The Importance of Non-Custodial Parents

In CINA cases, the goal is generally to return to the parent from whom the child was removed. That means that even if the children are removed from mom and placed with (noncustodial) dad, the goal is still to return to mom. Because of that, many non-custodial dads are reluctant to fully engage in the services DHS is requesting; the thinking is, “why bother, when they’re just going to return the kids to mom?” This is often true whether the kids are placed with the noncustodial parent or not. However, this position ignores a very real possibility—that mom will not be able to safely reunify with her kids. In that case, the court first looks to the noncustodial parent for placement and, ultimately, permanency. That’s harder if the noncustodial parent has just been “skating” along, doing the bare minimum.

Sometimes the reunification can’t take place because the custodial parent relapses. But I have also seen cases where the custodial parent dies of an overdose. These can happen unexpectedly, so no matter how well the custodial parent seems to be doing, I always encourage my non-custodial parent clients to do what they’re asked to do. If they don’t, they are also at risk of having their parental rights terminated if the custodial parent is unable to reunify. 

Even if the court does not go right to TPR (termination of parental rights), the noncustodial parent now has a much steeper climb. S/he has to explain to the court why s/he didn’t do anything all along. And the excuse, “I didn’t think this would happen. I thought they would go back to [custodial parent]” doesn’t fly with most judges. They want both parents to be actively engaged in the case. The more consistent you are in engaging in those services, the more comfortable the court is in placing the kids with you. You will have a longer history of demonstrating to the court that you are a safe and appropriate placement for your child. 

So if you are a noncustodial parent, please do the things the court and DHS are asking you to do right from the start—even if you don’t think the child(ren) will be coming to you. These cases are unpredictable, and you never know what might happen, even at the end. As the saying goes, “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.” 

And—the things they are asking you to do will only strengthen your parenting skills and relationship with your child. Why wouldn’tyou do that?

Concurrent Jurisdiction vs. a Bridge Order

Today I want to speak briefly about the difference between concurrent jurisdiction and a bridge order. Both involve work by the family law court, but they are different things, used in different situations. 

CINA cases are in juvenile court. Dissolutions of Marriage (i.e., divorce) are in family law court. If you try to file a divorce while you are in the middle of a CINA case, the family law court will wait until the juvenile case is over, or until it is granted concurrent (“at the same time”) jurisdiction to make its decision. The CINA case in juvenile court is a higher priority. 

When you get to the end of a CINA case, and the children could be returned to either/both parents, but the parents want to get divorced, the juvenile court grants concurrent jurisdiction. The CINA case does not yet close, but the parties are allowed to file their dissolution action. The family law court will then make all the usual determinations—child support, custody and visitation, property divisions, etc. 

If the parents are not married, and do not have a preexisting court order regarding custody and visitation, then under the same circumstances (i.e., reaching the end of the case, and either/both parent is a safe parent), then the court can issue a bridge order. This allows the case to go to family law court as well, but only to determine custody and visitation. Because the parents are not married, there is no property division to determine. Child support is also not addressed in the bridge order, but can be established through child support recovery. The nice thing about the bridge order is that the filing fees are waived; the “bridge” order provides a limited (i.e., custody and visitation only) connection between the two cases (juvenile and family law). 

However, if there is a preexisting order, a Bridge Order is not an option. It’s possible that you would be able to just abide by the previous order, but if not, you will have to file a modification order in family law court. This could happen if, for example, mom previously had primary physical care of the children, but now they will be placed with dad.

With a bridge order, the CINA case will close once the transfer to family law court is complete. 

With concurrent jurisdiction, the CINA case will not close until the dissolution decree is filed. There is typically a 90-day waiting period from the date of filing the Dissolution Petition until the court will grant the divorce, and many cases may take longer than that. Because of this, the CINA case stays open longer with concurrent jurisdiction than it does with a Bridge Order.

To Appeal or Not To Appeal…

If you are a parent involved with DHS/Juvenile court, this may be a difficult post for you to read. It’s also probably worth repeating that blog posts generally, and this one specifically, are not legal advice, and that every case (including yours) is different. But I thought it was important to share this with you. 

If you are unable to do what DHS and the court are asking you to do, within the time frame required by the law, the county attorney’s office will likely file a petition asking the court to terminate your parental rights (“TPR”). This does not mean that the court believes you will never be able to do those things; it’s just that at a certain point, we have to start focusing on the child’s need for a permanent, stable home. We cannot allow them to live in limbo indefinitely, because that kind of uncertainty is not good for kids. 

