Who are the major players? Eight different parties have important roles to play as the welfare of the child in care is considered and worked out. They are the birth parents, foster parents, the child, case managers, the child advocate, mental health professionals, attorneys and the judge.
Reunification with the birth parents in almost all cases is the first goal after removal. Sometimes birth parents are lulled by inertia or a sense of entitlement. They may think: “This is my child. How dare the state take my child away! They will have to give him back so long as I don’t do anything really bad.” Instead, the birth parents should demand an early case plan and get started at once on remedying the reasons for removal.
The foster parents are the ones providing the day-by-day care. They have the best first-hand knowledge of the child’s progress and well-being. Yet they are the only ones without legal standing. Consequently the first-hand knowledge which only they can provide is frequently unheard.
The school-age child is too often overlooked as an important participant. Children need to be engaged at an appropriate level in planning their own welfare. Children of school-age can sabotage a placement. Teens may fight permanence with the fantasy that emancipation means they will be free to do whatever they want. Getting them involved early can contribute to success in achieving permanence.
Case managers hold the central coordinating position. They have the basic legal responsibility for the placement of the child, convening the players, the development of the case plan, monitoring compliance and making recommendations to the court. They need to understand the danger of delay and may benefit from additional training in child development.
A Court-Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) or Guardian ad Litem (GAL) is often selected by the court to represent the best interests of the child. The court recognizes that the birth parents, foster parents and case managers may all have differing personal agendas. The job of the CASA/GAL is to consider matters from the child’s point of view and so inform the court. To do this job well, the CASA/GAL must spend time with the child both in the home and at school. Knowing the child well is critical to providing informed recommendations.
Mental health professionals, while not major players, may have important roles to play. Psychologists and MSW social workers may be asked to perform a bonding evaluation, a psychological evaluation of the birth parents, or an adoption home study. They may be involved in treating the various childhood mental illnesses, including attachment and adjustment disorders, developmental delay, learning disorders and others. Therapists and psychologists should understand bonding and be current on the latest research to back up their recommendations in court.
Attorneys represent the various parties considering the child’s placement options. The welfare department and CASA may each have their own attorneys. The birth parents will (or should) have an attorney. The foster parents may bring an attorney and file a “motion to intervene.” And in a competing adoption, the potential parents will each have their own attorneys. Predictably the number of competing parties and interests creates a formula for maneuvering and delay. Perhaps it is hoping too much that the attorneys will be eager to serve the child by expediting matters.
The court has the final word. The judge has the task of organizing the contestants, considering the many motions and listening to all the evidence. Finally, the judge must make the decision that will impact and change the child’s entire life. The judge must move with both wisdom and relative speed.
Planning for children in temporary care can and should involve all of the parties: the foster parents, the mental health professionals, the case manager, and the court. How each of these players can help achieve the desired outcome of early permanence in the best and most appropriate home is the focus of the next six chapters.