Okay, so since disposition-ing isn’t really a word, let me be the first to coin it. In the world of the foster care system, the disposition hearing is a BIG DEAL. While it’s just another step in the long legal process, it’s a significant one. “The purpose of the disposition hearing is to determine whether a child needs or requires the court’s assistance and the nature of that assistance.” The specific term given to children that require court intervention is CINA or child in need of assistance. A CINA child is one where the a court’s involvement is necessary because “(1) the child has been abused, has been neglected, has a developmental disability, or has a mental disorder and (2) the child’s parents, guardian, or custodian are unable or unwilling to give proper care and attention to the child and the child’s needs.”
There are several outcomes from disposition hearings. In our case the determination was that T should be committed to long-term foster care. This is a welcome decision, it has just taken a lot longer than we expected. Usually the adjudication hearing and the disposition hearing occur on the same day and happen 30 days after a child is placed in emergency shelter care. Our son has been with us living in emergency shelter care status since October 22, 2007. So thirty days has slowly evolved into nearly seven months. This is an example of how what might appear as a more expeditious process on paper, in practice allows primarily young children, to languish in the system.
The disposition gives us certainty that our foster son will be with us at least through August. While that may not seem like much comfort, it also places all parties on a trajectory rather than just having them wandering around aimlessly. It also imposes a time clock which serves to bring the proceedings to some conclusion. Time and direction help to force all parties through each approaching legal proceeding towards one of two outcomes: reunification or the termination of parental rights (TPR). We have reached the moment when parties for the first time begin to consider the possibility of TPR, and therefore adoption.
One of the bigger issues in moving beyond emergency shelter care is that the sense of dread from these frequent hearings is gone. We knew that the complexity and seriousness of the situation made it likely that T would remain with us, however the failure of Baltimore City Department of Social Services (BCDSS) to document and put forth a solid case raised doubts about a positive outcome each time we waited outside of the courtroom. Every month as a hearing approached we were faced with the same prospect: that our foster son could be returned to his parents and that the failings of BCDSS would have contributed toward that possibility. As long as T remained in shelter care, this was one of the possibilities and not something that could be ignored.
We did not wait outside the courtroom this time, as we were headed off to the airport on vacation and we had been advised that the master (the person presiding over the juvenile court) was likely to offer the parents another continuance. To our surprise, she instead decided that T’s parents had had sufficient opportunities to make the changes in their lives necessary to regain custody of their children, and they failed to do so.
Now that he has been committed to long-term foster care, all of the parties have new or different roles. The onus for reunification now resides completely with his parents and the court has indicated its willing to take action to address the situation, should they not show a greater level of initiative. Fortunately, the failures of BCDSS have not had a significant impact on the outcome. Their job of putting together and pressing this case has mostly been completed and as such BCDSS has a slightly diminished role. Finally our role has changed completely. We actually one, and are now considered an interested party in the case. We will be invited to every hearing from here on out and will have the opportunity to speak and to articulate our great love for this boy and our desire to continue to raise him. The next day in court is in August. At that time we will finally have the opportunity to understand what has been transpiring in the courtroom–who the players are; how they conduct themselves in court; and most importantly how the case is perceived by the master.
When it comes to this process of fostering-to-adopt, we knew it would be a long road. I don’t think we recognized just how long or how hard it would be. Here we are almost 8 months into this and are just now officially becoming a part of the legal process. Though we both recognize the significance of this giant step forward, it was a long time in coming and felt a little anti-climatic. If you look at the legal procedural flowchart it appears we have traveled quite some distance. The problem is that along this path there are no mile markers. We don’t know if the distance we have traveled is equal to the distance we have yet to travel or whether we will be on this road for a very long time.