If you are a parent who is DHS/Court involved, DHS is required to make reasonable efforts towards reunification. This typically involves offering an array of “services.” Some of these “offerings” are more like requirements: therapy, substance abuse treatments, etc. They are offers in the sense that they are designed to help you get healthy so you can safely parent your children, but they’re not really negotiable (unless you can demonstrate that contrary to DHS’ assertion, you don’t need those services).
Other services involve things like providing an FSRP worker (Family, Safety, Risk and Protection) to supervise visits so you can see your child, taking your child to therapy, etc. Finally, there are services that are designed to remove obstacles to reunification. These might include things like a bus pass, WalMart gift cards to buy clothes for the kids, and help filling out paperwork to get food and/or housing assistance.
Some things your attorney may request in the way of services will be deemed unreasonable, and the court will not require that DHS provide those services. For example, providing daycare assistance for your three-year-old might be considered reasonable, whereas paying for a nanny to come watch your teen while you are at work might not be. DHS does not have unlimited funds (and the amount the legislature gives them each year dwindles). Other things are not intended to be unlimited. For example, DHS can provide monthly bus passes, but not for the life of the case. It’s intended to be short-term; just long enough to get you to where you can provide for your own transportation.
At the beginning of the case, DHS may provide a number of services, and it is sometimes easy for parents to start to feel entitled to whatever they ask for. When DHS says no, I’ve seen some parents complain that DHS isn’t “helping” them enough. It’s important to remember to be grateful for what you are given, without expecting that you will be given everything you ask for. Services are designed to facilitate reunification—not provide for your every need or desire.
If DHS is truly not providing reasonable services, your attorney may file a motion asking the court to order the services you are requesting. And the court will typically ask you at each hearing if there are any other services you need. If you don’t ask, you cannot come back later and complain that DHS should have provided a service you didn’t request. While DHS will offer a number of things, it is up to you to ask for things you think you need, whether DHS has offered or not.
If a petition for termination of your parental rights has been filed, your attorney may argue that reunification has failed because DHS has failed to make reasonable efforts to help you reunify. Be aware that you will rarely win on this issue. The actions typically have to be pretty egregious for the court to grant this motion or deny TPR based on a lack of reasonable efforts. This is especially true if you are not doing your part to try to reunify with your children.
Finally, if you are not making reasonable progress towards reunification, and the court directs the county attorney’s office to file a petition to terminate your parental rights, it might also “waive reasonable efforts.” This means that DHS no longer has to provide services to you to try to help with reunification. It doesn’t usually mean they can’t, it just means they don’t have to. If you are not doing your part (e.g., refusing to go to therapy, not exercising visitation, not going to substance abuse treatment), the court is not going to require DHS to expend scarce resources to continue to try to help you.
The court wants you to successfully reunify with your children, and DHS can provide services and resources to help you do that. However, it is ultimately up to you to make the changes necessary to bring your family back together. If you are unwilling or unable to do that, you should not be surprised when the court terminates your rights. That may sound harsh, but the reality is that your kids need stability, consistency, and a home where they can grow and thrive. If you cannot provide that, the court and DHS will find one that can, because we want your children to have the best shot at growing up to be healthy, contributing adults.