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.