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. 

Denial

I am in the process of re-reading the Harry Potter books. I first read them alongside my kids, waiting with anticipation for each new book. JK Rowling’s imagination is stunning, and I love how good always triumphs over evil, even though many hard things happen to the characters.

Currently, I just finished The Goblet of Fire. I was struck by the passage where Hogwarts Headmaster, Albus Dumbledore, tells the Minister of Magic, Cornelius Fudge, that if he acknowledges that Voldemort is back, and takes action early, he will be remembered as the best Minister of Magic ever. If he denies that truth, his reputation will not, shall we say, be quite as stellar. He will have allowed Voldemort—and evil—a head start from which they may never recover. 

Spoiler alert—he denies it’s true. He does that because he’s afraid, undoubtedly, but also because acknowledging that Voldemort is back would mean a disruption of his comfortable, things-as-they-are life, and would require him to take decisive and sometimes unpopular action. And Fudge does not have that kind of a backbone.

While most of us admire Dumbledore and scorn Fudge, we still tend to behave more like Fudge. And that’s true of the parents and the professionalswe work with, too. 

For their part, parents will deny drug usage (despite positive drug tests), deny that they need therapy or domestic violence interventions, and deny that they’re not engaging in services. The worst denial, however, is the one that occurs when they tell themselves that they have plenty of time to get back on track, when in reality, they are dangerously close to a TPR (termination of parental rights).

Unfortunately, there is also a weird kind of denial going on with the professionals, too, because of how the law is written or works. Reunification is always to be the goal (until it no longer can be, usually because the parent has run out of time, and has not made sufficient process to be reunified with their children). But when the DHS report continues to say, “Reunification is still the permanency goal,” when the worker is doubtful as to whether that is actually going to happen, it gives the parents a false sense of hope. 

My preference would be to have DHS choose one of three different options: Reunification is likely; Reunification is possible; or Reunification is unlikely. This has nothing to do with whether reunification is still the goal, but it does give parents a more realistic view of what DHS is thinking. The way I envision it working is that every case starts with “Reunification is possible,” unless there is a reason why it isn’t likely. Examples of that might include situations where a sibling has died as a result of a parent’s abuse, or if the abuse has been severe enough that there is a no-contact order in place that will likely remain in place beyond the timeframe in which permanency must occur. But other than those kinds of “outliers,” the “possible” choice is default, because at that early stage, the professionals likely don’t know whether it’s likely or unlikely.

The goal is to see that move to “reunification is likely.” This can happen when a parent is actively engaged in services, has a significant period of sobriety, and/or increased number of visits with decreased supervision, for example. If they relapse, it can move back down to “possible.” It would not move to “unlikely” until there has been a significant amount of time with little or no progress. It should nottypically occur too close to a recommendation for TPR, because the point of this rating is to warn the parents that they are in danger of losing custody of their kids permanently. The goal can still be reunification, even with a “Reunification is unlikely” rating, but because the likelihood is low, that tells the parent that s/he is going to need to work hard to accomplish reunification, and that time is of the essence.

This seems like a small change to me, but I have no idea what kind of bureaucratic hoops would need to be jumped through to make it. But it would hopefully help parents face reality a bit sooner, while they can still change course and work towards a positive outcome. 

What’s Broken?

Recently, I was introduced to someone tangentially connected to juvenile CINA court while in a differentmeeting with someone who has been intimately connected to the issues in this area. She noted that she often hears that the “system” is broken and asked what I thought that meant. That conversation was going to be muchlonger than we had time for right then, but in anticipation of a future meeting, I began to think about that.

With regard to DHS (which is who people most often think of when they think of the “system” being “broken”), there are, of course, the usual culprits: caseloads that are too heavy; low morale (often because they are “damned if they do (remove), damned if they don’t (remove),” high turnover, etc. Those things are all true. But there are other things that are not as well known. 

For example, although DHS typically acts as “point person” on a CINA/TPR case, they often don’t have access to the full EDMS file, like attorneys and even CASAs do. I was told they don’t even have access to the reports they file! That does not make sense to me. While it’s true they may not need access to things like “certification of the transcript” by the court reporter, in my opinion, they cannot manage the case effectively unless they have access to all the substantive documents. Even seemingly small things (a motion for transport filed by a parent’s attorney) provide significant information (that parent is in jail) that the worker needs to know. The solution to this is to expand their access; I don’t know whether that has to be done legislatively, or within the “system,” (court or DHS). 