Everyone involved in the process, whether attorneys, DHS workers, FSRP workers, or the court understands how painful this can be for everyone involved. It’s true that most of us have not personally experienced this struggle (though there are those who were involved in the system as a child). However, we’ve seen it happen often enough that we are certainly not oblivious to it. So we do not take a TPR lightly. And we still want you to continue to try to fix the situations that brought you to juvenile court, whether it was a substance use disorder, domestic violence, mental health, or something else. Part of the reason for that is because there is a possibility (not a requirement) that even after the TPR, you might be able to have a relationship with your child(ren). But that can only happen if you are doing well, and probably with a therapist. Because we don’t want to traumatize your child all over again.

When your case is open, you are in state district court. The court system is like a hierarchy; district court is the first level. Above that is the state Court of Appeals, and above thatis the state Supreme Court. After the TPR is granted by the district court, you have a right to appeal that decision, typically to the Court of Appeals. Most of the time (but not all of the time), the district court’s decision is affirmed. In other words, the Court of Appeals said the District Court made the right decision to terminate parental rights. Although your attorney can’t guarantee any particular result, she can tell you whether she thinks you have “a chance” at getting the decision reversed (i.e., changed). If the Court of Appeals agrees with the district court, you can still ask the Supreme Court to look at the decisions and issue its own ruling.

Keep in mind that neither the Court of Appeals or the Supreme Court will usually make a separate decision; they will simply affirm or reverse the lower court’s ruling. If they affirm the lower court’s ruling, the ruling stands. If they reverse it, it will typically go back down to the district court to allow them to correct whatever legal error it was determined to have made. That does not necessarily mean that the ultimate decision will be any different. It just means that a higher court thinks the lower one made a mistake that might have affected the outcome, so the district court needs to take another look after they have corrected the mistake.

Again, you have the right to appeal most of those decisions, though not indefinitely or repeatedly. But as the saying goes, “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.”

Some parents appeal because they somehow think this demonstrates their love for their kids. As though they will never stop “fighting” for their kids. And if the court has made a mistake, that might be the right path to take. But I don’t think parents realize that notappealing can also be an act of love.

You know how pregnant women sometimes give up their children for adoption because they know that they cannot give their child the life he or she deserves? They do that not because they don’t love the child, but because they do. They put the child’s best interests ahead of their own desire to raise their child, because they know the child will benefit. It’s harder in a TPR case, because the parent has raised the child, sometimes for a number of years, but it’s the same concept. Recently, I heard of a woman who was incarcerated who made the statement, “[T]he hardest thing for me was knowing that another woman could parent my child better than I could.” Yet she had the courage to let her child go, to allow him to be adopted by a family that was safe, stable, and that could give him opportunities that she couldn’t.

But don’t misunderstand; while resources certainly make life easier, love and the ability to safely care for your child are the things that the court cares about—not how much money you have in the bank. 

You may think that appealing every step of the way is demonstrating your love for your child, because you are fighting for them. But sometimes letting go is the greater act of love. Kids need to know where they are going to be living, and who is going to take care of them. Unless the court has made an obvious legal error, the only thing an appeal does as a practical matter is drag out the process and the uncertainty for the child. And they do not necessarily look at your appeals as “fighting for them.” Sometimes it makes them angry; their perception is, “Why did you wait until now to ‘fight for us,’ when it’s too late? Why didn’t you fight for us earlier, when it would have made a difference?” One client I had, when she learned that her father had appealed, said, “Why can’t he just let me be happy?” She loved her dad, but she knew he wasn’t able to take care of her at that point, or in the foreseeable future. She wanted to move forward with her life and be adopted by a family that was able to care for her.

Again, your case may be different. Your kids may want you to fight right up to the bitter end. But I would suggest you at least considerwhether deciding not to appeal might be the right decision for your kids. Even if it’s hard for you. 

If you want to fight for something, fight for yourself; your own health, your own safety, and your own self-worth. If you are able to successfully do that, the relationship with your kids has a greater chance of being repaired.

