We interviewed Kathy Gomez, managing attorney of the Family Advocacy Unit at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, and Michael Wagner, director of permanency at the Children’s Aid Society, a foster care agency in New York City, about how parents can prevent termination. Here is their advice:
1. Get Started Right Away
Michael Wagner: Someone wise once said to me that permanency planning is like a horse race—all the horses have to start out running and have to run the whole time. Remember, federal law requires that agencies file for termination if the child has been in care for 15 months, so families need to make big changes in a short time. Some parents don’t start running right away because they say to themselves, “I didn’t do anything wrong.” And, each time a parent says, “I don’t want to go to that program,” the parent has stopped running.
If it takes a parent a while to get started on the service plan, or if their first effort (common in substance abuse cases) isn’t successful, we can be 9-12 months down the road before that parent is really working on the issues that led the kids to be placed in care. That doesn’t mean the parent can’t catch up and pass, but it’s difficult. It’s important to start run- ning from day one and keep running the whole time.
2. Think Strategically
Kathy Gomez: Just as I tell lawyers, “You have to put yourself in a parent’s shoes,” I tell parents, “You have to put yourself in the agency’s shoes and view your case from their perspective. They see families with major problems every day. How can we really show the progress you’ve made? What will be persuasive?”
The best thing is to have evidence— documentation and good witnesses. For instance, if you need to over- come addiction, it is helpful to show the court clean drug screens and good progress notes from your treatment program, and to have someone as a witness to testify about you.
A good lawyer will think, “What if this goes to TPR?” from the very beginning of the case and try to build a case that will help the client. The number one thing I argue is to get the child placed with a relative or family friend because termination is less likely if the child is living with kin. Then, at each hearing, I get as much visitation as possible. I also urge parents to attend their child’s doctor or therapy appointments and school meetings. This helps show your understanding of your child’s needs.
Michael Wagner: A parent should also really try to make a back-up plan for the child in case she can’t make big changes in her life fast enough. If a parent is really putting the needs of her child first, she will make a plan that ensures that her child will be safe and that they can stay connected even if they don’t reunify.
3. Ask for What You Need
Michael Wagner: One of the most important things a parent can do is make sure that the services in the service plan will really help her solve the problem that led a child into care.
Honesty is the key. Many times, service plans don’t help the family solve the real problem, either because the workers don’t listen well, or because parents are dealing with issues they are embarrassed or afraid to talk about. The parents may go through the whole service plan but keep it a secret that they’re dealing with domestic violence, for instance. Often, the secret comes out once children begin to spend more time at home. Children are sensitive, and they show in their words or behavior that something is not right. The agency finds out what the parents tried to hide, and the case is set back.
Kathy Gomez: Agencies are required to provide reasonable efforts to help families reunify. The parent and lawyer must make clear to the agency what is needed to help this particular family. If an agency doesn’t provide the services, the lawyer should see if the judge will order the service, and the lawyer should tell the judge at every hearing if the agency is not making reasonable efforts.
4. Visit Often
Kathy Gomez: If there’s one thing I want to say to parents, it’s: “Please go to your visits!” Your children need you and you need show that you love your child and are maintaining a parent-child bond.
Some states also require that the agency prove that termination would best serve the needs of your child.
Visiting and going to family therapy or parenting pro-grams where the staff watch you interact with your child can support your case. The staff person might become a good witness to say that you’re interacting appropriately and in a loving way with your child.
Michael Wagner: We see that families that get their kids home are constantly moving forward on a continuum of increased contact. Most parents start out seeing their child once or twice a week for two hours each time. After about four weeks, if everything has been going well, you shouldn’t need to have a worker supervise you every minute. Ask to have the worker come in and out of your visit so you can begin to have privacy with your kids (that’s called moving from “supervised” to “monitored” visits). Then, after another month, ask for unsupervised visits. You should make progress every four weeks. If not, ask your caseworker or lawyer why not and work out a plan to resolve the problem that’s holding up your progress.
5. Expect to Feel Afraid
Michael Wagner: It’s not unusual that parents will jeopardize their case when reunification seems likely. Often, when the parent really looks at the reality of her children coming home, she becomes terrified. She wants the child home right now, but she’s also afraid that won’t be able to raise her child on her own, so part of her wants the child to stay in care.
We call that “ambivalence”—having two conflicting feelings at the same time.
When parents feel ambivalence, they often try to pretend that they feel 100% ready for the child to come home. The parent says to herself, “If I tell my worker that I’m afraid, my child won’t come home.” But secretly feeling unsure can lead parents to jeopardize their case. For example, a parent who is struggling really hard to get an apartment will somehow just forget to go to an important housing appointment, so discharge will be delayed. Families beat themselves up when that happens, and social workers will beat up on families, but we have to recognize those mistakes as part of being ambivalent about reunification.
It’s normal for a parent to have a strong feeling of worry. Reunification is scary for everyone—the worker and foster parent are scared that the parent may not be ready, kids are scared that they’ll end up back in care, and parents are afraid because everything will be different and they don’t know what will happen next.
The worker should say to a parent, “It’s expected that you’ll feel unsure of whether you can handle your child. It’s OK to feel that way.” If the worker and parent don’t have that conversation, then the parent can’t really prepare and everything can fall apart.
6. Don’t Give Up!
Michael Wagner: Parents also jeopardize their cases when they relapse. Lots of folks that have been struggling with sobriety say to themselves, “My kids need me. I’m going to work really hard to get sober and get my kids home.” They do the program, work with their mentors, see their kids and then the agency starts to plan for the kids to come home.
But as the parent starts to feel she will succeed, that driven feeling stops feeling so powerful and addiction’s “stinking thinking” can kick in. She says to herself, “I’m almost there. I don’t have to try so hard anymore. I can afford to have a drink or get high. I can reward myself.” That turns into a relapse.
Kathy Gomez: The reality is that a lot of parents have a long history of trauma and losing their children is so painful and horrible. Some issues are difficult to resolve in a short period of time. For example, addiction is very powerful and people relapse all the time. It’s amazing that so many parents stay sober through all of the painful things they have to go through in child welfare.
It’s so important to reach out to supportive people who can help you cope with stress, and to tell your lawyer immediately if there’s a problem. If you relapsed, if there are problems with the visits, or if you started a program but stopped going, call your lawyer. You don’t want to come back to court and say, “I stopped going to that program three months ago.” You don’t get many opportunities to go before the judge, so you want to present the best possible case every time.