Second, although DHS is typically considered to be the client of the State (represented by the Assistant County Attorney (“ACA”)), the ACA does not often prepare the DHS worker who will likely be called to testify at some point in the process. This isn’t because the ACA is negligent; like the DHS, it also has a heavy caseload, with little to no time to spend on witness prep (if, in fact, the DHS had time to do that). That, combined with the fact that they don’t have access to all the documents, can cause the DHS worker to be “blindsided” on the stand, or at least not as prepared as s/he might otherwise be. One of the “obvious” solutions is more workers and more assistant county attorneys, but since that isn’t likely anytime soon, the question is—how do we “create” more time for them? One way to do that has to do with the reporting DHS is required to do.

The reports they are required to prepare are redundant, difficult to read, and frequently have errors. It is sometimes difficult to determine whether something in a current report is historical or current, because things are often cut and pasted from one report to another, without context. For example, the first report might say, “Mom reports she is using heroin on a daily basis.” That’s fine, because that’s current. However, the 2ndor 3rdreport (which may be several months later), says the exact same thing, instead of, for example, “In May, Mom reported she was using heroin on a daily basis. In June, she went to treatment, and has successfully maintained her sobriety since then.” Further in the report it may note that mom went to treatment in June, but that first paragraph doesn’t clarify that the “use” is past. 

The other problem with “cut and paste” is that if there is an error in the first report, it is carried over into every subsequent report (this is true of FSRP reports as well). I have had hearings where I have objected to every FSRP report or the DHS report because the error was not corrected, despite my objection at the previoushearing. 

While it may be helpful to have a brief “Historical Summary” at the beginning of each report (that would still need to be updated with information from the previous hearing), in my opinion it would be more helpful to only include information from the currentreporting period in the current report. This would also make it harder for DHS/FSRP to “hide” inaction, which would help the court determine whether “reasonable efforts” had been made by DHS towards reunification. Streamlining the reports also recaptures time for both DHS workers and ACAs (and the court, to a certain extent), which could help with the “witness prep time” issue above.

I am also wondering if having a half day where there were no hearings (including emergency hearings, which would just fill up the “free” half-day, defeating the purpose), but were to be used for ACAs and DHS to collaborate might be a good idea. This might require hiring another judge (judges are also already overbooked as well) to make up for the 18 or so cases that would not be heard every week, but that would be less expensive than hiring several new caseworkers and/or ACAs. 

Finally, because of the time constraints, DHS sometimes applies a “bandage” without trying to fix the underlying problem. For example, DHS will sometimes provide rent assistance if it will keep a family together (i.e., keep them out of shelter, which typically separates the family because of the scarcity of family shelters, especially for households headed up by men). But they don’t take the other step of ensuring that the family will be able to pay next month’s rent without assistance. Do they have a job? Do they have disability? Are they eligible for any housing programs? Should they get on the list for family shelter now? Without asking these questions and figuring out the best solution, they are just pushing the problem down the road and wasting resources in the process. 

What if, before approving assistance over a certain amount, the worker had to provide a plan to ensure that the underlying problemhas been addressed? If it’s an emergency, maybe a requirement that the underlying problem be addressed within 14 days—not necessarily solved within that time frame, but a plan in place. Maybe a “one-issue” Family Team Meeting (“FTM” or “FTDM”). 

But DHS isn’t the only part of the system that is juvenile court, nor is it the only part that is broken. 

Attorneys often don’t meet with their clients until the few minutes right before the hearing. To be fair, this is not always their “fault.” Some clients do not respond to their attorneys—some to the point that the attorney ends up withdrawing from the representation because they cannot help the client if the client won’t call them back. 

However, there are also plenty of stories of attorneys not responding to their clients. In the most egregious example I witnessed, an attorney confessed in court that he had not talked to his attorney for “a couple months.” During those “couple months,” the client had relapsed, her child was diagnosed with a life-threatening illness that required long-term hospitalization out of state, and the previous foster parents no longer wanted to foster. But he knew none of this because he had not called her to check in. How in the world does he think that’s adequate representation? In my opinion, that attorney should be removed and a new one assigned, absent “good cause” for the non-contact (which would, of course, include unsuccessful attempts to contact the client).

With regard to guardian ad litem reports, I am astonished that more GALs don’t write them (it permits them to share more information, uninterrupted, and in greater detail than simply reporting the information in court ever allows) and am equally stunned when parents’ attorneys don’t read them. In one of my cases, a parent’s attorney said she felt blindsided when I asked in court for the kids to be moved from placement to Dad. I was perplexed by this, as it was in my report. When I pointed that out, she said, “But it wasn’t in DHS’ report!” To which I replied (rather uncharitably), “So?” In other words, neither my report nor my recommendations have to echo DHS’ report, though they may. If she chooses not to read my report, that’s her decision, but she shouldn’t play the “blindsided” card. 