Don’t Hide

One of the things that I see often in the parents I work with is shame. They may or may not articulate it, but most are ashamed of the actions that caused them to lose temporary custody of their children. Shame causes all of us to withdraw; we don’t want anyone to know what has happened. But if you are involved in a CINA case and have had your children removed—we (the professionals) already know. We know your kids have been removed. We know why they’ve been removed. We may not know everything that brought you to that point, but what we don’t know, we likely suspect. This isn’t because we’re somehow spying on you, but because these cases are distressingly similar. 

If you have a substance use disorder, we likely know when you’re using, due to “behavioral indicators.” When you give us all the reasons why you haven’t yet gone to treatment, we know that it’s really because you’re overwhelmed and afraid. It’s not because of insurance, or your job, or anything else, even though those things might also be a problem. We know about domestic violence, so we understand why you don’t leave, even though it’s imperative that you do. We have been trained in recognizing trauma and working with a trauma-informed care model. We’ve gone to training about brain development, mental health, fetal alcohol syndrome, secondary and vicarious trauma, and a whole host of things that you might never guess. 

And we know you hide. But please, please do not do that. We cannot help you if the only time you show up is for court and family team meetings. 

If you don’t feel safe in the courtroom, tell us; we can help. We can help you find a domestic violence advocate (Children & Families of Iowais a great start), we can do the hearing with closed-circuit television, or even something as simple as putting ourselves between you and your abuser when sitting in the courtroom.

If you need help getting into treatment, getting protective daycare for your kids, or finding a therapist, let us know; we can help. DHS and your FSRP worker have lists of people who can help you. 

If you need housing resources, transportation assistance, or food assistance; we can help. If you need a job but have a criminal record that makes it difficult, we will tell you that Iowa Works(f/k/a Iowa Workforce Development) has a list of employers that are willing to work with people who have that background, as well as provide other assistance and training to help you obtain employment. 

But we cannot help if we don’t know.

Unfortunately, some of the help is a short-term solution for a long-term problem. A bus pass will help you this month, but the question is, what will you do next month? DHS does not have unlimited bus passes, but even if they did, at a certain point they will be out of your life. And then you have to figure it out on your own. So while you are court-involved, take advantages of all the ways that DHS, FSRP, and your attorney can help you. Now is not the time to hide. 

DHS provides a case plan to the court early on, and then updates that via monthly reports. The problem is, the plan is only designed to get you to reunification. It is, of course, really important to have that plan in place so that you know exactly what you need to do in order to have your children returned to you. However, once the case is closed, whether due to reunification, termination of parental rights (“TPR”), or guardianship, the plan stops and so does the professional support. 

Some of these things are a part of the ongoing case plan, of course. DHS and the courts will usually want you to find employment, for example. Once you have a job, the assumption is that that will continue after the case closes. They ask you to have safe, reliable transportation. If you can’t afford a vehicle, you’re still going to have to budget for public transportation (assuming you live in a large enough city that there is a public transportation system). Although you may have friends or family willing to help you with transportation, they will not likely want to do that forever (or certainly not for free). 

Housing is something else that is essential to reunification, but sometimes our families end up in places they can’t afford, which results in eviction. If you are receiving housing assistance that is temporary, work with your case worker to make sure that when the assistance ends, you can still afford your home. 

If you are in therapy, it’s probably a good idea for that to continue even after the case closes. In fact, it may be even more important at that point, because it may be one of the few professional supports available to you. And, if any of the stressors that landed you in DHS/Court begin to arise, your therapist can help you address that early on so you don’t end up in court again. 

The point is, you do not want to get complacent while court-involved, and then suddenly are scrambling when all those services stop. Build your connections, resources, and support system while you have help. And no matter how much shame you may feel, no matter how afraid you may be, don’t hide. Ask for help. If you’re not sure what you need, tell us that, and we can help you figure it out. 

We want you to succeed, and we do not want you to ever go through this again. We want a safe, strong family for you and your kids, and we want their forever home to be yours. 

Domestic Violence and Trauma Informed Care in the Polk County Justice Center

This month, I attended a Model Court Training Session regarding trauma-informed care and domestic violence. There are half-sheetsfor attorneys practicing in juvenile court that can be found in the resources section of this site, as well as in the courtrooms. But following are some of the things you may not know about the Justice Center and its response to trauma-informed care/domestic violence.

