Before we can have a discussion about going to court, you need to have some background understanding of how children come into CPS custody and the legal process that follows. I remember my excitement when we finally came to this point in our foster care training. Being analytically minded, I was chomping at the bit to take in every ounce of information in an attempt to understand the process we were signing up for. Again, this is specific for Texas, but at least it provides a point of reference for those of you who live elsewhere.
Okay, let’s say CPS has been called by a school nurse for suspicions of neglectful care of a child. CPS conducts an investigation, and does confirm concern for neglect. Depending on the degree of neglect and circumstances, CPS will generally follow one of three tracts:
1. They recommend Family Based Services. The child stays in the home, the family receives services, which may include help finding permanent housing, employment, parenting classes, etc. CPS may choose to follow that family for a year or so to ensure that the child is being cared for and the parents are making progress.
– OR –
2. The child is placed in a kinship placement. Now, this is a huge one here in Bexar county, and because this option is always considered first, the majority of kids who need to be removed from their home will land in one of these placements. From what I understand, the definition of “kinship” can be pretty broad. There are the obvious options – grandma, grandpa, aunt, uncle, but if none of those come through, well let’s also consider mom’s friend, a neighbor, a friend’s family, uncle’s girlfriend, the family at church, 1st cousin, you get the idea. CPS will continue to monitor the child without taking custody, and creates a “safety plan” that sets the terms for the placement (for example, bio dad is not allowed to visit the home).
-OR FINALLY –
3. CPS removes the child from the family, takes custody and places them in a foster home. Because of #2 above, a fairly high percentage of children who make it down to #3 actually end up being adoptable by the foster family. The statistics I have heard range from 40-70%. You can imagine the number of resources you have to fall through and lack of support you have to have for your child not to have a kinship placement option. Sometimes I muse myself with the thought of how many people I know who would step forward as a kinship placement for my biological children should they be removed from us, heck, I mean I think besides our family and closest friends, likely our entire church could qualify as a kinship placement, and then what about my neighbors, etc., etc. so I hope the list could be pretty long.
Now, let’s say the above child, who was alerted to CPS by the school nurse, has had their home investigated and CPS has deemed it necessary to remove the child from the home. No appropriate kinship placement has been found and they have now chosen option 3 and are placing the child with a foster family (watch for a future post discussing what that fateful day looks like for the accepting foster family). Within 72 hours or so, CPS goes to court for what is called the “262 hearing” (termed such after Family Code, Chapter 262, subchapter B “Taking possession of a child”). CPS may continue to look for a kinship placement while awaiting the first hearing. At the 262 hearing the case is presented before the judge and a decision is made as to whether the child should be returned home to bio parents or CPS should officially take custody. 72 hours is a rough guideline, 262 can be delayed if the bio family is taking legal action, hiring an attorney, etc.
Okay, so the child’s case has been presented to the judge and the ruling is that CPS will take custody of the child. Now, the timeline begins. The bio parent(s) are given a CPS plan as far as what steps they need to take to regain custody of their child and exactly how long they have to complete their plan. These steps may involve drug rehab, regular drug testing, parenting classes, anger management classes, demonstration of consistent employment, demonstration of a place to live, a psychological evaluation, etc. This plan is clearly laid out for the parents and dates are set for the future hearings. An ad litem is assigned to the child, the bio parents are also assigned attorneys. CPS, the ad litem, the bio parent attorneys, the bio parents, and the foster parents (if they choose to attend as listeners only), will now be in court at 3 months, 6 months, 9 months and 12 months to present progress on the case.
Keep in mind, that when CPS takes custody there are two possible outcomes (you will here these terms frequently):
1. Reunification (child goes back to bio parent – an outcome that everyone in the process has to hope for unless deemed unsafe)
2. Termination (bio parent rights are terminated, either because the court deemed the parent unsafe or because the parent chose to relinquish their rights). Termination of parental rights is often referred to as “TPR”, that’s another good acronym to store in your back pocket.
Until the 9 month mark, CPS has a legal responsibility to track the case for both possibilities. As early as 9 months the court can terminate parental rights if it has already become clear that the case is headed in that direction. If that doesn’t happen, then by 12 months a “decision of permanency” needs to be given – either we’re going for reunification or we’re terminating parental rights. If bio parent seems to be “working their plan” but isn’t quite there yet, they can give one 6 month extension. By 18 months, at the latest, everyone should have a final decision. Of course there are exceptions to any rules, but this is generally how things flow. If termination of parental rights occurs, the case enters a final 90 day waiting period for any extended family to come forward (although remember, at this point they’ve often already had one year to come forward). After the 90 days, the foster family is given the chance to adopt.
This sets the stage for me to tell you the story of our court experiences. Until I have time, you can wow your fostering friends by speaking their lingo and asking them questions such as, “has 262 happened already?”, “does it look like it’s headed towards reunification or termination?”, “has TPR happened?” Oh yeah, you’ll be down with your CPS peeps.
Does twelve months seem fast to you? It did to me. Here’s the thing though, one facet of this process that no one will argue with is that children do not do well in the foster system. By that I don’t mean that they don’t thrive and heal in loving foster homes. But as soon as children pass 262, the preeminent goal of everyone involved must be to get them out of CPS custody – either home with bio parent, or permanently into a loving adoptive home, hence the rigid timeline. We know some sweet foster children whose bio mother was a product of the foster system. She spent her entire life in foster care, over 30 placements, suffering some abuse, and finally becoming an emancipated minor at 17. It’s too late to change her past, but it’s not too late to change the course for her bio children who are now in that precarious place that is the foster system. Get it done, make decisions, get these kids in their forever homes (bio or adoptive) as quickly as possible!