There are also attorneys who don’t understand how juvenile court differs from nearly every other court. It is more collaborative, exhibits are offered/received differently, and there are significantly more hearings. Occasionally people will say they wish they could afford a private pay attorney (rather than a court-appointed one), but typically (though not always) the court appointed ones have more experience and knowledge than the private pay attorneys who are doing your wills, your real estate, and even family law. One case was particularly bad—the attorney filed the appeal under the wrong case number (not realizing, apparently, that the CINA case has a separate case number from the TPR case) and had the appeal dismissed as a result. 

Of course, there are other things that plague nearly every organization that are also present with DHS and the legal profession: incompetence, inexperience, poor management/ leadership. Unfortunately, the other problems with the system only serve to exacerbate those more common problems. 

People complain about how “broken” the system is, but don’t seem to ever want to do anything to fix it. I get it—it seems like an overwhelming problem, and most people don’t believe they have any influence over it. But even some of these smaller changes could help tremendously. 

Relative Placement vs. Foster Care

The new Family First Prevention Services Act (“FFPSA”) changes how some of the funding can be used, primarily trying to shift some of the Title IV funds that could previously be used only for foster and adoptive services, to prevention services. But one thing that did not survive early versions of the bill was financial assistance to relative placements.

This has always been kind of a weird thing. On the one hand, as a society we sort of expect family to step in and care for each other becausethey’re family. They shouldn’t need to be compensated for that. And there are probably some concerns about potential fraud, i.e., a family member saying, “If you take/care for my child, we can get some money out of this,” because if there’s a way to manipulate the situation to get money out of the government, there will be someone who figures that out. 

But it can sometimes lead to some rather wonky outcomes. There may be relatives who genuinely wantto care for their grandchild, niece/nephew, etc., and who are perfectly capable of being an appropriate caregiver, but who do not have the financial resources to do so. But instead of providing them with financial assistance so they couldtake in this child (and which would likely be less traumatic for the child), we put the child in foster care and pay a stranger to take care of them. This does not really make sense. 

If they want those stipends, they have to go through the arduous process of become a licensed foster care provider. And some do that, but that, in turn, gives a false reporting of how many licensed foster care homes we have. Why? Because these are not people who are planning on taking in other foster children—they just need the stipend to take care of their family’s children. This, in turn, makes the organizations charged with recruiting/retaining foster parents look like they’re doing a better job than they actually are. 

So we end up with some weird outcomes and weird workarounds to solve those problems. 

The bill does provide federal matching funds for kinship navigator programs to connect relatives to already existing resources. Again, on the one hand, this seems to make sense; if there is already a program to provide food assistance, for example, why not simply direct the relative there, rather than provide duplicate services? On the other hand, there may be services that relatives need that are not provided elsewhere, or for which they are not eligible. And there are no funds for those services. 

Following are some ideas (not necessarily in alignment with the federal legislation): 

What if we directed relative placements to the services they needed that other agencies/organizations provide, but then had funding for services that are not covered elsewhere (whether due to eligibility restrictions or some other reason)? It would still be potentially less than the full foster-care stipend but would allow kids to stay with family that they already know.  Navigators could meet with families to determine what they need, what they are eligible for, and who could provide that. A stipend amount could then be determined based upon remaining, uncovered need. 

What if we had an expedited foster care training program for relative placements who do not intend to be foster parents generally? This could allow them to receive the stipend, without the sometimes-overwhelming training required of foster parents who want to take in non-relative children. And if they were counted differently, it would give us more accurate data regarding how many foster homes we actually had (and would hold those organizations that are responsible for the recruitment/retention of foster kids more accountable in order to receive theircontractual pay). 

And what if we provided them with a dedicated Legal Aid attorney to help with some of the issues that might arise such as housing (e.g., some grandparents live in 55+ communities that may or may not allow children), SSI issues for children with special needs, collecting child support from parents, etc.? 

Of course, none of these prevent “original harm” of the child, but they could fulfill the goals of the FFPSA by preventing kids from going into foster care when there is an appropriate relative available.

Integrity

Parents who have had children removed due to a substance use disorder (“SUD”) typically struggle with another devastating loss—integrity. 

This is due in large part to the disease. To clarify, I’m talking about integrity that has two primary components. The first is the one many people think of—honesty. Individuals who have a SUD often lie about their use for a variety of reasons. They may (reasonably) be afraid that if they tell the truth about their use, DHS will “take” their children. They may think that they can “beat” the test (and all the problems that come with a positive drug screen). It may be good old-fashioned panic. The thing is, DHS is going to drug test them, and if they are using, it will show up. Even when someone “confesses,” DHS will still test. Why? Because a parent may admit to using marijuana, thinking DHS will simply accept his admission and move on. But DHS knows from past experience that admitting to marijuana use may only be a partial truth. Dad may also be doing a “harder” drug like meth, cocaine, or heroin. DHS wants the full truth about the parent’s SUD. They want to keep kids safe (whether or not that means removal) and they want the parent to get treatment for any SUD he or she may have in order to safely parent the children.