  • There is a domestic violence advocate on siteTuesday, Thursday, and Friday mornings. Her name is Sharonand her phone number is 515-205-4862. Other advocates are available by contacting Children and Families of Iowa Domestic Violence Center at 515-243-6147. 
  • Courtroom 210 has a closed-circuit television. That means that if someone does not feel safe being in the same courtroom as their abuser, one party and his/her attorney can be in the courtroom, and the other party and attorney can be in a conference room; both can participate in the hearing, just from different spaces. This is available regardless of who your judge is (but you do need to ask). 
  • There are Polk County deputies who are available to escort parties and attorneys when necessary. 
  • If you are abused, but don’t feel the need to be in separate rooms, you still do not need to sit next to your abuser, or in his/her line of sight. 

For attorneys:

  • Please ask your client if s/he feels safe when s/he comes to court. It’s better to ask beforeyou come to court, however, because some victims/survivors will say they feel safe, just to avoid issues. And make sure your client knows the options s/he has, because many people are not aware of the options they have. 
  • When the court is scheduling the next hearing, you may want to think about whether you want to schedule that on a day/time when the domestic abuse advocate is in the courthouse, and whether you want to request the closed-circuit courtroom. While the court will do what it can to accommodate you, even with short notice, it’s always better if you can give them a little advance notice. 
  • Become familiar with the “power and control” wheel. I have been in hearings where the abuser was emotionally abusing the survivor while on the stand, testifying. The judge was aware of this, and made note of it in his ruling, but it may have been helpful if the attorney had made a record of it and asked the judge to stop it while it was happening.

We do not want survivors of domestic violence to be re-traumatized every time they go to court. While all of these options are not going to solve the problem entirely, they cango a long way to helping survivors feel supported and a bit safer when they are in the Justice Center.


DisclaimerThis post is about faith and the role it may or may not play in a family’s journey towards reunification. It does not espouse any particular faith, nor is there any intent to suggest that any expression of faith is necessary for reunification. Finally, please do not get caught up in names (“God”) or pronouns and miss sight of the bigger point. 

Last fall, I was reading an FSRP report that was describing what took place at various visits. On this particular visit, the family (biological parent and children) sat down to dinner, and the parent encouraged one of the children to say grace. The child obediently bowed his head and prayed. But then he added that whatever happened (with regard to the case) was “Your [God’s] will.” I immediately sat straight up and thought, “No, no, no, no!”

Tearing children from their parents is never God’s will and teaching a child that everything that happens is “God’s will” can be harmful. It begs the question—“If God loved me, why would He do this to me?” and it gives the child one more “person” to target with his/her anger. At the time of this child’s prayer, the family was hurtling towards TPR (termination of parental rights) because parents were not engaging in services; services they desperately needed, including substance abuse treatment, mental health therapy, and domestic violence intervention. Suggesting that TPR is “God’s will” suggests that the parents bear no responsibility for the outcome. Because even if God’s vision is for the family to be healed and reunified, it’s not going to happen if parents aren’t doing the work necessary to make that happen. And it’s not ok to just shrug and say, “Oh, well. I guess it wasn’t God’s will that we were able to reunify.” 

Faith—and faith communities—can be a tremendous support for families. One of the greatest dangers in falling prey to a substance use disorder is social isolation. Faith communities can protect against this by building relationships and connections, and providing a safe space for families to land. They can often provide tangible supports, such as financial assistance, transportation, or other types of ministries (clothing closets, food pantries, etc.). 

Faith communities and belief can also be protective. One client once told her worker that she would never commit suicide because she believed it to be a sin. Whether you believe that to be true or not, her belief in the truth of that statement helped keep her alive.

And belief in something bigger than yourself has been proven to contribute to happiness. Faith communities can help provide coping strategies and act as a support system for prosocial behaviors.

Of course, faith communities are not the only ones that can provide these kinds of supports. But they are something people are familiar with, there are churches, synagogues, and other houses of worship in most communities, and they serve all ages and (if they’re doing it right) all kinds of people. 

However, there are some potential problems as well. The “God’s will” statement is just one. The potential for judgment and/or exclusion is another, though I would say that if this is an issue, don’t quit church altogether; just find a different one. Additionally, churches are not always well-versed in trauma informed care, so may not be prepared to manage or address some of the issues CINA families may be dealing with. Of course, just showing up for services will not have as great an impact as becoming actively involved in a church, synagogue, temple or mosque. People cannot help and support you if they don’t know you need their help and support. 

But please, parents—do notteach your children that everything that happens is “God’s will.” It will push kids farther away from God when things don’t go well (instead of faith being a support) and it also teaches them that they have no control over their life, which is not true. Whether parents are a follower of a particular spiritual faith or not, they still have to do the work.

