December 4, 2014 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
The State of Nebraska Foster Care Review Office has completed its review of children in foster care through the end of fiscal year 2014 that ended last June. Here it is. There’s not a lot that’s truly scandalous, but the part on fathers bears mention.
The report is 150 pages long and, of those, a grand total of three are devoted to fathers. And even that small number doesn’t really communicate the shallowness of the treatment accorded dads.
As we’ve seen many times before, when a child is taken from a mother due to abuse or neglect, the question arises of what to do with it while the child welfare agency is trying to figure out if Mom is suitable to regain the child. Generally, the possibilities are foster care, father care or kinship care, i.e. one of the child’s relatives who’s not the parent. And, as we’ve also seen, and as the Urban Institute has reported, child protection agencies routinely ignore the second possibility. In so doing, they also ignore all the father’s relatives as possible placement for the child. The federal Administration for Children and Families has tried to get states to seek out fathers and determine if they can take those children, but to little avail. It even has a handy-dandy booklet explaining the virtues of fathers and how to integrate formerly absent fathers into children’s care. And at least in the Ninth Circuit, states are required by law to contact fathers as possible placements for children in need, but if the behavior of state agencies has changed, it’s not obvious.
Nebraska’s 150-page report says so little about involving fathers that it’s impossible to tell what the actual data are. To its credit, the report exhorts child welfare agencies to locate fathers and find out if they can take the kids, but there’s no way of knowing how many have been contacted in the past, how many proved to be workable placements, how mothers responded to fathers caring for the kids, what happened to custody orders when fathers became involved, etc. It looks very much like the FCRO didn’t much care about involving fathers and did the bare minimum required to refer to them in its report and ask agencies to do better.
Whether or not the father is a suitable caregiver for the children, the father’s due process and constitutional parental rights must be addressed if the children’s well-being is to be adequately addressed.
Just so, but somehow I doubt that a single sentence in a 150-page report will light a very large fire under agencies already entrenched in how they conduct business, and that are in any case underfunded and understaffed.
The data show that only about 19% of fathers with kids who’ve been taken from their mothers due to abuse or neglect have either voluntarily relinquished their parental rights or had them terminated. Another 3% had died. That leaves 78% of fathers as possible placement alternatives, but what efforts were made to connect them to their kids? Who knows? The report is silent on that topic. All it says is that the agencies need to try harder and do better.
Through reviews the FCRO found significant issues with the identification of fathers, with ensuring fathers were involved in their children’s cases or, if unsafe, had their legal rights acted on, and with the “engagement” of the fathers…
Lack of paternity identification has been linked to excessive lengths of time in care for children. Delays in identifying paternity can also result in delays in determining if the father or any of the paternal relatives are appropriate placements for the child…
Some of the structural barriers to father engagement were obvious in the first two rounds of the federal CFSRs (child welfare reviews). Policies, practices, and trainings to support and encourage father engagement were absent.
Again, that’s all true, but it doesn’t sound like the clarion call of change to me. For one thing, the report entirely fails to establish a baseline of data from which later reports could conclude whether things were improving or not. There simply are no figures, so future investigators will be unable to know if agencies are doing better at locating and involving fathers, doing worse or not changing. And that of course is the short route to sweeping the problem under the rug. When (if?) asked, future heads of CPS agencies will be able to claim to have made improvements and no one will be able to prove them wrong or right.
Plus, it seems that no effort at all is made to involve fathers until mothers’ rights have been terminated, often a period of many years, during which little Andy or Jenny has been in and out of foster homes several times. Why not involve the dad the very first time the child is removed from the mother’s home? As I’ve said before, that would be far cheaper since, unlike foster parents, fathers aren’t entitled to be paid by the state to care for their own children. And typically, the care the kids would receive would be better. Plus, the children wouldn’t have to be separated from extended family members. In fact, if the father hasn’t been involved in the child’s life, he/she would actually gain an entire extended family. Those are the type of social resources Sara McLanahan and Gary Sandefur identified as being vital to children’s well-being.
All of that of course is lost when CPS agencies decide to ignore fathers.
The reason they wait to contact a father until the mother has had her rights terminated is that, in a way I don’t understand, a mother who’s been adjudicated to have abused or neglected a child, can “take the child from permanent placement with the father,” unless there’s been a court order granting him custody.
Often paternity is not addressed until after the mother’s rights are relinquished or terminated instead of addressing the suitability of the father as placement earlier in the case. This can cause serious delays in children achieving permanency because the case must start from the beginning with reasonable efforts to reunify with the father. Even after fathers are legally identified, they are often not adjudicated or included in the plan for their children.
Another issue related to fathers is change of custody orders if the mother has custody and the father is a more suitable parent. For children that are involved in juvenile courts, there is a lack of clarity as to whether the juvenile court is to enact the change of custody orders or if that must be done in district court. Some children have lingered in foster care because the juvenile court case cannot be closed until custody is permanently assigned to the father; otherwise, if the mother retains legal custody she could legally take the child from placement with the father.
Put simply, that just doesn’t make sense. The whole point of taking a child from a custodial parent is that s/he’s been found to have abused or neglected it. That means that parent temporarily has no power over the child and certainly not the power to take the child from the father. After all, if a mother could do that, she’d have the same ability to take the child from a foster parent, but she doesn’t. Is it really true that she can do so from the child’s father? It sounds impossible, but I suspect the report’s authors know what they’re talking about.
The report makes recommendations that encourage agencies to remember fathers.
- Ensure that there is a timely and diligent search for all family at the beginning of the case, including children’s fathers.
- Ensure that rights of the father are appropriately addressed by stakeholders and courts from the time of removal. Do not wait until it is clear that the mother cannot or will not safely parent before addressing the father.
- Measure whether fathers are adjudicated on in juvenile court, and whether appropriate services are provided for fathers.
- Clarify the issue of which court is to enact a change of custody orders involving children that have experienced abuse or neglect for whom such a change is warranted.
Good intentions, but I don’t see much change resulting from this report.
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