When a parent lies about drug usage, she still has all the negative consequences of the positive drug screen, but now on top of that, she has earned the “untruthful” label, which will cause DHS and the courts to question nearly everything she says going forward. Parents don’t always understand (or like) this, and so they mistakenly believe DHS is “picking on” them when in fact, it is their own lack of honesty that creates the higher scrutiny.

The second kind of integrity I am talking about is the failure to do what the person says he will do. In the arena of a Child in Need of Assistance (“CINA”) case, this typically shows up as broken promises about getting into treatment or therapy, though it can also include really anything the DHS/Court has asked the parent to do (e.g., find safe/stable housing, get a job, etc.). 

I had one case where mom promised to get a job. Between the start of the case and the Permanency hearing, she had five different jobs, but was actually unemployed much of that year. In reviewing the monthly FSRP reports, she kept promising to find housing, but didn’t do that until eight months into the case. Treatment? Kept promising she was going to various treatment programs. Didn’t do it until nine months in. Her lack of follow-through on promises and other “untrue statements” led me to react to every new statement of “achievement” (or excuse) with an unspoken “documentation or it didn’t happen.” And that’s a terrible way for a parent and the professionals to go through a case.

But it’s even more devastating to the kids. At one hearing, a parent promised his 12-year-old daughter that he was going to “do whatever it took” to get her back. This despite making that same promise at each of the previous hearings, and in letters to the child from jail. Finally, the child had had enough. She lashed out at him at a hearing, saying, “Stop making promises you have no intention of keeping!” and then bursting into tears. 

I often hear people express disbelief that parents aren’t “willing” to do “whatever it takes” to get their kids back. “I would walk through firefor my kids!” they exclaim. But we know that SUDs rewire the brain in ways that make it nearly impossible for them to make different choices, especially when combined with well-established habits and triggers. 

 So how can we help parents change their actions? 

It’s interesting, because we try to send them to treatment, and therapy, and so forth. But in reading the research regarding habits and change, I wonder if we are, in some respects, making it harder than it needs to be. Or if we are prohibiting the very things that might help them succeed.

Occasionally, parents will want to move in order to take a job, sometimes out of state. While I understand the challenges with that (visits, DHS and court oversight, to name just a few), it strikes me that changing their “playground” and giving them meaningful work might help them in ways that would spill over into treatment and therapy (in a positive way). 

I had a cousin who suffered from a SUD several years ago. He pulled up stakes and moved to Arizona, because he said, “In [my hometown], I knew every place where I could get meth. I knew who sold it, and who had it. I had to completely change my environment and go to a place where I knew no one. Once I did that, it was much easier to avoid the drug—the new environment disrupted my destructive patterns enough that I could more easily create new, positive ones. I got a job, found a church, and made new friends. Eventually I was able to return home and maintain my sobriety, but that was several years later.” To the best of my knowledge, he never went to a formal treatment program or therapy. That’s not to say that those things aren’t valuable, of course, but when we treat people and then send them right back into the environment that launched the addiction, we shouldn’t be surprised when they relapse.

I have no idea what they work on in treatment, but I suspect when they talk about “triggers” that precede using, they focus more on emotional triggers than environmental ones. But environmental ones, identified and planned for ahead of the time they occur, are much easier to manage. For example, if someone knows he can buy heroin on a particular corner, one that he passes every day on his way home from work, he can choose—when he’s not using and not emotionally wired— to not go home that way. He can choose a different route. He can carpool with someone. Hire an Uber/Lyft to take him home, with instructions for no intermediate stops. 

If her trigger is time-sensitive, e.g., every morning after she drops the kids off at school, she can make plans (again, ahead of time), to affirmatively do something else where people will be expecting her. Maybe she can even volunteer at the school so she’s not leaving at the same time every day. If she wants to go to the gym (and the Y has a sliding scale, so she should be able to go), perhaps she can arrange for a friend to take her and the kids to school and then drive to the gym. Maybe someone else can take the kids to school, while she heads off in a different direction. 

These sound like small steps, and they are not intended to replace treatment or therapy or be the onlychange someone makes. 

Yet even small changes can disrupt a habit enough to change it, or to more easily add and maintain a new habit. In his book, The Happiness AdvantageShawn Achor notes that when he was trying to give up television, he identified the “trigger” as finishing dinner, then sitting on the couch and picking up the remote. By simply moving the remote out of his reach, he gave himself enough time to make a different choice instead of mindlessly grabbing the remote and turning on the television. A client he worked with who wasted significant time at work checking news feeds, his stocks, and email was coached to remove the “shortcut” on his desktop, turn off notifications, and keep the app closed when not in use. He immediately noticed his productivity went up.