Jumping Through Hoops

A while back, I was at a family team meeting (“FTM”), and a mom had a meltdown because she thought she was going to be able to have overnights soon with her son. Keep in mind that DHS never gives an unqualified promise that this will happen; it’s usually couched in terms of, “If things continue to go well…” But of course, parents don’t hear that part. Or else their definition of “things going well” differs from DHS’ definition. Unfortunately, they often tell their kids that something is going to happen, and then when it doesn’t, it looks like another broken promise. That’s why I always caution my parents to not make those kinds of promises. There are too many variables to guarantee it.

In this case, there were some behavioral issues in the child that were showing up at school after increased visits with mom. Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean that mom is doing anything wrong. Our little people have trouble managing their emotions sometimes, whether good or bad, and this will often show up in undesirable behavior. In those situations, we usually want to slow down the process a bit to give them time to adjust and adapt. This isn’t about the parent—it’s about the child, which is, of course, our primary concern.

But that was not mom’s perspective. She felt like she had (in her words), “jumped through all the hoops” that DHS had required, and still wasn’t getting overnight visits. DHS tried to explain that this wasn’t a reward/punishment thing, but mom was clearly not hearing that—or at least not believing it.

The thing is, both of them were right.

I tell my parents at the beginning of a case that they have the greatest influence over the outcome of the case. If they do everything that DHS and the court are asking them to do, there is usually no reason why they shouldn’t get their kids back. At its most basic, then, we are telling parents that if you do X, you will be “rewarded” with Y (the return of your children). If you don’t do X, you will be “punished” by having your parental rights terminated. But that’s not exactly right.

The reason we ask parents to do certain things is not to simply make them “jump through hoops” to earn back their children. It’s to help them become healthy so their children can be safely returned to them. We need to do a much better job at explaining whythey are being asked to do these things, because their understanding of the “why” can fundamentally change how they approach the “what.”

If you ask them why they are being asked to do certain things, and their response is, “Because DHS told me to,” then you know they have the wrong “why.” This response indicates an external motivation, rather than an internal inspiration.

Craig Groeschel describes the difference between motivation and inspiration this way: Motivation suggests that (in this case) DHS is pushing parents to do something they don’t want to do. Inspiration, on the other hand, is a pull towards a desirable result that is internally driven. External motivation is far less sustainable over the long term than internal inspiration.

If parents are doing something “because DHS told [them] to do it,” then as soon as the case closes and DHS is out of the picture, they will stop doing whatever “it” is (e.g., therapy, substance use after care, etc.). They run the risk of falling back into old habits, which can sometimes result in another removal.

If parents are doing something because they want to get (and remain) healthy and successfully parent their kids, they will keep doing what they know helps them get and stay healthy, even when DHS is no longer in the picture.

Mom’s lament that she was jumping through hoops but never getting overnight visits suggests she is doing things from the “external motivation” side of things. She needs to rethink the “why” of what she is doing from a different perspective so she can focus on taking actions that are best for the child, rather than just checking things off a list.

Now, that doesn’t mean that it’s never appropriate to challenge DHS “foot-dragging.” They are overworked and often overly cautious. But I always try to challenge it in the context of what’s best for the family. In other words, to say, “You have asked my client to do X, Y, and Z, and he’s done all three of those things successfully, which demonstrates that he is able to safely parent his child and should get increased visits.”This acknowledges the “hoops,” but within the context of the larger goal of the child’s safety and best interests.

If you are an attorney or a DHS worker, make sure the parents know and understand the “why” behind what you are asking them to do. While it may be self-evident to you, it may notbe to the parent who views DHS as the adversary who has taken his or her child.

Transitioning out of DHS/Court Involvement

Oftentimes, parents can’t wait to have DHS (and everyone else associated with their DHS/Court Involvement) out of their life—and understandably so. It’s months, if not years, of having people scrutinizing your life, your choices, and your relationships. But sometimes, when all that support, and yes, all that scrutiny, suddenly goes away, parents struggle. And sometimes relapse.

