On the Right Track

Working with your lawyer to get your children back.

Maxine Ketcher, senior staff attorney at Legal Services for New York City–Bronx, explains how your lawyer can help you get to reunification – and get the services you need to support your family

Q: How do parents know they’re on track to reunification?
A: If you’re on track, you should be getting increased visits, especially
unsupervised visits. If your visitation isn’t increased over a period of six months, even though you think you’re doing well, you should ask, “What’s going on? What are the differences in opinion between how I see my case and how the agency sees me?”

If you disagree with the service plan the agency has for you, you might want to ask someone you trust, “What services do you think I need or my family needs for us to get back together?” Work with your lawyer and the agency to come up with a plan that seems useful for everyone.

Q: What are some reasons a case might not be progressing?
A: Very often a block to reunification is that a family’s service plan is not clear. Parents get caught up in this cycle of going to services without really knowing what they’re supposed to achieve in order to come together as a family again.

It happens because the judge and people at the agencies start speaking in shorthand, or they don’t understand the services that are available from all the different systems out there.

So the service plan might say “go to therapy,” without saying what is supposed to be gained by going to therapy. If the therapist and the parent don’t understand the goal, how can they work toward it?

Or the agency says, “Take parenting skills classes.” The parent says, “I went five times! Why are they still telling me to go to parenting skills?”

Lawyers can work with parents to get the agencies to give a clearer statement, like, “The reason we want you to go to parenting skills classes
is because we want you to learn to take care of your child with ADHD,” or some other emotional or mental health issue.

Then the lawyer or social worker can help develop a more appropriate service plan, because most parenting skills classes are not going to teach that. A parent might need a homemaker service through the Office of Mental Health, or some other support service where the parent and child learn life skills together.

Unless you have a really good advocate to sort that out, it can be hard to make sense of what you really need to achieve to get your children

A parent’s attorney should sort out what ACS or the agency is really concerned about, explain the holdup to their client, get their view on it,
and work to solve those issues by getting the parent the right services.

Other times, the attorney tries to get the agencies to understand that certain improvements they’d like to see might not happen, but that won’t necessarily mean the children will be at risk of harm.

For instance, when agencies are dealing with parents who are mentally ill, they often think, “They can’t be with their children, because we can never tell when they’ll decompensate [fall apart] again.” But there’s a lot of mentally ill people doing fine out there, and mental illness should not
be a barrier to reunification if the parent is getting the right services and has a plan for handling the situation if she starts to have problems again.

The attorney’s job is to say, “Hold it, this issue not going away, so how are we realistically going to deal with it?” Just because someone is mentally ill or mentally retarded, for example, doesn’t mean they can’t take care of their children with appropriate supports.

Q: How can parents work with lawyers to make sure the reunification succeeds?
A: When children end up coming back into foster care it’s often because there’s some failure in connecting to services. The plan is for a certain support to be in place, but it doesn’t get in place at the same time the children actually return home. A child might have some adjustment difficulties and the mom says, “I think my child could use more therapy, or
we both could,” but the first therapy appointment available is two months
away. That’s not going to work, but that’s a reality.

The best case scenario is for the lawyer and parent to sit down before
the child comes home and decide what supports are needed. You don’t want to have too many services or too few. At best, we’d also make sure the providers are appropriate. Just like someone might test two or three doctors or therapists before choosing a person to see, parents should go check out the agency, school, or clinic they’re expected to turn to.

Often the clients will accept whatever’s suggested, and agencies often don’t feel comfortable with people moving around and finding the best fit, but it’s important to do that if you can.

Sometimes, you also have to say, “Is this really the right thing to do? Do we want to slow the reunification

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