Achor also gives an example of establishing habits. He wanted to learn to play guitar, but couldn’t seem to start/maintain this habit, despite goal-setting, “gold star” tracking charts, etc. By simply moving the guitar to within easy reach (displacing the remote!), he was significantly more likely to pick up the guitar and practice. His take-away? Make the habits you are trying to eliminate harder, and the ones you are trying to establish easier.

Integrity comes about one decision at a time. Small wins are easier to achieve if they become a habit, and part of a daily routine. Recognizing those small wins builds self-confidence. And both of those things make telling the truth and keeping your word easier. 

Hallmark Movies, Social Isolation, and the FFPSA—Oh, My.

I have always loved Hallmark Christmas movies, but this year, they were particularly appealing. I tell people that they serve as a nice balance to the daily heartbreak I see in my work, but the funny thing is, there are a lot of people (not working in juvenile child welfare court) who love them, even if they won’t admit it. But what is it about them that draws people in, inspiring binge-watching, (sometimes around a “girls’ weekend”), sweatshirts (“This is my Hallmark movie-watching shirt”) and mugs for hot cocoa? 

The movies themselves are very formulaic, and really never vary in their over-arching message; in other words, once you’ve seen one or two, you can pretty much predict the outcome of every other one you see. Generally speaking, the actors aren’t the hottest celebrities; if you know them at all, it’s probably from a hit show that took place years ago, when the actor was a child. And there isn’t a lot of high drama or “action packed scenes” to keep you on the edge of your seat.

No, I think the attraction is that they show something we allyearn for: family, friends, community, and tradition. In short—meaningful connections. We want to feel like we belong somewhere, that we have something to contribute, and that life generally works out for the good.

But what does love of Hallmark movies have to do with juvenile CINA court and the Family First Safety and Prevention Act (“FFSPA”)?

Stay with me, here. We’re about to jump.

Recently, I watched a TED Talk regarding social isolation delivered by Rachel Wurzman. Without getting too much into the science of it all, chronic loneliness can be downright dangerous, in a lot of ways. But one particularly frightening possibility occurs when we are not getting the “neurochemical rewards” we get through positive social interaction. When that happens too consistently, we will seek out anything that can (even temporarily) fill that need—even heroin. Studies show that social isolation contributes to relapse. 

Yet in working with my families in juvenile CINA (“Child in Need of Assistance”) cases, I was stunned to learn that many of these parents do not have even three people they can call in a pinch. Please understand that I am talking about friends and family, not professional support people like social workers, lawyers, or therapists.

When families “come to the attention” of DHS and the courts, we immediately throw a whole bunch of professionals at them. They get a court-appointed attorney, a DHS worker, a FSRP worker, and, if applicable, a therapist and/or substance abuse treatment counselor/program. They may have a Parent Partner and/or a CASA worker. And if the child is very young, they may have a support team from Head Start and/or Early Access. 

What we don’t typically help them with is building connections and relationships. When the case closes—even if the children are returned to the parents—all those professional support systems end. And because there are no non-professional ones, they are once again alone and isolated, which means they are a prime target for relapse and reengagement with the system. 

Of course, part of the problem is that today’s society doesn’t provide those connections the way it used to. Even healthy families are much more vulnerable. People are more mobile, with children living far away from parents and extended family. People often don’t know their neighbors the way they used to (some blame attached garages and a lack of front porches, which may sound far-fetched, but likely has some truth to it). People aren’t going to church, synagogue, or other places of faith, which was another traditional way of connecting. And because communities are much more urban than rural/small town, people don’t feel like they are a known, or even seenpart of a community. Their participation seems not to matter.

Social media, of course, does not really help with most of this. True, it does help us connect more easily with those who are far away from us, but it tends to disconnect us from those close by. We substitute text messages and Snap Chats for deep, face-to-face conversations about the things that matter most. As Dr. Wurzman notes, “Social media can’t go deep enough.” And it often acts as more of a distraction than anything else.

And here’s the final link—the new federal legislation.

The Family First Prevention Services Act (“FFPSA”) goes into effect this year, and is focused on, among other things, prevention. But the prevention they are talking about is not “original” prevention, but rather post-event, “no further damage” kinds of prevention. For example, we want kids to remain with parents or other relatives, but if they can’t, we would rather they go to a good foster home than a facility. In other words, we want to “prevent” kids being in either foster care or facilities for long periods of time. 

But Dr. Wurzman’s research (and my own anecdotal experiences) tells me that until we focus on the original problems of lack of social connection (and the resulting “meaning and purpose” these relationships offer), we will only be able to respond to, and limit, damage that has already occurred, rather than proactively eliminate harm.

