I found my calling-finally! Yes, I want to be an esquire, an attorney, the people you love to love to hate: Juan-esquire-attorney-extraordinaire. It seems you can never have enough. How many attorneys does it take to handle a case in the foster care system? While I mean to bring a little levity to these posts, it isn’t actually the start of a joke. At last count we have had at least eight different attorneys working on different sides of the case. New ones come in; old ones depart. What’s one more attorney?
Okay so I found my calling after having researched some of the laws and regulations related to the foster care system. We have now reached what in Federal Law is a milestone–15 months. Four days ago we marked 15 months that our foster son has been with us. In our daily lives it doesn’t mean anything except that it seems like a really long time-most of our foster son’s young life. Under the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA), the Federal law that guides States in their administration of the local foster care system, it is significant. What I have discovered in my research is that State social services agencies must move towards the termination of parental rights (TPR), if a child has been in foster care for 15 months of the most recent 22 months and it is determined that a child cannot be safely returned home. That is where we are, apparently. We have spent a lot of time trying to understand what all of the milestones mean: shelter care, adjudication, disposition, permanency plan review. If you place them end to end in this case they extend to 15 months. We knew that we were approaching a critical juncture but didn’t know enough to understand what it meant for us and our son. And neither did–it seems–any of the case workers involved in our son’s case. While none of them are lawyers, one would assume that at least they would understand their own regulations which are based upon the Federal Law. It’s their bread and butter. Because we have reached this milestone and because the two of us have begun to make some noise, workers and their supervisors are planning to gather to discuss the case before the hearing next week. As well, they have determined that it is time to include us more in the process. It probably didn’t hurt that we made it known that we were ready to go to the head of our local services agency with the problems we have been having.
What we have discovered is that there is often a lot of uncertainty among case workers about what the Code of Maryland Regulations says, and certainly there is no familiarity with the Federal laws upon which the code is based. And though Social Services clutches its code of regulations, wielding it like a sword or cowering under it like a shield, in practice there is this kind of misinformation based upon misinterpretation about what their own regulations say. Both Darrow and I have been very active in our research of foster care and adoption. We are not the types to take social services at their word. Since this is a process driven by statute, case law, and regulations, and we all live from court date to court date, we have become good little attorneys. For example, we are currently in a bit of a battle with social services over the interpretation and application of the 15-month milestone. I recently put together a paper that outlines the problem with the current interpretation of the regulations by one of the supervisors in this case. I must add that I am quite proud of it. I managed to make the case without whining like the deranged foster parents that they think we are.
Unfortunately much of what this process is about, seems arbitrary including the 15-month rule. Though each segment of the timeline is prescribed, it is also subject to change by the courts. No one really understands the significance of the milestone. Was it based upon research or just an arbitrary number that Congress came up with? Maybe it is too short to really give families an opportunity to get themselves together. Or maybe it is too long especially for little children who begin to languish in the system. What about those kids who are born into foster care–and mind you I used to care for some of them in my volunteer gig–15 months is literally their entire life. In our son’s case he has been in the foster care system exactly 468 days of his 746 day life.
So what can we make of these things–be glad that it isn’t something like 24 months? In the meantime while we arm ourselves with regulations and law to do battle with the giant-foster-care-system-beast, we continue to focus on life’s milestones. Did we tell you that our foster son is no longer sitting in a high chair but in a booster seat? Did we tell you that he now uses contractions and short three word sentences? Did we mention that our little boy had a birthday–that he just turned two years old last week?