Most people are aware of the hearsay rule in court proceedings--in its most simplistic form the hearsay rule says that a person cannot testify to what someone else has said. There are a lot of exceptions but that's the basic rule. In child protection cases the hearsay rule is relaxed a bit at certain hearings due to the immediate need to protect a child from harm but for all of the major hearings and all judicial findings in a child protection case the normal rules of evidence apply except that the guardian ad litem can testify to what the child has said. I take that responsibility very seriously and try to be as accurate as possible not only in reporting what the child has said but in attaching appropriate significance to it. The purpose of the hearsay exception is to keep the child from having to confront an abusive parent in an adverse proceeding. There are many things that I have heard from children that I wish I could erase from my mind and the long and short of it is that there are parents out there that can think of ways to torture children that ordinary people could never imagine. But, that said, there are also parents who are overwhelmed, mentally ill, addicted, or just unaware of how to parent and those are the ones that I want to talk about today.
Federal law provides a framework for what the different states have adopted as their child protection statute and one of the changes that has gone into effect over the last ten years is that within a year of a child coming into state custody there has to be "permanancy". Prior to that law there were children who spend their entire childhood going from foster home to foster home. Now the law says that a child needs to reunifiy with a parent or be on track for adoption in roughly a year.
A year isn't very long for a parent to address an entrenched mental illness or an addiction but the child protection cases are focused on the needs of the children not the parents. A year is a very long time for a child to not know what is going to happen.
During the reunification year, specific services are identified to address whatever problems exist within the family, counseling is provided, parenting classes are provided, in-patient or out-patient substance abuse treatment, supervised visitation, homemaker services....and more. There are frequent meetings and court reviews during the year to measure progress and for some families as the year progresses it becomes likely that reunification will happen and slowly and carefully the child is placed back in the home to see how it all works while all the supports are in place and the court is still available to oversee it all. Some of those families are grateful for the intervention; some are resentful but still do the right things and jump through the essential hoops in order to get their children home.
Court-appointed Special Advocates are volunteers who do the same role as guardian ad litems. Usually in the areas where CASA are available there are attorneys who will volunteer their time to write necessary motions so that there is legal advocacy for the child as well. I do not really know much about the program in Maine because it does not reach into the mountainous and thinly populated western counties where I practice, but my sense is that people who work as CASAs find it very rewarding.
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 talk about what happens when the family is not able to reunify.