From Rights to Reality: A blueprint for parent advocacy and family-centered child welfare reform

From rights to realityFrom Rights to Reality  is designed to unite parents and parent advocacy around a common set of goals. It identifies 15 rights for parents affected by the child welfare system. Most parents do not yet have these rights in child welfare proceedings. From Rights to Reality represents a commitment to working in our communities and nationwide to make these rights a reality.

Each right is illustrated by parents’ stories—stories that show how families can be strengthened and transformed when parents have these rights, and stories that show how families are harmed when these rights are denied.

These rights are essential to ensuring that children receive the best possible care—at home or while in foster care. In child welfare proceedings, children’s needs and parents’ rights are often portrayed as incompatible. Research and practice have demonstrated that, in most cases, this is not true. Children do better if they can remain connected to their parents and return home.

Most of the promising practices described here were advanced through tireless parent advocacy or through meaningful parent participation in child welfare reform. They developed because parents made themselves heard and child welfare practitioners listened. From Rights to Reality gives parents a clear, resounding voice in leading the process of child welfare reform in their communities. Child welfare practitioners must listen and respond.

Parents, we hope our stories will guide you in working with advocacy organizations and other parents in your community to make your voices heard. Child welfare leaders, policymakers, frontline workers and advocates, we hope these stories will deepen your understanding and compassion for families in the child welfare system and guide you in joining with parents in your communities to advance needed reforms. Each of the 15 parent rights are listed below.

1. I HAVE THE RIGHT TO not lose my child because I’m poor.

Poverty can make it difficult for families to access health, mental health and addiction recovery services, and poverty can be a barrier to safety. Children may be left home without adult supervision because an isolated adult cannot afford child care. Cabinets may be empty because benefits got cut off or food stamps didn’t last the month. A child may be injured because a landlord neglects to cover hot pipes.

Caseworkers unfamiliar with serious poverty may judge parents who cannot provide safety to their children because they are poor, or may assume that a family needs services unrelated to material conditions. But many times, families are doing the best they can to secure work and provide nurturing food and a safe home for their children.

Child welfare agencies must support parents in accessing needed cash assistance, housing, employment programs, child care, respite, or family visiting programs that can help poor parents regain the stability they need to keep their children safe

2. I HAVE THE RIGHT TO services that will support me in raising my child at home.

Many families come to the attention of the child welfare system because of substance abuse or domestic violence, parent or child mental illness, poverty, or parenting practices that reflect how the parents themselves were raised. In most cases, parents can safely care for their children at home while receiving mental health treatment, substance abuse treatment, domestic violence counseling, family counseling, intensive home supports for mentally ill or developmentally disabled children, or parenting education that supports them in reaching their own goals as parents.

Child welfare agencies must provide parents with community and in-home supports that can prevent removal of their children from their home. This includes immediate access to substance abuse treatment that allows parents to live with their children, homemaking services, health and mental health care, including intensive “wraparound” services for mentally ill or developmentally disabled children, and family residential programs to support parents who are mentally ill or developmentally disabled and cannot safely live with their children without 24-hour support.

3. I HAVE THE RIGHT TO speak for myself and be heard at every step of the child protective service process.

Parents must be part of decisions about their child’s placement, about the supports that they and their children need, and about the steps they will be required to take toward reunification. Before placement or immediately after (no later than 24 hours following the child’s removal from their home), parents must be invited to a conference where they can participate in planning for their child’s care and determining their service plan.

Parents have a right to a service plan that reflects fair and reasonable expectations of what they can achieve and to develop those expectations in partnership with child protective workers, to get the expectations in writing, and to have the expectations clearly explained in a way that parents can understand.

Parents also must be supported in speaking knowledgably and confidently at these conferences. Parents in crisis need the support of family, neighbors and informed parent advocates to be able to speak as equals and to be heard and respected at conferences

4. I HAVE THE RIGHT TO be informed of my rights.

When their families are investigated, most parents have no idea what their rights are. Few child welfare agencies provide parents with a comprehensive explanation of their rights or information about available services, leaving parents unable to effectively advocate for their families.

All parents must be told why they are being investigated by the child welfare system, how the investigation process works, and what is the outcome of the investigation. Parents must be informed about their rights, including their right not to open the door when a caseworker knocks and what rights they may have to legal representation in Family Court. Child welfare agencies must work with parents and with outside advocates to develop clear and comprehensive ways to provide parents with an immediate explanation of every step of the child welfare process and any assistance available to support parents during the investigation and removal. In particular, parents must be given a clear explanation of the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA), the federal law that allows agencies to petition for termination of parents’ rights if children have been in foster care for 15 out of 22 months.

