How Are Victims of Domestic Violence Affected by Efforts to Identify Fathers in Dependency Cases?

Emilie MeyerEmilie Meyer, Assistant Attorney, Family Violence Department, NCJFCJ (pictured)
Katy Yetter, Senior Attorney, Family Violence Department, NCJFCJ

Summary: A child welfare agency’s efforts to locate fathers should be balanced with safety considerations, including the recognition that reintroducing an abuser into the dependency process may jeopardize the custodial mother and the child.

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Timely permanency is the overarching policy goal of child welfare. The Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 requires timely permanency for abused and neglected children. The Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008 requires due diligence to identify and provide notice to all adult relatives within 30 days of removal. Timely permanency necessitates early identification of, and legal notice to, both parents, unless safety is an issue. It also requires that courts engage both parents in case planning and offer appropriate reasonable efforts services to both parents.

In many removal proceedings, the petition filed by the child welfare agency lists the name of the mother, along with her contact information for service of process, but states identifying information for the father as "unknown" or lists the father's name with "whereabouts unknown." Generally speaking, efforts to identify the father can positively impact safety, permanency and well-being outcomes for children. The father may provide placement for the child; he may be able to develop a positive relationship with the child; he may be able to provide resources for the child; and his relatives may be available for placement if neither parent is able to do so. 

However, identifying fathers in dependency cases may raise safety concerns for custodial mothers and their children when the father has been abusive. It is critical that courts and child welfare agencies recognize the risks associated with involving a father in the dependency process if he has perpetrated domestic violence against the mother. Because dependency cases are time-sensitive and require the caseworker to have training and guidance, laws and policies around identifying fathers must specifically address appropriate responses in cases of domestic violence. Unsafe interventions in domestic violence situations may contribute to poor outcomes for families.

State laws

Apart from federal timelines, states may impose additional timelines to certain instances of identifying fathers:

  • Alaska and Arizona require diligent attempts to locate a father within three months of filing a dependency petition.
  • California requires that the child welfare agency provide notice to “the father and mother” before the initial court hearing, with no exception for an unidentified father.
  • Georgia requires notice be given to a nonresident parent within 30 days of filing a dependency case.
  • Florida,  Rhode Island  and Texas focus on court oversight and require that judges inquire into the child welfare agency’s efforts to notify nonresident fathers within a certain timeframe.

Although timelines are designed to expedite permanency, they may discourage caseworkers from screening for domestic violence or discussing with custodial mothers any concerns she may have about identifying the father. Few state laws provide detailed guidance to caseworkers on identifying fathers when domestic violence is, or may be, a concern.

Agency policy and practice

A 2006 study found that child welfare administrators in each state mentioned repeatedly the danger of involving fathers with a history of domestic violence or violence to a child. This study also found that even where laws provide guidelines, caseworkers’ practices for identifying fathers differed depending on the training and guidance they received.

Courts and child welfare agencies should work together on screening and assessment in dependency cases to ensure that efforts to identify putative fathers do not jeopardize the safety of either the mother or the child by reintroducing an abuser into the family. In general, when working with a custodial mother who has relocated, discontinued contact with, or failed to acknowledge her child’s father, caseworkers and courts should consider the possibility that the mother’s actions were strategies used to protect herself and her children.

Courts and child welfare agencies may also want to consider policies that rely on custodial mothers as the primary source of information about fathers. In cases of domestic violence, relying on the custodial mother may put her in the position of choosing between complying with the court or her caseworker and opening herself to the risk of further violence or of not complying with court orders and risking sanctions from that action.

Conclusion

Courts should ensure that the efforts of the child welfare agency are thorough and diligent in locating fathers.  These efforts must also be informed by safety considerations, including the recognition that reintroducing an abuser into the dependency process may jeopardize both the safety of the child and the custodial mother.

 

Editor's Note: Those assisting victims of domestic violence involved in the dependency court should be familiar with procedures for securing and enforcing domestic violence civil protection orders and the NCJFCJ publication Full Faith and Credit: A Passport to Safety, A Judges Guide is a helpful resource.

Readers are also directed to the November 2009 issue of The Judges' Page,"Identifying, Locating and Engaging Fathers in Dependency Court Cases,"for additional information on federal notification laws and effective practices. "The Role of Support Agencies in Identifying, Locating and Engaging Fathers in Dependency Cases" has suggestions that address the concern raised by the authors regarding courts and child welfare agencies relying on custodial mothers as the primary source of information about fathers and explains the role of child support agencies in pursuing the birth father in dependency cases.

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