Advice for Foster Parents
"The single most significant thing you can do is write everything down."
The Purpose of Dependency
and Foster Care
Working with the Birth Parent(s)
Document, Document, Document
Preparing Documents for Court
Foster Parents’ Right to Be Heard
Join the Fight
The Purpose of Dependency and Foster Care
The primary goal of short term foster care is family reunification, whenever possible. If a birth parent is working hard to get clean, comply with court ordered services, maintain a relationship with their child and remove all their deficiencies in order to get their child back, our job as foster parents is to help the birth parent and the child during the process.
The reality is that every child entering the system has been damaged, and the very act of entering system causes more damage to be done. It is traumatic for a child to be removed from their parent(s) and home, and traumatizing again to be placed with strangers in a strange home. We would never do such a thing unless the alternative – remaining in a situation of abuse or neglect – was worse. This sets the stage for every decision made in the child’s life from that moment on. We are not discovering optimal solutions – we are searching for the alternative that causes the least damage.
Being withheld from your biological parents and family is damaging to a child. But once the child has settled in, removal from the new home where she has bonded is also damaging. Returning to an unsafe home is damaging and unacceptable, as are multiple removals from the same home. But the child will mourn the loss of even an unstable home or an abusive parent. In most cases, the court will give biological parents a second chance. The trauma caused by removal from the foster parents is considered a necessary evil for the sake of restoring the natural family, and the department may offer – or you should request – counseling sessions to mitigate the effect it will have on the child.
When does the balance tilt, such that removal from the new home constitutes a greater risk than withholding the child from her natural parents? There are two instances recognized by the courts:
The conditions necessary to establish the first are set out in law. The
conditions required for the second are based on case law and court precedent,
and therefore requires more rigorous prosecution. The fundamental basis for both
is the same: TIME.
Working with the Birth Parent(s)
It is in the best interests of the child that you work with the birth parents and cooperate with visitations, for many reasons:
The child may be returned to the birth parents even if you believe their fitness is marginal. Parental rights are so strong, the child may be returned even if the department and the court agree with you. If the child is going to be returned to the birth parents, you want the birth parents to be the best they can be.
If the birth parents realize you are trying to help them, you may develop a positive relationship that will allow you continued contact even after the child has been returned. This allows you to help them parent the child that may well have emotional and behavioral issues. It also helps the child deal with the transition, and helps you be sure that the child really is okay.
If the case moves towards termination of parental rights (TPR), and you have an established positive relationship with the birth parents, it is more likely they will agree to an open adoption. This is often preferable to TPR because it establishes permanency for the child sooner, often a year sooner.
Cooperating with visitations makes you the good guy. Failure to fully cooperate demonstrates to the court that you do not act in the child’s best interests.
Lots of visitation can help maintain the parental bond that was hurt by removal. It can also reveal deficiencies. Throwing lots of visitation can make the parent succeed or fail early, so that permanency can be established sooner.
If you and the department are bending over backwards to help the birth parent succeed in visitations, and the birth parent still cannot get out of bed or stay sober, it makes the case for TPR all that stronger. If, however, you have not cooperated with visitations, it gives the birth parent another excuse.
Ways you can help with visitations:
First and foremost – help the child. The child may feel anxiety, uncertainty, fear, and anger around visitation days. You may find regressions in many behaviors, such as language skills, nightmares/night terrors, wetting or soiling themselves, tantrums, aggressiveness, or intentionally hurting themselves or others. Be prepared. Be loving, comforting, understanding, and get the child into therapy if needed. Write down what happens in a daily log – see the section Document, Document, Document, below.
If the birth parent has a hard time showing up for visitations – give him/her a wake up call. They’ll be shocked. But your kid won’t have to deal with a long drive for a no show, and you won’t have to deal with a child with a crushed heart.
If scheduling is an issue, offer to supervise a visit if you feel comfortable doing that. It helps you form a relationship with the parent, and helps the child to see the important adults in his/her life cooperating and getting along. It also makes the visit less scary if you are there.
Gently offer to help the parent with advice on handling the child’s behaviors. This is tricky; a birth parent may be offended at the suggestion that they need your help. A soft sell might help: “That’s a good way to deal with that. Can I show you another way?” or, “I know that’s really hard. Sometimes what I try is…”
Never make disparaging remarks about the birth parent. Children cannot feel positive about two adults that do not feel positive about each other. They can’t handle that conflict. To set the child up with negative feelings causes them to feel bad about their parents, themselves, and you. Acting out on these feelings can make abuse more likely. And it simply is not fair.
