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Op-Ed: Should resource parents be a party to reviews or hearings for their foster children?

Op-Ed: Should resource parents be a party to reviews or hearings for their foster children?

By: Maggie Moriarty, Esq.

Should resource parents be a party to reviews or hearings for their foster children?

Assembly Bill A913, which is still pending before an Assembly Committee, was introduced to the New Jersey Assembly in 2016.  The full text of the proposed Bill can be found here:

The general gist of the proposed Bill is that foster parents will receive notice, have an opportunity to be heard, and be made a party to any hearing regarding their foster children.  Currently, foster parents are not a party to any of the court proceedings that occur throughout the entire length of the case.

Unfortunately, many foster parents are completely left in the dark when it comes to the court proceedings that relate to the children they are caring for.  Information exchange is essentially 100% left up to the individual caseworker assigned to the child in placement.  The court typically does not communicate any updates or information to the foster parents directly.

Some foster parents are made aware of upcoming court dates simply because it comes up in conversation with a caseworker, Law Guardian, or other entity involved in the case.  Some foster parents make it a point to appear at every hearing that is scheduled, even though he/she cannot be heard or sit in on the court proceeding.

Often, the court makes determinations during hearings that affect the biological parents of children in foster care.  And, just as often, the court makes determinations that affect the children themselves and/or their caregivers.  For example, the court may order that the foster family ensure that a child in care attend an evaluation or participate in an activity; or visitation with biological family may be increased or become unsupervised.  These case changes can greatly affect the day-to-day life of the child in care as well as his/her caregivers.  These changes need to be presented to foster families in an accessible and consistent way.  The proposed Bill would be a huge step in the right direction for this type of information exchange.

Throughout the course of a case, the court makes decisions regarding the children that are the subject of the matter without ever hearing from, or consulting with, the children’s primary caregivers.  Often, children in foster care behave or present themselves in ways that are completely different from written reports.  Without hearing from the caregivers themselves, the court is left to rely on second-hand knowledge – from caseworkers, Law Guardians, etc. – in making major decisions for children in care.  DCPP workers may not know all the facts or details regarding things that are happening with a child, yet they are the main point of information transfer between the child in care and the court.

When the Division places a child into foster care, the Division’s knowledge of the child and his/her needs is very limited.  Most often, the Division has had little to no involvement with a family before something happens that warrants removal of the child(ren) from the biological parents.  In these cases, it is understandable that the Division will have limited information to share with the child’s foster parents upon placement.  However, as time goes on, the foster family will have the only direct interaction with the child(ren) on a daily basis.  Foster parents can offer a lot of insight and information to the court.  I am not suggesting that foster parents have control over the entire case and be able to make decisions about what happens regarding parental rights or anything of that sort.  But, I do think it is important for the court to hear from the foster parents directly regarding the progress, status, and health of any children in care.  The more information that the court has available to it, the better positioned the court is in making decisions in the best interest of the child(ren).  After all, that is who the Division and the court are ultimately trying to protect.

Sometimes the Division has been involved with a family for some time before a removal happens.  In some cases, the Division has the ability to offer biological families services and support in an effort to provide continued safety and security for the child(ren) while also preventing a removal.  Sometimes those efforts are not successful and the child(ren) are ultimately placed in foster care.  In that case, the caseworker may have lengthy historical information about the child(ren) because they have worked with the family and have already interacted with the child(ren).  Because there are no foster parents involved while the Division has care and supervision over a family, reports about the children and their behaviors come directly from parties to the case – either biological parents or the Division.  There is no need for a middle man, and less room for error in communicating the child(ren)’s needs and wants.  However, once a child goes into foster care, things change dramatically.

A child in care will inevitably experience a period of transition and adjustment.  It is extremely important that the court be able to fully understand the needs of the child in care in order to best provide for the child.  If the court is left to rely on testimonial information from the biological parents and/or the caseworker, the court may inadvertently make uninformed and inappropriate decisions.

In my own experience, information sharing among the court, the Division, and foster parents is inconsistent and variable.  It becomes difficult for foster parents and the system to fully and effectively provide for children in care when everyone isn’t on the same page.

Let me share a condensed version of one story:

An 8-year-old and 9-year-old sister and brother – that were involved with the Division for over five years – were removed from their biological mother.  The biological father was in jail out of state and had been intermittently involved in the children’s lives.  The children were removed primarily due to allegations of physical abuse.  When the foster parents were first given information about the children, the Division left out very pertinent and important information, and even included erroneous information.  The ages and grades of the children were incorrect, and reports of the children’s medical needs were incorrect.  The entire mental health and diagnosis history – which was extensive and known to the Division – was left out.  The foster parents were advised that the female child previously received speech therapy due to delayed speech and was happy and healthy otherwise.  The male child had reported diagnoses of ADHD, autism spectrum disorder, and PTSD.  It was reported that neither child had an IEP (Individualized Education Program) in school and that both were well-behaved, respectful children.  The foster parents accepted the placement of the children.

Within a few months of the children being in the foster home, it became clear that the information provided by the Division was completely contrary to the day-to-day experiences that the foster family was having.  Additionally, the foster family periodically, and usually accidentally, received reports that the male child had a history of violent, angry, and frequent outbursts.  Meanwhile, he was thriving in his new home and was able to come off several medications.  It became clear that many of his alleged behaviors were due to the environment in which he was raised, in conjunction with the negative thoughts that his biological mother put in his head.

The situation for the female child, however, was completely opposite.  After the honeymoon period of the placement wore off, she began exhibiting signs of serious mental health and behavioral concerns.  She became increasingly confrontational and violent with the foster parents.  She would tantrum for hours at a time and was acting out in school.  During conversations with the Division, details of the child’s history were revealed in a piecemeal fashion, including oppositional behavior from an early age as well as inappropriate relations with family members. The foster parents eventually had to have the child admitted to a child psychiatric unit due to her disruptive behavior and have her moved to an alternative foster home.  After moving through several placements rather quickly, the female child ultimately ended up being placed in a therapeutic foster home in another county

While the children were adjusting to their new home and arrangements were being made to move the female child to a new home, there was much discussion among the Division and the court regarding the status of the male child – Should he stay where he is?  Should he move with his biological sister?  Should his request to stay where he is carry any weight in the case?  These discussions were occurring among Division workers and supervisors, the court, the children’s psychologist, and the Law Guardian.  However, the foster parents had zero say in anything that was happening and zero ability to participate in the conversations about what would be in the children’s best individual interests.  Additionally, the foster parents advised the Division that, based on the foster parents’ conversations with the children’s therapists, teachers, administrators, etc., the female child should not be placed in a home with younger children, that she would ideally be the only child in a home, and that she should be in a therapeutic environment.  Because the foster parents were not a party to the case and had limited – if any – say in the happenings of the case, the Division moved the female child to whatever home was available.  And, unfortunately, she has now moved at least three times since she left the original foster parents’ home.  And, at the end of the day, the female child is succeeding best in the environment in which the foster parents suggested in the first place.

In the example above, the fact that the foster parents were not a party to the case ultimately was detrimental to one of the children in care.  Rather than the foster parents, the Division, and the court working together to come up with the best solution for the child, the court was left to make decisions without input from the people with the most relevant and accurate information about the child’s current status.

Foster parents receive specific training from the Division in order to become licensed, and they must undergo continuous education as they remain licensed.  Foster parents have a lot to offer to a case, and they should absolutely be a party to any legal proceedings that relate to the Division’s case.

I would love to hear from other foster parents.  What are your thoughts on this Bill?  Have you had any placements where your lack of involvement was detrimental?