Waive Reasonable Efforts

Waive Reasonable Efforts

In a CINA case, the goal always starts with reunification with the parent(s) from whom the child was removed. The Department of Human Services (“DHS”) is required to make “reasonable efforts” towards that reunification. Some of these “reasonable efforts” are much more directly linked to reunification than others, but all are designed to help the parents get to the point where the child can be safely returned home.

While DHS offers a fairly standard “menu” of services in most cases, it is up to parents to ask for anything beyond that (rather than wait for DHS to figure out what they need and offer). If they don’t ask for other services, then they cannot later complain of a lack of “reasonable efforts.”

However, there is a situation where DHS is not required to offer reasonable efforts, and that is when the case permanency plan has changed from reunification to termination. Because the goal is no longer reunification, the corresponding requirement for reasonable efforts are waived.

Occasionally, DHS will stop other services for a variety of reasons. For example, if a parent tests negative on three consecutive drug screens, DHS will typically suspend random drug testing (unless the parent displays behavioral issues that might indicate relapse/usage). We assume that at that point, the parent is successfully maintaining his or her sobriety, so there is no need to continue spending scarce resources on testing. Interestingly, this can also be true if the parent tests positive for three consecutive tests; the thinking here is that the parent is going to continue to test positive, so again, unless circumstances change (e.g., the parent engages in substance abuse treatment, etc.), there is no point in continuing to spend resources testing someone when  the results are going to be the same. In this case, DHS is simply going to assume that they are continuing to use.

If parents are “MIA” then DHS cannot effectively offer services, because they don’t know where the parent is or how to reach them.

However, suspending services like random drug testing and because parents can’t be located is not the same as waiving all reasonable efforts. That typically happens only when the permanency goal has been changed to termination. We’re going to relieve DHS of services, because services are designed to reunify—and we’re no longer trying to do that.

Questions? Comments? Feel free to email me at www.jean@jeanmbaker.com.

Fact Witnesses, Expert Witnesses, and COVID-19

If you’ve ever been on a jury panel, you know that there are two types of witnesses: fact witnesses and expert witnesses. There are different requirements for each role, and they serve different purposes, though the ultimate purpose, of course, is to get to the truth of the matter.

Fact witnesses are those individuals who have personal knowledge about a particular matter. They have personally experienced or observed something and are competent to testify about it —truthfully. But they are not qualified or permitted to testify to things beyond their personal knowledge. That will draw an objection of “speculation.”

Expert witnesses are not expected to have personal knowledge of the matter at hand. Instead, they have a particular expertise that is relevant to the case. They are permitted to testify about standard procedures and what they would expect to see, now and in the future, based upon their knowledge and experience of similar cases or events. Before they can say a word about the case, however, there are specific requirements to establish them as an expert and permit their testimony. This includes things like education (degrees from reputable schools, or specialized training, for example), experience (how familiar are they with these types of cases, how many similar cases have they worked on/examined, etc.), what the professional literature says, and whether that education and experience makes them more knowledgeable about a matter than the average person.

When an expert testifies, he or she must explain the basis of their opinion, the process by which they came to that conclusion, and cite to any relevant studies, data, etc.

Both witnesses, the fact witness and the expert witness, must testify only to things that are admissible under the rules of evidence. For example, the fact witness cannot testify as to what other people saw or heard, as that will likely draw a hearsay exception. They cannot, generally speaking, make predictions about other situations, because they don’t have the expertise to make those predictions based upon one experience that they had.

Because I’m a lawyer, I tend to view the social media posts around COVID19 in this same light.

If you have had the virus, you are a “factual witness” who can “testify” to your experience. If someone near you has had it, you can testify as to what you observed (e.g., “her breathing was labored”), but probably not opine about that person’s experience with the virus (e.g., “I’m sure it felt like breathing glass”). You also are probably not qualified to predict how many people might get it, or what their experiences are going to be.

Infectious disease specialists and epidemiologists are the “expert witnesses” who cannot “testify” as to what your experience was, but rather to the broader information and implications. They are the ones that have the training and experience to do crunch the numbers, to know what data is relevant and what isn’t, and to compare and contrast a particular virus to other viruses.

