Considering the Parent's Perspective: Balancing Challenges and Opportunities

Hilary Kushins, Drug Court and Training Programs Manager, Dependency Advocacy Center, Santa Clara County, California

Summary: The author offers a reality-based scenario to illustrate the challenges facing parents whose children are removed from their care and describes some of the benefits of relative placement.


The following scenario is a common one: A mother gets arrested for driving under the influence and possession of an illegal substance. She has three young children. Upon her arrest, the children are physically taken from her and three days later, she is transported from the county jail to her first dependency proceeding. She meets me, her court-appointed attorney, for the first time; she reads the social worker’s report that contains the allegations that form the basis of the children’s removal from her care; and she participates in the initial detention hearing. She is terrified and confused. While the mother has an extensive drug history, this is the first time her children have been removed as a result of her drug use. In the past, her family helped care for the children when she was unable to due to her drug use. At that initial hearing, she learns for the first time that her children are with strangers. I explain to her that the law prefers relative placement and that the social worker must do an assessment of any relative’s home with whom the children could possibly be placed.

It’s challenging to interview my new client on all of the legal issues that must be covered in the first hearing, as she is focused on making sure her children (whom she has had not seen in three days) are placed with family as soon as possible. It’s difficult for her to concentrate on anything else. She informs me she wants the children placed with her mother as soon as possible. I also ask for other relatives' names and phone numbers just in case the grandmother isn’t approved. I make the request on the record at the hearing to have the children placed with the grandmother. The social worker’s attorney indicates that it is their intention to place with grandmother in the next few days. I also ask the court to authorize social worker discretion to choose the supervisor of the visits if the mother is released from custody prior to the next court date. The court does so.

Several days after the initial hearing, the children are placed with the maternal grandmother. The next court hearing, the jurisdictional hearing, occurs three weeks later. We come to court and my client has been released from custody. She has voluntarily begun to participate in some services, including drug treatment and drug testing. She is testing clean. She is much less anxious when I see her this time. She is out of custody and most importantly, she knows that her children are safe and well cared for by her own mother. At the jurisdictional and dispositional hearing, the court takes jurisdiction, adjudges the three children dependents of the court and orders the mother to do a case plan.

As long as she continues to test clean, the court authorizes the maternal grandmother to supervise visitation between the children and their mother. County resources during these financially difficult times do not allow for frequent supervised visitation. But with the grandmother authorized to assist in the visitation supervision, the mother is able to see her children much more frequently than if the children were placed with strangers and the county had to provide paid visitation supervisors. This frequent, consistent, natural-setting visitation motivates the mother to continue doing well in her case plan and increases the likelihood of reunification.

My experience with this mother is typical of clients I represent whose children are placed with relatives while they participate in family reunification services. Relatives can provide the necessary support to clients, who often feel isolated and alone during the dependency process. Furthermore, many clients, particularly those who have an extensive substance abuse history, have burned bridges with members of their families. They may not want to tell family members immediately about their situation or ask anyone in their family to be a placement. But often times, parents will overcome that fear because they want their children to be with family, as opposed to strangers. This becomes an opportunity for family to trust again and to heal; for the parent to begin participating in services and for the relatives to see the parent is serious about making changes in her life.

Relative placement is not without its challenges, however. The relatives may be unwilling to cooperate with CPS. They may not trust “the system.” Their own CPS or criminal history or issues of poverty may prevent them from meeting licensing requirements for placement. Relatives may have a difficult time committing to be a concurrent placement for the children because they view that as not “supporting” their own relative who is the parent attempting to reunify. Some parents may become complacent about participating in their case plan because they know the children are with family and that they will have access to the children even if the children are placed with the relatives permanently.

Despite the challenges described above, my experience is that relative placement continues to be what is best for the family. For the children, it’s a chance to be in a familiar home with kin while the rest of their world has been turned upside down. For the parents, it allows them to concentrate on their reunification plan, to know that their children are safe, and to have the possibility of more frequent contact with their children. In the best case scenario, reunification is more likely to occur and the entire family has a chance to heal.


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