5. I HAVE THE RIGHT TO a meaningful and fair hearing before my parental rights are limited in any way.

Parents must be given a meaningful opportunity to respond to allegations before their right to contact with their children is limited. Before removal, some agencies require parents to sign safety plans that separate them from their children. Placement in foster care, or other safety plans that separate children from their parents must be used only when there is evidence of imminent risk. This evidence must be reviewed by a judge or discussed in a case conference where the parent is meaningfully supported by a lawyer or advocate in stating her case and participating in developing the safety plan. In cases where a child is removed immediately because of imminent risk, parents must be able to attend a court hearing or case conference within 24 hours.

Child welfare systems also must work with family courts to provide timely hearings. The Federal Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) requires that states file to terminate parental rights within 15 months in most cases, yet court hearings are routinely delayed for months, giving parents few opportunities to move their cases forward within that timeframe.

6. I HAVE THE RIGHT TO quality legal representation.

Parents subject to an investigation or with children in foster care must be able to access quality legal representation. Lawyers must safeguard parents’ right to due process, their right to be present and bring witnesses to all proceedings, to appeal agency decisions, and to make complaints or raise concerns in court or in meetings with the child welfare agency. Lawyers must also protect clients from being considered guilty until proven innocent, providing immediate, affordable and assertive legal advocacy from the report through the investigation, court and reunification stages.

In many states parents do not have a right to legal representation. In others, parents are represented by lawyers who do not specialize in child welfare law and may not be knowledgeable about how to engage and assertively represent their clients. Lawyers for parents are also paid very poorly in many jurisdictions, with no funds available for discovery, to pay lawyers to meet with their clients, or to go beyond a cursory in-court defense. Finally, lawyers often work alone, even though lawyers working in teams with social workers and/or parent advocates may be more successful. Lawyers for parents must be able to learn about best practices, be paid appropriately, and be supported to work in interdisciplinary teams.

7. I HAVE THE RIGHT TO support from someone who has been in my shoes.

Every parent must be able to receive guidance and support from a parent advocate who has succeeded in reunifying with children in foster care. Parents who come to the attention of the child welfare system often feel isolated, fearful, ashamed and angry. In interactions with child welfare personnel, they may feel confused, judged and unsure how to advocate for themselves or their children. Parents need help understanding how the child welfare system works and how they can move forward in reunifying with their children. Their peers— other parents who reunified with children in foster care themselves—are the people they trust most and who can help them best.

Substance abuse treatment programs and mental health agencies pioneered the use of peer advocates to provide support to clients who may not believe that anyone else has been in their position and succeeded. Now, leading child welfare agencies hire parent advocates or Parent Partners to help parents succeed in navagating the system and advocating for their families. Child welfare agencies that wish to succeed in partnering with parents must follow this proven practice of using parent advocates to support parents and agency personnel in their efforts to reunify families.

8. I HAVE THE RIGHT TO have my child quickly placed with someone I trust.

For children removed from home, moving in with a stranger’s family can be scary and confusing. Children must adapt to a new family’s rules and expectations, cultural beliefs, foods and routines. Often, children leave their neighborhoods and schools— everything familiar to them. Placing children with people they know can make removal less painful. It’s also easier for parents to stay in touch with children placed with relatives, family friends, or community members. Parents must have the right to have their child quickly placed with a family member or trusted family friend.

Recent research demonstrates that children placed with relatives do better than those placed in traditional foster homes. While children living with kin may be somewhat less likely to reunify with their parents, studies have found that children in kinship foster homes endure fewer moves from home to home, are less likely to remain in care longterm, and are less likely to end up in the juvenile justice system. Child welfare agencies must ensure that children are placed with relative caregivers whenever possible.

9. I HAVE THE RIGHT TO frequent, meaningful contact with my child.

The quality and frequency of parents’ visits with their children is one of the best predictors of whether children will safely reunify with their parents. Visits help children feel safe despite separation and help families to repair frayed bonds. They keep parents motivated and give parents practice parenting their children in changed circumstances. However, many child welfare agencies grant parents the minimum visits required by law—as little as two hours a month in some jurisdictions—and allow parents and children to visit only in crowded, supervised agency visit rooms.

Families must have more time to connect, have the lowest level of visit supervision possible and have the opportunity to spend time in positive settings, like libraries and playgrounds, whenever possible. Agencies must use visit rooms only when children may be at risk during visits, and must provide opportunities for families to be supervised by family members, foster parents, or community volunteers when supervision is absolutely necessary. Parents must be allowed to communicate regularly outside of visits, and have visits near their homes, at convenient times, and at no cost. Lawyers must press for increased visit time and unsupervised visits, and judges must ensure that children and their parents are supported in remaining connected.

10. I HAVE THE RIGHT TO make decisions about my child’s life in care.

When children enter foster care, foster parents or agency workers begin making major decisions about the child’s life— enrolling children in new schools, bringing them to new doctors, or moving them from placement to placement. These decisions should be made by the parent or in consultation with the parent.

