Sunday, October 19, 2014

Factors Influencing Successful Reunifications

A little background for any first-time readers: Jack and Jill (not their real names) are our current 2 year old and 1 year old foster children who have been in our home for over a year now, ever since Jill was born and we brought her home from the hospital.  At their Permanency Hearing a couple of months ago their mother was given a 90-day extension to finish up all of the requirements set forth by the court and DCFS in her Service Plan in order to have her children returned to her custody.
 
Jack and Jill's next Permanency Hearing is just one month away and although their mother has made progress over the past couple of months, she still will not have completed a major requirement of her Service Plan due to the fact that she put it off for almost a year and this particular component requires several months to complete.  Because of this and other concerns about her readiness to safely parent her children, both the State's attorney and the children's attorney (their Guardian Ad Liteum) asked that services to their mother through DCFS be discontinued and that their Permanency Goal be changed from reunification to adoption.  Nevertheless, the judge has given Jack and Jill's mom another chance.
 
I wish I could look into a crystal ball and know the outcome of next month's hearing.  That way I would know whether these children will be a part of our family on more than just a temporary basis or whether we will have to say goodbye.  The thing that worries me the most about Jack and Jill returning to their mother's care is that up to this point she hasn't even visited with them for more than five hours a week and has only had one unsupervised visit outside of the DCFS office.  And in less than a month she is expected to care for them 24/7 with very little support! 
 
There have been no transitional visits up to this point for basically three reasons: 1)  Their mother hadn't made enough progress to "earn" more visits with her children until quite recently 2) She hasn't had a place outside of the DCFS office which is suitable for the children to have visits at.  However, part of her progress over the past couple of weeks has included finding a place for the children to return "home" to.  Lastly, 3) Jack and Jill's mom was not able to find any family members or friends who were suitable [and by suitable I mean who were able to pass a background check and be approved by the Division and the GAL to supervise visits] until just last week. 

This week I will meet the family friend who, to my knowledge, has never even met the children.  If my foster children were older and could speak for themselves, certainly they would have a voice in things because it wouldn't just be a question of who their bio family knows who could supervise a visit for them but who the children have actually had a relationship with and can count on to be there for them.
 
Anyway, the reason I mention these points is because I'll admit- my family is going through a pretty upsetting time right now as we are preparing for what could be another heart-wrenching reunification. But when I put my personal feelings on the back burner (because I know- this case is not about ME) and instead I try to see things from a somewhat objective manner and learn from similar experiences in the past it can make it slightly easier to know what to expect with the future.

I've come up with three factors, based on observations of previous foster placements, which lead to successful reunifications.  Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say factors which lead to UNsuccessful reunifications. To me the definition of a successful reunification is when children are able to return to the care of their bio families without having to come back into foster care again because their parents or family members are PREPARED for them to return

When I look back at the children we've fostered who went back to live with their parents and then came back into care again, I can definitely see some patterns and things they have in common and these are what they are:
 
1)  Bio Parents waiting till the last minute to finish up the requirements of their Service Plan.
It doesn't show the court that someone is committed to getting their children back when they pick and choose which requirements they'll complete or only half-heartedly make an effort or wait till the last minute to complete everything.  It appears to me that when bio parents wait till the last minute it's a combination of feeling overwhelmed by all that is required of them as well as the realization finally hitting them (after multiple extensions and chances) that they could permanently lose their children if they don't complete court-ordered services.  

A major advantage to bio families not putting off completing services is that the more they get out of the way the more time they'll be able to spend with their children before having them returned to their care- It seems like a win-win situation for the children in care and their parents  Not to mention giving foster parents some peace of mind about their foster children going back to parents who are ready to care for them!
 
2)  Bio Parents having very little or no family support who can be approved to help watch children or supervise visits.  Domestic violence and addictions are so cyclical; it's disheartening to watch history repeat itself!  This is the reason some foster children are eventually adopted by their foster families (who are many times technically "strangers" to the children at the start of the case) rather than being placed with relatives or family friends.  
 
3)  Lack of sufficient transitional visits before being returned to the full-time care of their bio family.  Numbers one and two lead into number three which is CRUCIAL, in my humble opinion, to  successful reunifications. 
 
In my ideal child welfare world, at the close of a child's case, the children should be spending as much time with their bio parents (or whomever's care they are returning/transitioning to) as they are with their foster family.  In other words, it should kind of look like a healthy joint custody relationship with the foster parents and bio family working together for the good of the child (and putting aside differences- if necessary) so that when a judge decides that it's safe enough for a child to go back it's not a sudden change and disruption to the child nor is it a major stress for the bio parents because the transition to reunification has already taken place rather than just getting started.

Children transitioning to a completely new home environment and attaching to new caregivers is especially important in the not-so-hypothetical case of two babies who have been in the care of their foster family for longer than they've ever been with their bio family and in the case of one of the babies, she has never even spent more than three hours at a time with her bio mom because her foster mom is the only mom she's known since birth.  Not to mention that both of these babies are in a stable, loving home with more than one parent and a big foster sister to whom they are all securely attached and they are both used to regular mealtime, bath time, bedtime routines as well as their own cribs and bedrooms.