If you share a post that poses as an “expert witness,” but starts out, “My friend’s sister is a nurse and she said…” I’m probably not going to read that (unless I know you and the friend, and the nurse and trust what she has to say).

If your post starts out, “I created my own spreadsheet and here is what is going to happen…” without telling me who you are, why you are qualified to make those predictions, and the data upon which you relied (with citations), I’m probably not going to pay any attention to it.

If you cite CNN, FOX, MSNBC, or any other news organizations, I am not going to rely on that, either, unless they tell me who they received that information from, where the data came from, and I can confirm that the statement is accurate and not taken out of context.

If, on the other hand, I see a post written by someone who has the expertise to speak on the matter, cites to their (reliable) sources, and shows me the data, I will definitely listen. If they tell me things like, “original predictions were X, but now that we have more data from the U.S. (which is a different situation than China or Italy because of Y), we have revised our predictions to Z” I will also pay attention, because they are telling me not only what is different about their prediction, but why it is different (again, with evidence to support their position).

Trials often have competing “experts,” again, similar to the COVID-19 situation. Like jurors, we need to objectively weigh the evidence presented by both sides to determine which is more reliable, and which makes more sense. It is true that some jurors are “excused” from serving due to real or potential biases. But because we are not “excusing” anyone from participating in the conversation around COVID-19, we have to be particularly careful about setting aside bias, and even what we think we know based upon our own, limited experiences.

As Dan Heath says in his book, Upstream, “Data takes you away from philosophical insights. You move away from anecdotal fights about what people think is happening to what is happening.”[1]

When you read a post about COVID-19, especially one that seems particularly alarming, ask yourself:

  1. Who is the person making the statement? What “credentials” do they have to suggest I should trust what they are telling me?
  2. Where did they get their data? Have they provided citations so I can see the original source, and confirm that it says what the author tells me it says?
  3. Does the statement appear to be objective and factual, or is it full of adjectives designed to create an emotional response? In other words, does it encourage me to think, or feel?
  4. Does the evidence support what they are telling me?
  5. Are there qualifiers that would change their “prediction,” and do those qualifiers exist (e.g., when they start out “Absent any steps taken to…” and I know there have been steps taken, how should I interpret the data they have presented with the “Absent any steps taken” presumption?

Let’s be smart about this. Let’s make sure we aren’t letting our fears drive our decisions. Let’s make sure that the things we are reading are trustworthy. That doesn’t mean predictions and recommendations won’t change; they likely will change, because this is a new virus. But the trusted sources’ predictions and recommendations will change with new and good data.

[1] Heath, D. (2020). Upstream: the quest to solve problems before they happen. New York: Avid Reader Press., citing a 2018 interview with Beth Sandor, head of Built for Zero, a national effort to help communities end homelessness.

Reunification is the Goal

If you have been involved in juvenile court, you often hear that “reunification is the goal.” And that’s true. However, it may be misleading in the sense that even though it’s the goal, DHS may not believe that reunification is possible. But until they get to the point where they’re ready to recommend termination of parental rights (“TPR”), they will continue to say that reunification is the goal. 

The problem, of course, is that when parents hear that reunification is still the goal, they assume they are doing ok. They reasonably assume that if they weren’t doing well, DHS would not continue to say that reunification was the goal. Though reasonable, that assumption is not necessarily accurate. And by the time DHS says reunification is not the goal, you may not be able to do anything to prevent termination.

If you are concerned that things may not be going well, don’t assume. Ask. Ask your attorney or your DHS worker. But don’t ask if reunification is still the goal—ask if they think it’s likely based upon what you are currently doing. 

Generally speaking, if you are fully engaged in doing what DHS and the courts are asking you to do, then reunification probably is likely. But if you are missing visits, or still using substances, or refusing to do therapy, you may be at risk for termination. Listen to what DHS says they are “concerned” about, because those are things that could also put you at risk for termination. 

Ask DHS if there is anything else you need to be doing. Ask if there is anything they are still concerned about. Ask what their recommendation (regarding reunification) would be if the hearing was today. And if it’s not reunification, ask what you have to do to get there. 

No matter how hard it is to hear what DHS is concerned about, it’s better to know what it is, so that you can address is and resolve it. You do not want to permanently lose custody of your kids because you buried your head in the sand. Be proactive and engaged. 

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.