Parents must be treated as decisionmakers and partners in their child’s life in care, unless a court has found that their involvement would harm the child. Parents must be provided with information about their child’s health, mental health and progress in school and be informed of their right to attend school meetings, get report cards, go to doctor visits, and make medical and educational decisions for their child. Parents also must be informed of meetings, therapy appointments and doctor visits, and encouraged to attend.

Too often, children are unnecessarily separated from community institutions that have sustained them: caring teachers, coaches, religious organizations, afterschool programs, neighbors and friends. When parents are involved in placement, educational and medical decisions, they can help child welfare workers and foster parents understand children’s history, needs and relationships

11. I HAVE THE RIGHT TO privacy.

Parents with child welfare cases are routinely referred to therapists who share confidential patient information with child welfare authorities, are asked to submit to drug tests when drug use is not part of the allegation, and are encouraged to disclose personal information about past experiences with the threat of appearing non-compliant if they do not.

Parents must have the right to keep their own records confidential unless they provide written consent and to keep details of their lives private if they are not directly related to the allegations in the case. Child welfare agencies and courts must be barred from holding this against the parent. Parents also must be able to access confidential mental health treatment and have the option to choose their own licensed therapist.

Parents must have access to their own child’s and family’s records at any time. They must be able to quickly and simply appeal findings that maltreatment is “indicated” or “substantiated.” They must be able to have their names cleared from child protective services or state central registries through a process that is clear, swift and simple if there are no findings against them or after a reasonable amount of time has passed since they have met all agency expectations

12. I HAVE THE RIGHT TO fair treatment regardless of my race, culture, gender, or religion.

Although it’s been established that addiction, domestic violence, mental illness, and physical and sexual abuse cut across race and class lines, children of color and poor children are more likely to be placed in foster care. Child welfare systems discriminate in who they investigate, which children they remove, and what services their parents are offered. Research shows that black children enter foster care at a higher rate than other children in similar circumstances and remain in foster care for longer, while white children are more often allowed to remain home while their parents receive services. Likewise, fathers are more likely to face barriers in reunifying with children in care, even when the father was not accused of abuse or neglect.

Parents affected by the child welfare system must have the right to equal treatment regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, disability, age, religion, economic status, family composition or sexual orientation. Agencies must examine their practices and take steps to correct unequal treatment. Services and supports also must be geared to the races and cultures in a community, with the agency providing culturally appropriate parenting guidance, casework and services in a variety of languages.

13. I HAVE THE RIGHT TO services that will support me in reunifying with my child.

In most cases, the federal Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) requires that child welfare agencies make “reasonable efforts” to avoid removing children from their homes and to reunify families after removal. However, agencies vary widely in the efforts they consider reasonable. In some communities, parents are expected to seek out treatment and other services on their own. Some parents must pay out of pocket for court-ordered services, such as batterer intervention. Addiction treatment, mental health services and family supports may also be difficult to access. Some states do not provide supports—such as homemaker visits, affordable child care, family therapy, “wraparound” mental health services for children, or short-term financial aid—that can prevent foster care placement or reduce lengths of stay. As a result, parents face termination of their rights when they have not been offered meaningful help.

Federal policy makers must develop a common standard of “reasonable efforts” and require agencies to provide families with the help they need to reunify.

14. I HAVE THE RIGHT TO offer my child a lifelong relationship.

When parents’ rights are terminated, they usually permanently lose all contact with their children, even when losing all contact is not in the best interest of the child. Many times, children in foster care wish for contact with their parents even if they will not return home. Often, parents and older children are in touch informally despite termination.

Parents who are not at risk of harming their children through ongoing contact should not be barred from letters, phone calls, or even visits simply because they cannot be their child’s full-time caregivers. Mental illness, incarceration, or addiction may render parents incapable of full-time custody, but this should not bar children from continuing to hear from or know about their parents if they choose.

Agencies and the courts must offer enforceable post-adoption contact agreements or conditional surrender agreements that give parents and children a legal right to contact after termination. Child welfare workers must guide adoptive parents in understanding children’s need for contact and support adoptive families in determining appropriate contact agreements and maintaining contact as agreed.

15. I HAVE THE RIGHT TO meaningful participation in developing the child welfare policies and practices that affect my family and community.

Child welfare agencies cannot succeed in safely reunifying families unless they rely on the wisdom of child welfare-affected parents to guide them in creating policies, practices and services that speak to the needs of the families and communities they serve.

Child welfare agencies must abandon the practice of believing they have all the answers and must find ways to meaningfully include child welfare-affected parents and youth in evaluating services; developing parent and youth advocate roles in service delivery and staff training; developing methods for engaging families in accessing supports before removal becomes necessary; and determining child welfare policies and practices.

Including one or two parents on an advisory board is not enough. Parents must be supported—at best by independent advocates—in becoming full decisionmaking members on planning and oversight committees.

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