s child is in care for two years after she completes her service plan. Deb permanently loses contact with her son because she’s in prison and the adoptive family ignores the contact agreement they signed. Bertha needs more time to strengthen herself as a parent before her daughter comes home.
You’ll also see how deep the bond is between children and their parents. Despite long separations, Youshell and Tracey rebuilt their relationships with their children after reunification.
ASFA is right to try to shorten separations. No parents want to be separated from their child for more than 15 months, and children should return home as quickly as is safe. But ASFA must be a tool for ensuring that agencies, lawyers, judges, and parents act in good faith to get children home, not for punishing misinformed and unsupported parents and their children.