Jerry Milner, Associate Commissioner of the Children’s Bureau, Administration for Children, Youth and Families within the U.S. Department of Human Services, echoes this position when he writes:

“While it is critical to help children who become known to the child welfare system avoid unnecessary separation from their families when services can be offered to keep them together, it is even more important to help families and children avoid the situations that lead them to child welfare in the first place(emphasis mine). When a report is made to a public child welfare system, it usually means that the harm has already occurred, a child has been abused or neglected, trauma has been inflicted, and any interventions from that point are remedial rather than preventative(emphasis mine). …When we choose, as a child welfare system, to intervene only after abuse or neglect has occurred, we are complicit in perpetuating that inter-generational cycle of trauma and maltreatment.”

Hallmark movies, social isolation, and new federal legislation…

Here’s an interesting thought: I have, at various times, seen a project about buddy benches. They are benches installed on playgrounds; if a child is feeling lonely and needs a “buddy” or someone to play with, they sit on the buddy bench. Other children then go to that child and invite him or her to play, or simply sit and talk to them. 

What if we could figure out the adult equivalent to the “buddy bench”? What if we could create connection, build “communities,” and reduce isolation so people weren’t so lonely? 

What if we could make sure that every adult had at least three people they could call on for help, respite, or just someone to talk to? What kind of a difference could that make in our world, and in the lives of these families?

“Choosing” a Lawyer in Juvenile Court

Often, people hold the belief that a private pay attorney is better than a court-appointed one. Certainly this can be true, but in juvenile court it’s often not true. Here’s why.

  1. The overwhelming majority of parents in juvenile CINA (Child in Need of Assistance) cases cannot afford a private attorney. This, of course, means that most of the attorneys in this area are on the court appointment list. That doesn’t mean those attorneys don’t do private pay work—it just means that the bulk of their cases are likely court appointed. A private pay attorney who is not on the court appointed list may not do a lot of juvenile CINA work.
  2. In order to be on the court appointed attorney list for juvenile court, an attorney musttake at least three hours of continuing legal education (CLE) specifically in the area of juvenile court. They are required to adhere to a higher standard of practice. This is not required of private pay attorneys. And as a practical matter, attorneys who practice primarily in juvenile court often attend far more than three hours of CLE in this area.
  3. Juvenile court is different from other areas of law; it is procedurally different (e.g., multiple hearings instead of one trial; exhibits are entered differently; rules of evidence and civil procedure are a bit different), but also philosophically It is not, as a general rule, as adversarial, and the goal is reunification of the family—not “win” vs. “lose.” Services are offered in furtherance of this goal. The court wants to see progress throughout the life of the case; it wants to see parents succeeding.

Because of these reasons, you may be better off with a court appointed attorney (if you qualify), even if you hire that attorney as a private pay attorney. They likely have far more experience in this area than a private pay attorney. Again, that doesn’t mean a private pay attorney can’t do a good job for you; it’s just that they may not have the same level of experience that a court-appointed attorney does.

My suggestion would be that if there is someone you have in mind, call the state public defender’s office to see if s/he is on the court appointed list for your county. If not, I would ask a few more questions of that attorney regarding his/her experience in juvenile court. I would ask if they are familiar with the federal and state laws regarding timelines, the purpose of the various hearings, and if they have worked with DHS before.

Ultimately, if the court appoints an attorney for you, you may or may not be able to “choose” who that is. And like any profession, some are better than others, even on the court-appointed list. But don’t assume that your representation will be somehow less if you have a court-appointed attorney rather than private pay, because in fact, the reverse may very well be true.

 

 

Trust

Several years ago, I, along with a number of others, facilitated a diversity training with executive branch employees in state government. Someone else created the content, but there was room for personalization with our own stories and questions.

One of the scripted questions had to do with trust; when or how did you know to trust people? The question was designed to demonstrate that some of the things we routinely rely on to discern trustworthiness (e.g., looking people in the eye) could be a false indicator, due to cultural differences (in some cultures, it’s a sign of disrespect or challenge to look someone in the eye). This was “old news” to me. What I found far more interesting was that people seemed to fall into one of two camps: those who trusted no one until the person “earned” their trust, and those who trusted everyone until the person betrayed that trust.

I tend to fall into the second camp, though I try not to be stupid about it. And some people can prove untrustworthy within the first 30 seconds of meeting them. So it’s not necessarily about naiveté. And, of course, there are certain lines of work in which one’s very life depends on having the first worldview about trust. If you are in the military, for example, you probably want people to earn your trust. Trusting the wrong people can prove deadly.

But what about in the context of child welfare?