Be positive about visitations, even if the child does not feel positive about them. Any implication from you that there is something negative about visits makes them even scarier for the child. As mentioned above, get the child therapy if needed and document all issues.
Be understanding of the birth parents when they freak out if their child calls you “mommy” or “daddy.” Don’t take it personally. The parents are going through their own guilt and emotional issues over the process. Gently explain that you understand why they are upset, and that the child is just trying to make sense of a very confusing situation. Explain that you don’t tell the child to call you “mommy”, but you don’t forbid it, either. The child needs the freedom to call you whatever helps her make sense of her world.
Keep your eyes open during all visitations. Look for signs of drug use or
criminal activity, or adults present that aren't in the parenting plan. If they
is associate with known drug users or criminals, that is reason enough to deny
placement. There should be a background check on any adult in the home, but
quite often that is overlooked.
The department is supposed to conduct background checks on all adults in the home before placing a child. This is accomplished by a specific department in DSHS, which then only shares with the social worker any information it feels is relevant to the fitness of the parent. In other words, they filter out what they don’t think is important. In my experience, they miss a lot and often don’t do checks on everyone they should.
There are some checks that you can do. You can search Washington court records for convictions and judgments from the Internet: http://dw.courts.wa.gov/index.cfm. You can searches based on all or part of the first and last names. Since you will often find multiple people with the same name, you need to be careful here, and do a little digging.
Once you have some case numbers from the courts website, you can go to the individual courts and ask for the files. There is a per page charge for this, based on the court. Usually they charge a small amount per page for photocopies, and a higher fee for notarized copies. Each file will have a docket, which is a summary of the charges, the individuals involved, the outcome, and a list of documents contained in the file.
You can also simply ask the court records clerk for any files based on the name of the individual. If the individual has an extensive history, you may want to check all the local courthouses – municipal, district, and superior court. I have found records this way that were missed by everyone else.
The Washington State Patrol also will give you a state background check for all convictions and any arrests within the last year, but you need to provide first and last names plus date of birth or a social security number. If you’ve pulled any records from the court already based on the cases you’ve found on the courts website, you will probably have the individual’s date of birth listed in the court docket.
WSP charges $10 for this Internet service: https://watch.wsp.wa.gov. It’s a good way to double check the other records you’ve pulled, and see if you’ve missed anything.
You may find a public records search to be useful in identifying an individual and putting together a complete picture. Snohomish County has this online. You can find births, deaths, marriage, divorce, liens, deeds, etc. at http://188.8.131.52/search.asp?cabinet=opr.
A cautionary note here: a background check is not about character assassination. A bankruptcy five years ago, marital troubles, or a few speeding tickets may not be relevant as to whether a person can care for a child, particularly their own child. Even drug use and felony convictions may not prevent the child’s return if the parent can demonstrate that he/she has “removed the deficiency” by rehabilitation.
Some reasons to investigate are:
Document, Document, Document
The single most significant thing you can do is write everything down.
Keep a daily log. Write down the events of the day, the child’s behavior and interactions, and your observations. Document doctor and therapist appointments, visitations, discipline issues, and your corrective actions. Write down the stories of your family life – fun things you did, places you went, funny or significant things the child did or said. Write everything down. Send it periodically to the social worker, case manager, and the Guardian Ad Litem/CASA.
Put your commitment in writing. If you are committed to being a parenting resource for this child, put your commitment to the child and his/her future in writing in the child’s file. Write a letter with words to this effect:
“We love this child and we are willing to adopt her, if she becomes available for adoption. We are committed to this child’s future, and wish to be a resource no matter what the outcome of this dependency. We wish to be the first placement you consider should this child re-enter the system. If we ever in the future state that we do not wish any more placements, she is the exception. She is always welcome in our home.”
Send this letter to the case manager and CC: it to everybody, the judge, the guardian ad litem, the social worker, the supervisor, and the ombudsman (if an ombudsman is involved).
Write letters voicing your concerns. Anytime you have a concern that is not being addressed, write it down and send it CC: to everybody, as above.