Recently, a parent in our state did just that—and died, a mere week after the child was returned and the case closed. It was heartbreaking for the family and the professionals working with that family. It’s always a good day when you get to reunify children with their parents. But when they relapse and die shortly thereafter…

Here are some thoughts I have about safely transitioning out of DHS/Court-Involvement:

  1. If you were doing therapy during your court case, don’t stop just because your case closes. That extra support will be really important to you as you transition from an open case to a closed one. Your therapist can also alert you if s/he sees behavior that may lead you down a path you shouldn’t be going down.
  2. Continue after care treatment programs. This might be AA or NA, or something else, but again, the additional support will be vital for your success.
  3. If you have a substance use disorder, stay away from the people you were using with. I don’t care how committed you are to your sobriety, you cannot rely on willpower alone. You must change habits, people, and sometimes even the environment that triggers the behavior leading to using. That may sound harsh, but your health and the safety of your children are more important than “friends” you use with.
  4. If you have been involved in a domestic violence relationship, you hopefully have a domestic violence advocate. That person can help you stay safe and out of those types of relationships. Relationship violence is not healthy, and it’s unlikely the abuser will change without intensive intervention, no matter how many promises he makes, or how sincere she sounds. And it can lead to another removal—or worse.
  5. Make new, positive friends, and stay connected to your family, if they’re healthy. The parents I see who are most likely to be successful both during the process and afterwards are those who have a strong, positive support system. This should likely include professionals, but should also include non-professionals. In addition to family and friends, you can build relationships with coworkers, other parents from your kids’ school or extra-curricular activities, at a church, synagogue, mosque, or other house of faith, or places where you might volunteer.
  6. Focus on your kids. If you find yourself struggling to parent them, you can take a parenting class (many are free, and there is a list on the resources page). Additionally, figure out what respite care might look like before you need it. Who could you call to watch your kids so you could have a break?
  7. Don’t try to do everything alone. In case you haven’t noticed, much of this post is about support—professionals, non-professionals, groups, etc. Raising kids is hard; don’t try to do it all on your own. Ask for help when you need it.

Reasonable Efforts

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.





CINAs for Children with Significant Mental Health Issues

Lately I’ve been working on several cases where the kids involved have had significant mental health issues—issues severe enough that they can no longer remain in the home. The diagnoses are different, but I am seeing other patterns that are similar, and thought I would share some of my observations. Following are the Top 10things I think it’s important to know if you are a parent of a child with significant mental health issues.