While I have never asked any of my clients (parents or children) this particular question, it seems to me that there is a little of both. They often trust parents (or partners) far longer than they should, because they are desperate to maintain their family. But if they can no longer trust their parents, they don’t trust anyone.

Children tend to trust their parents until they prove untrustworthy. But even then, they may be so desperate to keep their families together that they continue to trust and believe their parents even when they shouldn’t. Dr. Henry Cloud, in his book Necessary Endings, notes that the best indicator of future performance is past performance, unless something has changed. The problem in the child welfare arena is that parents who suffer from a substance use disorder may make changes that would suggest the “future” might be different. For example, they may go to substance abuse treatment.

And they still may fail. The future ends up looking just like the past, and now they have more “history” of being untrustworthy. And kids can’t just “end the relationship” and leave like adults can. They’re stuck. And so they keep hoping and believing that the parent will get better and be the parent they need.

So what constitutes change that is “solid” enough to warrant hope for a different outcome? Should kids be “cautiously optimistic” until there’s a longer history demonstrating that things really have changed? Is it better to just “cut their losses” and start over with a “new” family?

I once worked with a family where a child had died in an adult relative’s care. It was not that child’s parent, but rather an aunt/uncle[1]. And there were children in the home at the time who belonged to this adult. Although I don’t know all the details of the criminal case, the parent went to prison for a few years.

Despite this, one of this parent’s biological children was covering his/her journal with things like, “My [parent] rocks.” “My [parent] is cool.” Was this child delusional? It could not be said that he didn’t know what was going on (parents in these families often “over-share” adult things). Or was it just that the parent/child bond was so strong that the child was trying to convince him/herself that the parent wasn’t the monster that everyone said s/he was? That if s/he could only convince everyone that the parent was “cool,” the child could go home?

When the parent went to prison, the child was placed with the other parent (who was also not “pure as the driven snow”), over my strong objections. Ten years later, I saw this now-adult child’s name on the list of prison inmates. Should s/he have been able to “reunify” with the parent when the parent was released? Should both parent’s rights have been terminated, and the child adopted out to a new family?

While in retrospect it seems like the latter would have been the better decision, the recent Iowa cases where teenaged children have been starved to death at the hands of their foster-to-adoptive parents’ hands makes one wonder. While it is true that most foster/adoptive parents are good people, it is clear that some are not. How do we know?

Who can we trust with these children?

To be sure, they are not easy children to raise. They have been raised amidst such chaos and dysfunction that even the smallest things can be a challenge. They don’t know who they can trust anymore, so they go way too far to either the left or right. Either they blindly trust everyone, including people who willingly hurt them again, or they trust no one, and never build strong relationships with anyone.

Of course, it’s not just the kids who struggle.

Parents don’t trust the “system” that has taken their kids, but now says it wants to “help” them. Women “trust” abusive partners because they so want to maintain that relationship. I’ve seen cases where the abusive partner told the mother that “they” would hide from DHS, and eventually DHS would go away (hint: that strategy never ends well). In reliance upon this promise of “you and me against the world,” mom skipped the hearing, but dad went, and then pointed out how he was “engaged” with the process, but mom wasn’t.

And mom still “trusted” him—until it was too late.

How do we teach parents (and children) who is trustworthy? How do we teach them how to discern that, knowing that none of us are “perfect” at determining who to trust, or even that none of us are perfect in earning trust? How do they learn who’s “for” them, and who is “against” them, when people lie—either through words or deeds?

How should they decide who gets a second chance?

And to whom do we give a second chance? Who do we trust with these kids?

[1] In the spirit of confidentiality, I am not identifying names, genders, or anything else that might identify the family.

Small Things With Great Love

In juvenile court, there is a lot of talk about Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs. Children who have one or more ACEs are at a significantly higher risk for things ranging from chronic disease (diabetes and heart disease) to risky behavior (drugs, teen sex), and poor mental health. They are also likely to “carry on the family tradition” of abuse, neglect, and drug use. But research also suggests that the more resilience we help build into these kids, the less impact their ACEs have.

Often, people think that this requires lots of “services” (and it might) that “other people” or agencies have to provide. But this perspective lets all of us off the hook a bit too easy.

One of my favorite quotes is by Mother Theresa. She noted that she “could not do great things. She could only do small things with great love.” My Aunt Mickey was the master at doing small things with great love. While I was the recipient of her great love, the story I want to tell today is about her small things with great love towards someone else—someone I never met.

Because I never met him, I have to give him a made-up name. We’ll call him Sam. Sam was a teenager who lived down the hall in the same apartment building Aunt Mickey lived in. He lived with his mom and her boyfriend, but this “family” was not particularly stable. Not dysfunctional enough to involve DHS, but enough that this young man would benefit from a positive adult role model in his life.

