By Lauri L. Devine, MSW
Note: Lauri Devine is a social worker in Arizona. Some of the terms she uses in this article may be different in the public child welfare system in your state.
If you are involved with the public child welfare system, you know that the situation is serious and that things are complicated. Even some of the terms used in the child welfare system can be confusing and intimidating. You may find yourself lost in a forest of terms and titles such as:
|CMDPs||which are||Comprehensive Medical and Dental Programs|
|TPRs||which are||Termination of Parental Rights|
|CFTs||which are||Child Family Teams|
|RBHAs||which are||Regional Behavioral Health Authorities|
What is this foreign language? You may think to yourself, how can I possibly work with all these different people who are telling me about laws and policies which seem to exclude me? All I want to do is reclaim my children and know that they are not lost to the family and the family is not lost to them.
This article addresses some of the problems and solutions that relatives and extended family members have experienced regarding their nieces and nephews and grandchildren in foster care.
There are many possible instances when the child welfare system is involved. For example:
- Perhaps it does not seem that the parents of the children will be getting the children back and the children will need someone other than their parents to raise them.
- Maybe the child welfare case has been going on through the legal processes for months or even years and for various reasons and the relatives have not been involved in the case until now.
- Perhaps the parents’ rights to the children have even been severed and the children are now available to be adopted.
How can a relative get the family involved or re-involved with the children at any point in a Child Protective Services case?
Many states have a process that honors family connections, concerns and abilities when it comes to the children. The process has various names, such as Family Group Decision Making, Family Group Conferencing and the Family Unity Model. If the state your relative children live in offers this option, you must contact the agency and request a Family Group Meeting. This special process is not done in every case so it is possible that not everyone at the agency is familiar with or has been trained to use this service.
When a Family Group Decision Making meeting is requested, the Family Group Decision Making Specialist will review the case to make sure it is appropriate for this process. Routinely, Family Group Decision Making has been used in different situations in different systems. It has been used in schools to address truancy issues, it has been used in medical and criminal justice institutions to address discharge issues, and it has been used in child welfare to do any one or more of the following:
- Identify how extended family members can support parents’ care for their children safely;
- Identify who in the extended family can temporarily take physical custody of a child while the parents are becoming safe and appropriate caregivers;
- Identify who in the extended family can take permanent physical and legal custody of a child whose parents will not likely be able to do so safely; and
- Identify who in the extended family can become an emotional resource and family connection for a child, and though not a placement, would be someone the child could visit and have on-going interactions with while the child is placed in foster care and also when that child ages out of foster care.
Cases in which there is sexual abuse and family members do not believe anything of that nature happened, and cases where there is active and severe domestic violence are NOT cases where Family Group Decision Making should be used.
However, in cases of sexual abuse where family members support the child and acknowledge the abuse, Family Group Decision Making can be an option. In cases of domestic violence, Family Group Decision Making may be appropriate unless there is such a widespread feeling in the family that a certain person is dangerous and they would not want to be in the same room with them, and even in some of those cases the (alleged possible) perpetrator is asked not to attend.
However, cases of sexual abuse and domestic violence account for less than 5 percent of cases presented for review.
Once the Family Group Decision Making Specialist has decided that a meeting is appropriate, the next step is to locate all of the relatives and other people who care about the child and prepare and invite them to the meeting. Each person is a resource and everyone who could contribute to making decision needs to be invited. People from both sides of the family should be included. This includes people who live locally and people who live in another state, as well as older people and young people.
Once everyone who has been invited to the meeting is located and agrees to attend, the Family Group Decision Making Specialist must prepare them for what to expect at the meeting and also prepare them to make important decisions about the children. The family meeting itself, to be productive and arrive at a plan that all agree to, must be focused on the children. All family members and meeting participants are there to devise a plan for the best future of the children, not to settle old scores. This is a time to look to the future, not focus on the past.
The meeting is held at a time and date most convenient to the family at a neutral location. It is not held at the Child Welfare Office or at a participant’s home. It may be a very long meeting, so snacks and lunch are often served. There are usually two facilitators who run the meeting. The Child Protective Services case manager also attends. If possible, the children and their parents attend, as well as all the relatives and other persons who love the children.
The facilitators ensure that everyone has a chance to speak and that the talk is focused on the children and which relatives could be resources to them and how. Perhaps the first hour or two of the meeting is to set the stage for the family making the decisions about the children. Then, the child protective services staff will outline the “bottom line” regarding safety concerns to the group to help guide them in developing their plan.
Next, all of the professionals leave the room and the family members, connected friends and children are there alone to make up a Plan A and a Plan B for the children. After all have agreed to those plans, the professionals return to the room. The Child Protective Services case manager makes sure that the plans do not violate the Child Protective Services bottom line of safety concerns. If the plans are accepted by Child Protective Services agency, then the Child Protective Services agency will submit the plan to the court and tell the court that they support the family’s plan. In almost every case, the judge approves the plan when it is supported by Child Protective Services.
And, in almost every case, Child Protective Services will support the plan of the family. So this family meeting is not just an exercise or a waste of time, it is a place where families can regain power and control over the futures of their children.
Family Group Decision Making incorporates the strengths and concerns of the family with the concerns of the legal system, in order to reach the best possible future for the children. There are special people in almost every state who are trained to do Family Group Decision Making. These individuals arrange and coordinate the meetings. They believe in the power of families to solve their own problems and safely take care of their own children. However, in some cases things may have gotten so bad that the legal system has become involved. The legal system must be respected because once you are in there, you are not getting out until those in the legal system feel certain that the children will be safe.
Family Group Decision Making is not just a long meeting that includes family members and makes decisions about children. It is a process that is planned in such a way as to empower and guide parents, relatives, and all those who love the children, to make the best possible decisions regarding a child’s future. In Child Protective Services situations, this commonly involves where the children will live and which adults will be responsible for raising the children. However, sometimes it might be a case of the extended family continuing to be involved in the lives of the children without the children actually living with them.
Family Group Decision Making makes it possible for family members who love children and want to remain connected to them to take the power and make decisions for the children. If the family members do not do that, then a judge and the child welfare system will be making those decisions. Claim your children’s rights to their family connections and ask that a Family Group Decision Making Family Meeting be held.