Ask the GAL: When is it safe to return abused, neglected children home?

September 26, 2012 

Q: When children become involved in dependency court after being removed from their families because of abuse and neglect, it isn't always appropriate for them to return home. What possible outcomes are there for the children?

A: Dependency court is a last resort for parents and their children. It is not meant to punish parents or their children, but to protect the children and rehabilitate parents and families. But when children are removed, situating them in a permanent, safe and secure home becomes a matter of immediate concern. Children need the security of a permanent placement, preferably with their parents, as soon as it is safe for them to be reunified.

Unfortunately, reunification with parents isn't always safe or in the best interest of the child.

The law in Chapter 39 of the Florida statutes provides a clear order of preference for the permanency goals available for the placement of children. In order of preference, they are:

n Reunification, when parents are able to remedy the situation that brought the children into care

n Adoption, once a termination of parental rights is completed

n Permanent guardianship

n Permanent placement with a fit and willing relative

n Placement in another planned permanent living arrangement

The court determines if the permanency goal for the child is appropriate. The preference of the child is considered if the court finds that the child has sufficient intelligence, understanding, and experience to express a preference. The court also takes into consideration the recommendation of the child's guardian ad litem when deciding on a permanency goal.

The system is designed to make every effort to help the parents be reunified with their children. The parents are given 12 months to correct the situation that brought the children into care, and often longer when parents are making progress. If reunification can't be done, then the next most permanent option for the children is adoption. Once children are adopted, the case is closed and the parents have lost their parental rights forever.

Often, when relatives or friends take custody of the child, they prefer not to adopt, but instead become permanent guardians, so that the parents can reopen their case when they are able to provide a safe home

for the child. The court retains jurisdiction in these cases until the child reaches the age of 18 or the child is reunified or adopted.

If a child's status is permanent guardianship, time plays an important role in placement with a fit and willing relative or another planned permanent living arrangement. If a parent petitions the court to reopen their case to regain custody of their child, they have to show that their problems have been remedied, and that reunification will not negatively impact the child's well-being, or physical and emotional health.

Before the court will reopen the parent's case, it will consider the stability and longevity of the child's current placement; the child's preference, if the child is old enough to express a preference; and the recommendations of the child's custodian and guardian ad litem.

Parents whose children are in permanent guardianship are still responsible for providing financial, medical and other support for the child.

The children also retain the right to inherit from their parents.

Pam Hindman, director of the Guardian ad Litem program for the 12th Judicial Circuit, writes this weekly column for the Bradenton Herald. Email her at askthegal@12gal.org, or write to the Guardian ad Litem Program, 1051 Manatee Ave. W., Hensley Wing, Suite 330, Bradenton 34205.

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