Early on a cloudy February morning, streets slick with the steady drip of rain, a few figures are starting to make the climb up the hill to the teeming nerve center of family crisis in Los Angeles County.
At the top of the hill, the Edmund D. Edelman Children’s Court is home to daily struggles of the 34,000 children and their families who are caught up in the county’s child welfare system. It’s here that attorneys and judges must make the painful and lasting decisions about whether to separate children who are alleged victims of parental abuse and neglect.
Judge Zeke Zeidler’s courtroom is one of eight on the third floor, all of which open into a large room that one dependency court lawyer likens to an airport hangar. Worn furniture and simple tables play host to a steady stream of parents pushing strollers, with grandparents and other family members often in tow.
The crowded halls of Los Angeles County’s dependency courts are some of the busiest in the country, according to attorneys there. Judge Zeidler currently has a caseload of about 1,100. Parental defense attorneys in the county have about 171 cases each, and attorneys for children have a bit more, a caseload of 188 per attorney.
It’s not a full hour into the morning before Judge Zeidler makes a decision that could forever change the arc of a family appearing in his courtroom.
Zeidler takes up the case of a mother who has lost custody of her daughter because of a methamphetamine addiction that has caused her to slip into homelessness. Her young daughter is currently living with the mother’s sister. The girl’s father has disappeared, whereabouts unknown.
This hearing is meant to be a six-month review of the mother’s progress in fulfilling the tasks the court has ordered her to accomplish in order to get her daughter back. And the news is not good.
The mother, who is not in court today, is no longer attending parenting classes or making any attempt to stay clean, according to the attorney representing the county and social workers from its Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS). And this puts termination of reunification services on the table, a sad first step toward the complete loss of parental rights for mom.
Like the other attorneys sitting at a row of tables in front of Zeidler, a small forest of manila folders is stacked up in front of the young female attorney representing the mother. She concedes that the mother is out of compliance with her case plan, but says that she is still in her daughter’s life, visiting her every two weeks. Despite her challenges, the mother has told her sister that she is still planning to get her act together and reunify with her daughter.
But the attorney for the daughter and her counterpart representing DCFS counter that while the mother is following visitation guidelines previously issued by the court, she has skipped out on drug testing and has stopped showing up for a program that is supposed to help her get clean.
Soon thereafter, Zeidler delivers the lines that parents in this situation dread.
“There is not a likelihood or probability of return to the mother in the next six months,” he says. “Family reunification services are terminated for the mother.”
Now, he says, an alternate plan must be made for the child. In 120 days time, she’ll be placed on a track toward adoption, guardianship or another planned permanent living arrangement. The court is already envisioning a future in which the child will be permanently separated from her mother.
The whole scene took little more than six minutes. It is one of 23 cases, involving 38 children, that Zeidler will hear today.
Termination of reunification services is often a prelude to cutting legal ties between parents and their children in California. It’s an acknowledgment that the court no longer believes that the children can be safely returned within a 12-month window.
That can actually be a good thing for parents in some cases, according to Emily Berger, a supervising attorney with the Los Angeles Dependency Lawyers, the organization that represents parents in the county’s dependency court.
“Sometimes when a parent hears termination of reunification services, that’s the wake-up call they need,” Berger said.
After reunification services have been terminated, parents still have a chance to file a petition in four months time to demonstrate a “change in circumstances,” showing that they are now on a path toward fulfilling the goals of their case plan. If that appeal is successful, a judge may grant an extra six months of reunification services or even return the children to the parents.
Unfortunately, making that sort of progress is difficult after the termination of reunification services. DCFS no longer has to pay for services for parents, such as the cost of drug testing or anger management classes. Other supports are also cut off, like transportation to help parents visit their children.
Parents may continue to pursue these services, but they won’t have the help of DCFS.
Some parents may be hard-pressed to display a “change in circumstances” over the course of 120 days, even if they are motivated to do so. According to Berger, the wait list is very long for services like free individual counseling programs in L.A. County. And not all parents involved with the child welfare system can afford to shoulder those expenses.
“For parents who have resources, completing these case plans is not really a problem, it’s just a matter of paying for the therapy and getting their child,” Berger said. “But for parents who don’t have the money, it’s not so easy.”
*This article was amended to note that the child’s permanency planning hearing will take place in 120 days, not six months time.
This story is a part of a new Chronicle series called “Hearings,” where our reporters and guest contributors provide an inside look at how child welfare courts function.
In about half the states in the country, child welfare proceedings are closed to the public and media – despite the fact that they are places where children enter foster care; where families are ripped apart, sometimes put back together and otherwise – through adoption – made anew.
If you are a judge, parent, foster youth, attorney or an advocate for families … we want to hear from you. Share a story from a recent dependency court experience that you believe speaks to a problem or a success story.
Anonymity may be granted depending on the nature of your contribution. Our intent with this – and all Chronicle projects – is to ethically cover the child welfare system, which often means protecting the names and identities of children and families caught up in it.