Friday, December 5, 2008

Child Protection, Part I

I have spent the last two days in a hearing on a petition to terminate the parental rights of a couple. These are grave hearings--I do not believe that any court order short of a death penalty carries a more severe result and in Maine, we do not have the death penalty. No matter what the situation, we approach these hearings quietly, prepared and resolved in our positions, but with respect for the court, the law and the human beings involved.

A family becomes involved with the State or the child protection system usually because someone made a report of abuse or neglect to a child. The reports could come from a family member, a teacher, a doctor, a neighbor, a policeman....really from any one. The report is screened initially to be sure that there is some validity to it. If the report passes some minor threshold of validity it is referred to a protective social worker to investigate. Sometimes, the social worker finds that there is nothing to the referral, sometimes the social worker finds that there is some situational stress going on in the home and offers some sort of assistance to help the family get through the problem safely, other times the risk is more immediate and severe and in those cases the worker will file a petition with the court asking for immediate custody of the child or children. That's when I often get involved.

At the point the petition is signed and the child comes into state custody, all sorts of constitutional protections come into play for the family. Each parent is appointed legal counsel. If they have the means to pay for it, they may be ordered to reimburse the court for the cost or if they do not have the means to pay for it the counsel is paid for out of indigency funds through the court system. Additionally, the child is assigned an attorney called a guardian ad litem. The role of the guardian ad litem is to be the voice of the child in court, to do a investigation independent of the State's investigation and to make a written report and recommendation to the Court based on the child's best interest. The guardian ad litem is allowed to testify to what the child has said--an exception to the hearsay rule enacted to protect the child.

I am usually appointed as the guardian ad litem in a case but sometimes I am appointed to represent a parent. I like occasionally representing parents because it helps me remain objective and by seeing all sides of the process makes me more effective in either role.

Within a week or ten days of the child coming into state custody, the parents have the opportunity for a hearing on the petition and, in all but the most heinous cases, a reunification plan is figured out and everyone begins working toward making that happen. Reunification plans are specifically tailored to meet the needs of the family involved and to address the risk or dangers that were present when the child was removed. I think of the reunification plans as a roadmap of what the parents need to do in order to have their family intact and free from the scrutiny of the State.

If you have questions, feel free to leave them in comments and I will try and answer them in the next post--fortunately, this is a subject that most people are not familiar with even though it may affect the family next door or in the next pew.

Tomorrow, I will write about the reunification process and all that goes into trying to rebuild a family before a termination petition is filed.


Jayne said...

The responsibility you carry must feel so heavy at times Beth. Whew. I am sure there are times when you know in your gut that the parents should not have custody and yet, like you said, reunification has to be the goal unless the situation is clear cut. Bless you for doing this work and thanks for helping us understand it more fully.

Jan said...

Hi Beth,
Amity's mom here. Having had foster children and been involved with these kinds of cases I know what it is that you do. Our FKs had both good guardian ad litums and poor ones. Thanks for being attentive and doing a good job.
Jan better known as mabeane

Beth said...

Jayne, like I told you after you were on the jury in the child maltreatment case--you will never be the same. I'm forever changed from the cases that I have heard and while I often envy others their naivete I am glad to be on the front lines trying to help.

Jan, thank you for commenting. Your daughter is a joy and a testament to good parenting, I'm sure that the foster children you nurtured were very fortunate. P.S., I love your dolls--if Santa is reading this--I'm not too old for a doll for Christmas.

Weather Boy said...

I'd heard that guardians ad litem were the only ones legally allowed to have hearsay evidence admitted; is it only the word of the child that can be admitted, or can a GAL also admit testimony from other people connected to the case?

The Texican said...

Working the other side is a good way to prevent tunnel vision. I have on occasion investigated for the defense, and it does erase some of your bias. Looking forward to the next installment. Pappy

beckie said...

Beth, an excellent job of explaining how the sysytem works. I have a niece who takes in foster children and we have discussed a lot of the hows and whys. I admire her and you for your courage. You both must be very strong.

Anonymous said...

Beth, as a teacher, I see students who are being parented in ways that just plain don't work. It's easy to think that they should be removed from their parents until you talk to the child. The most damaged child I've worked with to date loved his mother fiercely and could not handle any criticism of her. Reunification with proper guidance and direction and instruction is so important . . . at least to try! Thanks for doing such incrediably hard work!

Ruth said...

I will have to check if our system in Canada works in a similar fashion. In cases of reported child abuse, children are sometimes removed from the home until the court comes to a verdict. It is very traumatic for the children to be removed suddenly, even from a questionable home. I have read about recent cases in our province where the parents were found not guilty and the children were returned and others where the children were not removed and died. What a great responsibility you have!

Beth said...

I loved reading this....and the memories it brought back to me so quickly, as if they had all happened yesterday.

I think you know that I was a CASA for 3 years in indiana...court appointed special advocate....and I loved it !!! Some people did refer to us GAL, but since I was only a volunteer with extensive training, I always told them that I was a CASA and NO...I don't get paid for what I do...I do what I do because I love these kids and I want them to be safe !!!

I spent so many days in court with so many different cases, but I loved working with those kids !! They will forever hold a special place in my heart !!

Thank you for what you do {and I wish everyone had the knowledge to really KNOW what it is you are doing} AND I wish our system here allowed for me to continue doing what I love....but they just don't get it here in wisconsin !!

I'll be ready to read your next post.....and to see how things are going.

{also, jonatha was GREAT at squam and to see her again and give her a big hug and talk with her....HEAVEN !!!!}

Anonymous said...

I found your post interesting and helpful. In the Victim Relief Ministry I work for as a volunteer chaplain, I have observed our case manager help crime victims whose cases include child abuse and custody issues. We also help provide trained mental health professionals for the children. We also act as advocates in court proceedings for the victims. Our ministry was called in by the state of Texas to help with the victims in the West Texas polygamy sect cases. It was quite draining and traumatic for our personnel who ministered to these young mothers and their children. Very complicated problems and issues.

Rondi said...

Thank you for sharing this. AS a fairly new principal, I have only had limited exposure and experience with situations like this. I appreciate your clear explanation. It has helped me understand quite a lot about one particular situation that is on-going with three children in our school. Children need people like you! But then so do parents.

KGMom said...

Beth--while your responsibility is awesome (in the truest sense), thank goodness caring people such as you ARE involved.