Enter Aunt Mickey.

Aunt Mickey was the kind of person who knew her neighbors, and so she had spoken to Sam and his parents on several occasions. One day, she noticed Sam sitting in the hall outside his apartment. When she asked why he didn’t go in, he said his parents didn’t allow him to have a key and they weren’t home yet. She invited him in to her apartment and gave him a snack. And thus started an unlikely friendship.

But it went beyond giving him a place to hang out and a snack. She mentored Sam (though it’s highly unlikely it would have ever occurred to her to call it that). When he offered to change the oil in her car in the parking lot, she told him that her lease prohibited that. Sam suggested that no one would “care,” but Aunt Mickey was having none of it. She firmly told him that her lease said she could not do that, her signature was her word that she would not do that, and so she wasn’t going to do that. To do otherwise would have been wrong, regardless of whether anyone “cared” or not.

When she noticed him hanging out with the “wrong crowd,” she spoke up and suggested he might want to find better friends, because she knew that high school kids in particular make poorer decisions when their peers are urging them to do so.

In short, Aunt Mickey did the small things— offering snacks, a listening ear, and strong character modeling—with great love.

Is there a child for whom you could do this? A neighborhood kid that could use an encouraging word from you? Can you volunteer at a local school, even if it’s “just” reading to a child on a consistent basis?

Or if you want to step up into a more formal role, would you consider being a Court-Appointed Special Advocate (“CASA”)? Some things you might want to know are:

  • CASAs receive great training (both in the beginning and ongoing)
  • There are opportunities to get together with other CASAs
  • You will have a coach once you complete their training.
  • We only work with one family at a time; you can decide how many kids you want to work with, the age of the child(ren), and other factors.
  • The judges love CASAs! We submit written reports to the court, but we rarely have to testify. In fact, I’ve never had a CASA be called to testify, and I’ve been working with this program for over 10 years.
  • You do not have to have a background in law—just a passion for helping kids.
  • In terms of the time requirements, we typically ask for 5-10 hours a month, which is a visit (maybe two), possibly reviewing documents, and writing a short report.

So what small thing will you do with great love? Will you consider making a difference in the life of a child?

Let me know if you want more information—no pressure. I just want to get you the information you need so you can make a good, fully informed decision. And even if CASA isn’t right for you, you can still encourage the little people (and the big people!) in your life.

What is “Imminent”?

I once attended a workshop about domestic violence. At that time, there was a popular “defense” for women who had killed their abusive spouses, called battered woman syndrome. The speaker, however, was not a fan of this. She noted that when viewed through the lens of the victim’s perspective, her behaviors were perfectly logical—not a mental health “syndrome.” Her preference was to simply change the definition of “imminent danger.”

The argument, of course, was that a woman who shot and killed her husband while he was asleep wasn’t in “imminent” danger. The speaker gave a scenario where the abuser told his wife that he would “kill her in the morning.” If she waited until morning to “defend” herself, she would be dead. He was bigger, stronger, and would not allow her access to a weapon. Her only option to what she perceived as “imminent” danger was to kill him while he slept. I have no idea whether she has had any success with this theory.

In juvenile CINA court, we also look at whether kids are in “imminent danger” as a standard for removal. As I work through a particular case, I wonder if we perhaps need to reevaluate that standard—or simply redefine “imminent” in juvenile court as well. Is it imminent danger if we know, based on research, that certain events in a child’s life (called Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs) will cause significant difficulties later in life; mentally, physically, and an increased likelihood that they will go down the same path as their parents? Or is “imminent” limited to whether they will survive this night?

Perhaps paradoxically, research also seems to suggest that children are generally better off with their biological parents (rather than foster parents or shelter care), even if that home is not ideal. That, of course, begs the question—how “not ideal” does a home have to be before it tips the scales to removal?

Part of this analysis must consider the trauma that is involved in removal. Of course, some of that trauma has to do with the fact that complete strangers are pulling kids from their home with little or no notice. Which makes me wonder if the trauma would be less if the removal were done later, after an attorney, GAL, and/or DHS worker had an opportunity to build rapport with the kids. If the definition of “imminent” were broadened, services could be offered on a fast track. If, after, say, a month, the same behaviors that might not meet the current definition of “imminent” but that would meet a broadened definition, were still in existence (or others had shown up), the kids could then be removed—but differently. The attorney or GAL could talk to them about what was going to happen; they could help the child know what to expect and why this was happening. They could potentially accompany the child to the new placement and help him or her get settled in. They could make sure that those “special things” and clothing could be retrieved and taken with them.

From my experience, kids can handle about anything if people they trust tell them the truth (in an age-appropriate way) and help them make that transition. What I don’t know is what the research says about later removals done this way. Is it truly less traumatic?