Before each review hearing, write a caretaker's report. You can find the form here: http://www1.dshs.wa.gov/ca/fosterparents/caretaker.html. You can find the hearing date and case number on the Individual Service & Safety Plan (ISSP). Cover the child’s progress, current condition, and all your concerns about the placement plan. Do not engage in personal attacks. Do not be judgmental, or rage against the department or a birth parent. Focus on the child, stick with the facts, and be to the point. Present the report to the case manager and the guardian ad litem. You may also CC: it to others, for example, if someone from the Ombudsman’s office has been assigned to the case.
If you wish the judge to see your caretaker’s report, you can file it yourself, following the directions in the section Preparing Documents for Court. However, be aware that anything that you submit to the court becomes a public record that can be viewed by any party to the case. This means your own words can be used against you. If your caretaker’s report is seen to be critical of the bio parents, it can quickly turn your relationship with them adversarial. They may claim your report “proves” you are biased against them. This makes it all the more important that your report focuses on the child and sticks to just reporting the facts.
If you are not comfortable making your report public, you may chose to not file it with the court. In this case, make sure you send it to the case manager and the GAL at least a month before the court date so there is time for them to incorporate your facts in their ISSP and Guardian’s Report, respectively, although be aware that they are not required to include anything from your report in theirs.
Work Up the Chain
If you have concerns you should discuss them with the social worker and the case manager. Ask what the permanency plan is. Ask what they are doing to comply with the Adoption Safe Families Act 1997 (ASFA 97) which requires that permanency be established within 15 months of out of home care.
If the social worker doesn't listen to you, contact her supervisor, and put it in writing as mentioned in the section Document, Document, Document, above. If the supervisor doesn't listen, call the regional administrator. At each stage, voice your concerns, and ask what is being done to promote the primary and secondary permanency plans and comply with ASFA 97. If adoption by you is the secondary permanency plan, ask if a relative search has been completed. You might also ask for a Child Protection Team (CPT) meeting at this point, or ask for the regional administrator to staff a team meeting.
It is important to work up the chain from the bottom, and give each stage a chance to respond and work with you. Do not jump straight to the regional administrator if you haven’t worked with everyone below yet, or they will just send you back down. Give everyone you contact a chance to work with you to resolve your concerns.
If you have attempted to work things out by going up the chain and you still have concerns that DSHS is not acting in the best interests of the child, call the Office of the Family and Children's Ombudsman in the Governor's Office: http://www.governor.wa.gov/ofco. They have a complaint form online which you can fill out and send in. You must file your complaint in writing before the Ombudsman can take action. Use the Ombudsman’s office judiciously. You must first attempt to resolve your problems on your own. The Ombudsman may then appoint someone to staff a team or CPT meeting.
Preparing Documents for Court
You are not required to file any documents with the court. The social worker is supposed to summarize the information you provide in the Individual Service & Safety Plan (ISSP) she prepares for the court. The ISSP should be sent to you at least 10 working days prior to the hearing.
If you choose to file your documents with the court, you do so at your own
Be careful not to bury the judge with too much documentation. The judge must hear dozens of cases every day, and has very little time to glance through all the presented documents. I don’t recommend that you file your daily log, for example, because that can be hundreds of pages. Rather, you should summarize your concerns and/or quote excerpts from the log in your caretaker’s report, which should only be a few pages.
I only recommend that you file with the court:
The warning given in Document, Document, Document above bears repeating here:
anything that you submit to the court becomes a public record that can be viewed
by any party to the case. Opposing lawyers may try to turn your documents around
and use them against you. Therefore you should be very mindful of what you say
in them. You may choose to give your caretaker’s report to only the case manager
and GAL, as discussed above. If you are uncertain, after you give your report to
the case manager, you could discuss with her your concerns about submitting it
to the court. She may offer to incorporate your facts into the ISSP instead.
You need to follow the court rules for filing anything with the court. Each county has its own court rules. You can find them in a law library or by consulting an attorney. Some counties have them online. In my experience, court clerks – who know the rules – are reluctant to share even the simplest bits of information because they don’t want to be accused of giving legal advice.
For King County court rules, you can search here: http://www.metrokc.gov/judicial/local%20rules%202006/lrmenu2.htm
Snohomish County Court Rules
The guidelines below are based on my experience in Snohomish County. I make no warrantees regarding its accuracy or correctness, or applicability to other counties.