  1. “Great” is a relative term. If a child has cerebral palsy, and the doctor says he’s doing “great,” we know that great means something different for this child than it does for a child without cerebral palsy. Likewise, if a child has a diagnosis of PTSD (Post-traumatic stress disorder), RAD (Reactive Attachment Disorder), BPD (Borderline Personality Disorder)[1]or any other significant mental illness, “great” will mean different things for her. Celebrate “great” when it happens, without comparing it to what “great” looks like in other children.
  2. There may not be a “magic treatment” that will cure your child of the illness and make him “normal.” If you wait for that before bringing the child back home from a PMIC (Psychiatric Medical Institute for Children) or shelter, the child will never return. Focus on getting to a point where the behavior and corresponding care is manageable.
  3. While it is often true that no one knows your child better than you do, it is also true that when you are in uncharted waters (such as childhood mental illness), you need to rely more heavily on the professionals. That doesn’t mean you don’t have a say in treatment, placement, etc. It just means that you will need to give up some control in order to get the best possible care for your child. You will need to be humble enough to acknowledge that you do not have all the answers. This takes a team—of which you are a valuable member, but not the only person.
  4. Most CINA (Child in Need of Assistance) cases involve families where the parent has abused or neglected the child. But not always. Sometimes CINAs are used to help parents access services not otherwise available to them, as in those cases where the child has significant mental health issues. Understand, however, that there are some things required by statute that may not seem to “fit” your case, but will still be required, such as a social history report, for example. This is not DHS “prying,” but rather a statutory requirement. Understand, too, that if, at some point, the court believes you are standing in the way of your child receiving the treatment she needs, the court may transfer “guardianship” or decision-making authority to DHS or a medical provider. The best way to avoid this is to be reasonable (at a time where it’s very hard to be anything but terrified for your child’s future). That doesn’t mean you have to go along with everything recommended without challenging anything. Let me give you another example in the “physical health” world. Let’s say a drug is recommended to your child, but you know he is allergic to that particular drug. You should, of course, speak up and tell the providers that. But let’s say you are refusing treatment because you read an (unverified) article on Facebook that says that drug causes some horrific condition. The first scenario is eminently reasonable; the second is not. That doesn’t mean you can’t ask questions related to the treatment (and what you’ve read), it’s just you should not unreasonably withhold consent for treatment.
  5. Medication is often prescribed for kids. It’s important to remember that just like medication prescribed for physical ailments, it can sometimes be trial and error. The key is that if one medication doesn’t work, try something else. The answer is probably not “no more medication.” I tell people that even something as minor as a physical wound needs treatment. If you have a reaction to Neosporin™you switch to Bacitracin™. You don’t just ignore it, because it will get infected, and then you have even bigger problems. You try something different. Same thing with mental health.
  6. Also with regard to medication, know that it is sometimes a trade-off between benefit and side effects, and that the cost/benefit analysis may change as you go through the process. For example, if you start with a medication that makes your child feel like a “zombie,” you may want to try something different. But if you get to a point where the level of aggression is so high that the child cannot actively engage in therapy, or is beginning to receive criminal charges, you may decide to try that medication again, at least long enough to allow therapy to take effect; you can then move away from that medication again.
  7. Understand that many behaviors are things that all kids struggle with or exhibit, just not at the level your child does. For example, it is normal for teens to begin pulling away from parents on their path to independence. Most will “rebel” in some fashion. Those behaviors are often magnified—sometimes significantly—in kids with mental health issues. Keep this in mind especially as your child approaches adolescence, knowing that what worked when they were toddlers probably won’t work when they’re a teen—which is true of nearly all kids.
  8. Remember that you can’t protect your child from everything; this is true whether your child has mental health issues or not. You may think that something is a bad idea. You may even be right about that. But sometimes kids have to try things and even fail in order to grow. Instead of telling her (or the professionals) that you don’t want her to try something, help her talk through what that looks like, what has to happen for them to succeed, and identify potential obstacles (and solutions). Encourage her; tell her you are proud of her for trying new things and taking steps towards her goals. This can go a long way towards helping them succeed, but if they “fail,” don’t take the “I told you so” approach. That’s not helpful. Let me say that again—That’s not helpful. Instead, help her see what went wrong, and figure out what to do differently the next time. Help her understand that everyone fails at times—that’s how you grow.
  9. Sometimes there is both a physiological and behavioral component to your child’s behavior. Although tempting, it’s dangerous to “blame” everything on the physical injury or dysfunction. Certainly that should be addressed, but the physical aspects may be out of the child’s control. The behavioral ones, however, are within his control. The cause of the behavior is important to know in order to treat it appropriately. However, beyond that, it’s important to focus on learning to manage the behavior. The longer this goes unaddressed, the more ingrained the habits and behavior become, and the harder it is to change. Blaming behaviors on things outside the control of the child tends to lead people to do nothing. It’s the “It’s not my fault, so there’s nothing I can do” mentality. Everyone struggles with something in life; but we all have to learn how to get along in this world. I always try to get kids (and parents) to focus on what we can control, even if those are very small things in the beginning. Progress is progress.
  • One final word of advice. Threatening lawsuits if the staff or provider does anything you haven’t explicitly approved will not get you the outcome you want. It instead makes the provider hesitant to be candid, and less likely to work with you, out of fear that he might make a “misstep” (in your eyes) that will result in a lawsuit. This, plus your child’s behavior, may begin to make it difficult to obtain placement and care that he needs. The risk is too great for the facility, because despite best attempts, facilities cannot guarantee your child’s safety, due to the high-risk population they serve. This is true whether you are talking about other patients hurting your child intentionally or staff unintentionally hurting him when they have to restrain him. Keep in mind, too, that at some point, it could be your child who hurts another child or staff. This, again, is why I urge people to focus on the behavior that can be changed and managed, rather than blaming something external that cannot be changed (such as an injury). Certainly we want our children protected, and kept safe, but when your child’s behavior has provoked the injury, a threat of lawsuit is not appropriate. I’m not saying your child deserved that response; I am simply saying she (and you) should not be surprised by the response. Unless you have evidence that the injury was intentional, your energy is better spent working with the providers to figure out how to keep your child safe going forward—and that likely includes a conversation with the child about the behaviors that led to the injury, including her actions.

So those are my Top 10 observations. As always, let me know if you have had a similar/different experience, or if you have questions.

[1]This disorder is rarely diagnosed before age 18, but if teens exhibit behaviors consistent with the disorder, they can receive cognitive behavioral therapy or dialectical therapy (help with coping skills, thought processes, etc.)