Family Reunification Workers Speak Out
by Richard Bermack
The Lance Helms case and the
Polanco hearing have raised questions about the family reunification
program and dependency court: Is there too much emphasis on reunification
at the expense of child safety? Should the time within which parents may
complete a reunification plan be shortened to six months? Is the criminal
court model appropriate for dependency court? The Dragon asked family
reunification workers in Los Angles, Alameda, San Diego, San Francisco,
Fresno, and Tulare counties what they thought.
With the poor prognosis for reunification, many feel
that the reunification time should be shortened to expedite permanent
placement in a safe, stable family where children can get on with their
lives. The younger the child, the more adoptable he or she is. This is
the rationale behind legislation to shorten the reunification period to
six months and to change the priority from reunification with the biological
parent to protection of the childs safety and well being.
Substance abuse is the stumbling block confronting most of these parents. With drug recovery programs requiring six to 12 months, many workers feel six months is not enough time. Elaine Brown, FR, Los Angeles County, expressed the opinion of many workers: I dont like the idea, I think parents need more than six months to deal with something as serious as drug addiction. Sometimes it takes more than 18 months. I have a case right now where mom went into a drug treatment program, she left, she got back out there again, she started using again, she finally came back, got into another drug treatment program, and started to do very well. She was past the 18-month period, so instead of having her kids go up for adoption or legal guardianship we kept them in long-term foster care, so that after she completed the program she could get the children back. She needed the additional time.
John Ikerd, FR, Tulare County, feels that six months
is not enough time to reunify but, he could evaluate the likelihood of
success for most clients in six months and decide which ones to terminate
and which to continue with services. However, he warned that many clients
have surprised him long after he would have written them off. He worries
that these clients would fall through the cracks under the proposed changes.
Lauran Michael, FR, Los Angeles County, is against changing to six months, but thinks it should be easier to terminate right away. She explained, If there is a case where a woman has had four or five drug babies and this is number six, I think we should be able to just take the baby and adopt it out. But if this is the first or second baby and it is a young mother, she might just need some time.
Most of the workers we spoke with agreed that there should be more flexibility, and that after the x number of drug babies, or the x number of times a child returns to the system, immediate permanent placement should be an option. However, what that x number would be, no one was ready to say. It is not an exact science, a worker commented. And even the workers who were the most pessimistic about their clients quickly referred to a client who, long after the worker had given up, suddenly turned around and became a model success story.
Family preservation is the last stage in the reunification process. Inger Acking and Benelia Terry, family preservation workers in Alameda County, explained the complexity of their task.
Terry: Many parents are so angry and hostile in the first six months towards what has happened, and what the court is saying they need to do to get their child back, that they are not even ready to think about changing their life around. My typical client is a female, non-high school graduate, who started using drugs and got pregnant as young as 14. Now in her late 20s she has finally matured enough to make a choice. Before then, it is up in the air, because they still have their teenage years to go through.
Acking: When parents get clean and sober they start dealing with their own issues of the abuse they suffered growing uptheir own painful childhoods that led to using drugsnormally in recovery they need to be clean and sober for 12 months to deal with themselves, before they can really start to deal with what was going on with their kids, but instead we are returning the kids immediately. It is a set-up. It is important to return as soon as possible, but the parents need to be recovered and safe.
San Francisco FR worker Helga Zimmerer opposes the proposal to shorten the time for reunification as a short-term solution. In the long run children want to be with their [birth] parents, she said. The problem is the lack of services to hook these parents up. She also pointed out that foster care is not a magic solution. Children have been killed or abused in foster care too, she cautioned.
However, Jill Stewart, journalist and expert on infant deaths, told the Dragon that statistically, deaths or injuries in foster care are uncommon. Most deaths and serious abuses occur in the home of the biological parents. According to Stewart, the dangers of foster care homes are a myth.
Most workers agree that if there is any possibility of sexual abuse or physical physical danger, the child should be in foster care. However, the emotional impact on all parties of removing the child shouldnt be minimized. And finding the right match of child and foster parent isnt always easy. Mary Ann Jordan, a continuing worker (FR) in Tulare County, stated, Ive seen kids tossed from foster home to foster home. They dont feel love, they dont feel they belong, and they dont do well in school. Then they get out and have a baby and the whole cycle starts again.
Jordan feels that unless the child is in danger, the
child is usually better off in the home of his or her biological parents.
She would like to see a more active family maintenance program providing
services to strengthen and correct the problems in the home before the
child is removed.
Many workers feel that there are already regulations in place to allow termination of the reunification process for clients who show no prospect of success, however, the cumbersome court process can take longer than waiting out a 12 month reunification plan. In general workers felt the court system to be the log jam for quickly placing kids, and to be out of touch with the reality of social work.
Tony Bravo, family preservation, emergency response, Los Angeles County, explains the difficulty with the courts: It seems like two different worlds. We are dealing with child safety, and they are dealing with legalities. If somebody can raise a technicality, he wins the case. County counsel face intimidation from the hearing officers. They know the way these hearing officers think, so they kind of pressure the worker to tailor their reports based on what the hearing officer likes. They will say, This hearing officer is not going to go along with this but if you maybe recommend something differently. . . . In other words, they will say, Change your recommendation to please the court.
In the hope of obtaining more aggressive representation, Los Angeles is considering a pilot program in which district attorneys will provide counsel for Department of Children and Family Services in cases involving physical abuse.
The problems with county counsel in Los Angeles was
not echoed in other counties. Most workers reported that despite occasional
professional disagreements, county counsels do a very good job. They
do a better job than many of the private attorneys, according to
Zimmerer of San Francisco.
Reasonable Efforts Versus Unreasonable Burdens
Many workers also feel the reasonable effortsrequirement creates a bad therapy model by preventing the clients from taking responsibility, for example, workers are often blamed for a clients failure to show up for drug treatment. According to Mary Ann Jordan, When I go to court, I feel it is the social worker on trial. We are blamed for the parents failure to comply. The parent should be held more accountable. The system has become an enabler for the parents.
Although workers are split on many of the issues, they all agree that the regulations are not the main problem. The main problem is workers do not have time to do their jobs. Not surprisingly, we heard glowing reports of successful outcomes from workers like Larry Freed and Loretta DeCunzo in San Diego, or Bradley in Monterey, who have caseloads in the 20s, and horror stories from workers in other counties with caseloads in the 40s and 50s. In Los Angeles, workers have put the department on notice, through contract language, that they will not be held responsible for problems when caseloads are beyond the danger point.
Regulatory reform will accomplish little if the workers arent given the time and the resources to do their jobs and to carry out the reforms.
The Dragon would like to thank the following workers for their help. Ron Luna, Fresno, Giselle Hulbert, LA, and Kathy Donovan, Alameda County.