"But her place has carpet!" is what Jack and Jill's mom's attorney argued in court when it was brought up at the last hearing that their mother had absolutely no furniture in her new home because all of her money has gone to making the down payment on her new place.  "How nice!" I sarcastically thought to myself "At least the children can have a soft place to lay their heads at night."  And, by the way, if their mom still does not have cribs for her children if the judge orders reunification and it's time for them to go back we'll definitely be sending ours with them so that they can have a place to sleep."   Woops- so much for putting my own feelings and biases on the back burner!
 
But seriously- can you see why I'm so worried about my foster children returning to their mother's care when there have been NO transitional visits and the hearing which basically determines their future is just weeks away?  It's not just for their sake, but for their mother's sake that I'm worried as well.  I worry that she doesn't have a realistic idea of what it's like to care for two children under the age of two as their full-time caregiver. 
 
Case in point: At the end of one three hour visit last week Jack and Jill's mom turned to me in exasperation and said, "They're a handful!"  I smiled, knowingly.  Yes, they can be- even for the most patient and nurturing caregiver.  When curiosity and independence are the norm for a toddler's stage of development and the demands of parenting just one such child requires constant supervision and energy- just imagine the patience and energy (and to some degree refereeing) that caring for two toddlers requires.  Yes, Jill is walking now and actively exploring as much as her older brother- two toddlers!

 "He doesn't like to share." was another comment their mom made to me about Jack after the end of the same visit where she made the comment about them being a handful.  I was a bit concerned about her comment not so much because of what she said but because of the way she said it- with a combination of annoyance and puzzlement.  I hate to admit that  the sarcastic side of me  immediately thought, "What 2- year old does like sharing?" But after analyzing why I was so bothered by her comment I realized that it's out of a deep concern that this grown woman realistically doesn't have a basic understanding of child development that even a pre-teenager or older child might have. 

Keep in mind that Jack and Jill's mother has only cared for one child at a time before- when Jack was a baby.  And that was with the help of her ex-boyfriend (who is the father of both children) and who is voluntarily out of the picture which is unfortunate for many reasons including the fact that I considered him to be the more mature, competent parent.  Jack and Jill's maternal grandmother also helped her daughter care for Jack (as evidenced by their relationship with each other at visits) but as much as she would like to do so, their grandma is not approved to care for Jack and Jill due to her own previous involvement with DCFS. 

This lack of support is what I see as a major red flag for Jack and Jill's well-being if they go back to the full-time care of their mom. I have the advantage (some might even call it a "luxury") to be a stay at home mom and focus all of my energy and time on raising children and keeping a house.  And the reason I'm able to do that is because my husband has a job which provides for us.  I also feel very fortunate that my husband happens to be a great partner in parenting.  On days when it's been especially hard I can always hand a child over to him and say, "Your turn."  But Jack and Jill's mother doesn't have that option of tag-team parenting.  She is a single mom without a high school education who will not only be focusing her energy on working a minimum-wage job so that she can provide the basics for her family but she must take the time and effort to finish up the unmet requirements of her Service Plan in addition to single-handedly caring for her children.  So what happens after a long day at work when she's exhausted or stressed and has two young children vying for her attention?  Who, or more importantly what- is she going to turn to for support?

Although I don't have a crystal ball to look into, my prediction for next month's hearing is that even though Jack and Jill's mom won't have finished ALL of the requirements of her Service Plan but since she's made recent progress and done "enough" since her extension was granted, these children will be returned to her full-time care.  However, based on similar past cases of our foster children, I think the judge will be slightly cautious and heed some of the concerns of the State's attorney as well as the GAL's concerns and return the children to their mother's care on a Trial Home Placement basis, meaning they will reside with their mother but will still be in custody of DCFS and monitored (Thank Goodness) by DCFS. 
 
I also predict that even if these children make it through the Trial Home Basis and are returned to the permanent care of their mother that they will come back into our care again.  The question is how long until they do and how much they will have to suffer in the meantime?

3 comments:

acceptance with joy said...

ugh. Have been there where you are with two children the same ages. Only the mom did all the work she was suppose to do, and we did have the relationship going where the transitioning happened over a long period of time because we shared the kids and she was very prepared. That did not stop her from going back to her addictions a year later. I literally went to her house and took the kids away and forced her into detox. BUT she did not stay clean and safe and I was at her house taking care of the kids more than I was home. FInally DSHS heard enough from me to remove them permanently and their father got them. I grieved that I could not adopt them.... I still am Auntie to them and we have them at our house one day a week. The youngest child was mine from the time he left the hospital at birth and he is very bonded to me to this day. It's tough stuff. Prayers. I personally hope you get to adopt them because it doesn't sound like mom has it together.

Laura@livingabigstory said...

This is so heartbreaking. I have been trying to read more to understand if this is something I could emotionally do. The pain must be intense. But God bless you for the gifts you are giving these children... I look forward to reading more from your experiences.

Ms. said...

In California there is a form to fill out now that foster parents after x amount of days have the same standing for future caregiving as a blood relative. Its horrific and heartwrenching that the choices of others affect the innocent. They are the ones who suffer the most. In our new state the laws are different. The best warm fuzzies to you and your family!!