In Early Child Welfare Decision Making, Time Is of the Essence

No issue is likely to generate more emotion than the relationship between a child and his mother. In P.D. Eastman’s famous children’s book, a newly-hatched duckling searches through a farmyard, poignantly asking various animals: “Are you my mother?”

One might juxtapose the foster child’s case manager searching for the right parent by asking the same question. Who is the real parent? The one who gave the child birth? Or the one who has cared for him and raised him?

The appropriate response to competing rights can be considered along a timeline, beginning as soon as charges of abuse or neglect are substantiated against birth parents. At that point, the state has the following options.

Maintain the Home Whenever Possible

Can in-home support and services be offered with regular monitoring that will remedy the problem? If safety can be assured, maintaining the birth home has several advantages. Children do best in a stable environment. Delay and multiple placements are avoided. Parent training can be best accomplished by keeping parent and child together. Connections with the family neighborhood and culture can continue. State and local agencies save money.

More personally, bonding can be honored. Even in an unsafe and insecure home, the child is probably bonded to his or her parents. Does the risk to safety and security outweigh the cost of separation and disrupting a critical relationship?

Immediate Plan for Reunification

Should staying in the birth home prove unworkable, case managers should provide birth parents with an immediate reunification plan within 24 hours of removal. It’s not complicated. Identify the specific reasons why the child was removed and target the alternative. This will suggest a “to do” list of the factors that need remediation. The birth parents are offered an immediate opportunity to demonstrate their amenability.

Each item should include a completion date. The initial plan can be modified to fit individual or changing circumstances. The plan should be co-signed by the birth parent(s) and the case manager. Here are six sample areas:

  • Health of the birth parent: This might include medical and psychological evaluation and treatment, drug screening, AA or alcohol education classes, etc.
  • Change of residence: A move to acceptable housing or separation from an abusive person may be needed.
  • Employment: The parent may need to find or hold a job.
  • Knowledge of the child: The case manager might require the parent to provide a developmental child history.
  • Parent training: This can be accomplished by attending classes, being observed by the CASA, volunteering time at a daycare center, etc.
  • Child visits: When safety can be assured, the time, place, and frequency of visitations should be specified. Attendance should be monitored.

Find Appropriate Kin

Placement with kin has some major advantages. The extended family is preserved. If the child already knows the relative, disruption is minimized. Even if the relative is heretofore unknown, the child may be spared a later permanency/adoption battle between a bonded foster parent and newly-discovered kin.

Unexamined relatives are sometimes seen as an easy answer by the state. One remedy may be for interested kin to undergo the same thorough home study required for the licensing of foster parents and for adoption.

Monitor Compliance Weekly

A plan is only good if it works. The case manager should check with the birth parent weekly. If the details have been clearly specified, compliance can be monitored. Either the task has been accomplished or not. Reunification should be based not on continuing hope, but on facts. Failure to comply within ASFA’s timely guidelines opens the door for another permanency option.

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Jim Kenny
About Jim Kenny 36 Articles
Jim Kenny is a retired psychologist with over 50 years of clinical experience. The author of 13 books on family and child care, Dr. Kenny’s recent books are Attachment and Bonding in the Foster and Adopted Child and What Foster Parents Need to Know.