Q: What do parents have to do to be reunified with their children?
A: Once children are removed, the parents are given a list of tasks to complete called a case plan. The goal of the case plan will most often be reunification. Should reunification not be possible, the concurrent goal will be adoption or permanent guardianship. Occasionally, if the abuse is egregious enough, the Department of Children and Families may forego a case plan and go straight to court to seek a termination of parental rights.
The case plan must be agreed to by all parties: the parents, the department and the guardian ad litem. Parents may receive assistance from an attorney or other social service agency or may request mediation to assist with the preparation of the case plan. Parents can have the court appoint an attorney for them if they can't afford to hire one.
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All the parties will meet to discuss the proposed case plan and, when everyone has agreed to the terms of the case plan, all parties will sign off and the plan will be presented to the judge for approval. If the parties cannot reach agreement, the court will make the final determination as to which tasks are appropriate.
Time is of the essence. Remember, this is about the child who is the victim and deserves to have a safe and nurturing home as soon as possible.
The timeline for the case plan is designed to attain reunification as soon as possible. The law allows the parents 12 months to work their case plan. If, at nine months from the date the children were removed, the parents have failed to substantially comply with the case plan to which they agreed, the rights of the parents may be terminated.
The tasks in the case plan are designed to correct the conditions that brought the child into care. Most case plans will require the parents to provide financial support for the children while they are in the Department's care. This is accomplished by the parents establishing an account with child support enforcement.
Parents must maintain frequent visitation and/or communication with their children while the children are in the department's care. If the parents are incarcerated, they can send cards and write letters to their children.
Parents must also maintain monthly face-to-face contact with their case manager. If drugs or alcohol were issues that brought the child into care, the parents will undergo a substance abuse evaluation and comply with the
recommendations made. This will most likely mean the parents will have to submit to random drug screens that produce negative results. Failure to submit to a screen within a given time frame is considered a positive result.
If domestic violence was the issue that brought the children into care, then anger management and domestic violence intervention may be required. Parents are often required to take parenting classes.
To achieve reunification the parents will have to show that they can provide adequate housing and have adequate income to provide for the children.
The parents have complied with the case plan when the conditions that caused the removal have been significantly remedied to the extent that the wellbeing and safety of the children will not be endangered upon their return.
Some parents are able to complete their case plans in less than the time allowed. Others may struggle with the time frame. The court may be lenient on the time frame, but only to a limited extent and only if the parents are showing progress.
Pam Hindman, director of the Guardian ad Litem program for the 12th Judicial Circuit, writes this weekly column for the Herald. Readers who have questions for "ASK the GAL" about child abuse, foster care, child protection, adoption, or who might be interested in learning more how to become a GAL volunteer can e-mail Pam at email@example.com, or write to her at Guardian ad Litem Program, 1051 Manatee Ave. W, Hensley Wing, Suite 330, Bradenton 34205.