Documents filed with the court should be on standard 8½"x11" paper, double spaced. On the first page, you should leave about six inches blank at the top. The rest of the first page should read (replacing what is in italics with the information indicated):
IN THE SUPERIOR COURT OF THE STATE OF WASHINGTON
FOR ____________ COUNTY
|In re the Dependency of:
Child’s full name (including middle name)
b.d. child’s birthdate
The State of Washington,
Birth Mother’s full name, mother,
Birth father’s full name, father,
|NO. Case number found on ISSP|
At the bottom of the last page of your document should be a declaration:
I, _______________, certify or declare under penalty of perjury under the laws of the state of Washington, that I am over the age of 18, am competent to testify, and that the foregoing facts are true and correct to the best of my knowledge.
Signed this ___ day of _______, 20__, at __________ (city), Washington.
Without a signed declaration, any statements you make are only hearsay. A declaration does not need to be notarized.
For the actual filing:
Make sure you make enough photocopies for everyone that has standing in the case (is a party). You need copies for:
a. the assistant attorney general (AAG, representing DSHS)
b. the guardian ad litem
c. the attorneys of all the birth parents (which may be more than two if the case involves half siblings)
d. the judge
e. the file itself (this is not the copy for the judge)
f. a copy for yourself
g. a spare copy in case someone in court claims they didn’t receive one
Be sure the right case number is on the document
Turn in the copy for the file with the court clerk. The clerk will stamp it received. They may also provide you with a stamp to stamp all your photocopies – although you do not need to stamp the copies.
On the copy for the judge, in red ink in the upper right corner, write:
a. The words “Judge’s Copy”
b. the judge’s name (find out from the clerk or from the court calendar)
c. the date of the hearing
d. the courtroom
And then place the judge’s copy in the judge’s box, sometimes located in the court clerk’s office, or in the courtroom. The clerk can tell you where it is.
The public defenders may have an office located in the courthouse with in-boxes to receive filings. Since the birth parents’ attorneys are usually public defenders, you may be able to deliver their copies to them this way.
The AAG might also have a box in the courthouse, but I’ve found they don’t always check it. It’s safer to deliver it to their office.
File one week in advance of the hearing.
Attend the hearing if at all possible to back up your statements. The law now gives you the right to be heard as a foster parent, so walk up to the table with everyone else when the judge calls the case. (Note: On one occasion I was instructed by the judge to leave the table when an attorney complained that I was not a party to the case. Of course I did as instructed. The public defender thought he had scored a point, but such theatrics don't matter. By walking up to the table I had put everyone on notice that I intended to speak, I knew my rights, and I was not afraid of the clowns wearing monkey suits. I then took a seat in the gallery, only to be recalled to the table by the judge when it was my turn to speak. How else could he hear me? No problem.)
Insist on representation for your child. If a Guardian Ad Litem (GAL) has not been assigned, request that the court appoint one. GAL is sometimes called AGAL for an Attorney Guardian Ad Litem, or VGAL/CASA for a Volunteer Guardian Ad Litem/Court Appointed Special Advocate. No placement decision should be made without a court hearing, and no court hearing should be scheduled until there is a CASA/GAL appointed to represent the child’s rights. Insist. Don’t let the case proceed without representation for the child with “agreed upon orders” where all parties agree without a court hearing. If they try to pull that, call the Ombudsman immediately.
Ask for a Child Protection Team meeting (CPT). A CPT meeting is a meeting with a group of professional and concerned individuals to review a case and advise the department and the court. In a contentious case, they can give cover to the social worker making a recommendation. They may also disagree with the social worker, or even with each other. If the result is not unanimous, ask that all points of view be provided to the court as majority and minority recommendations.
File a formal complaint with the Ombudsman. As mentioned in the section Working Up the Chain, above, if you have attempted to resolve your concerns with the social workers, and up the chain, and still believe the department is not acting or is acting improperly, you can file a complain in writing with the Ombudsman.
Meet with your State Senator and Representatives. Sometimes a phone call from a senator can shake things up. Your representatives are there to help and represent their constituents. They can investigate whether the law and department policies are being followed. It is also very important that our representatives keep in touch with what is happening with our foster children. It’s the only way to change the law. If you don't know who your legislators are, you can find them here: http://apps.leg.wa.gov/DistrictFinder/Default.aspx.
You can hire an attorney to represent you, but you have no standing in court as
a foster parent, so that might be a waste of money. If you wish to have legal
advice, you may find it useful to spend a couple hundred bucks to consult with
an attorney for an hour, just to discuss the case. The attorney will usually
advise you as to whether you should even hire an attorney at all. They may
reiterate some things you read here. An attorney could also advise you as to the
specific court rules in the county where he/she practices, so you know how to
file your documents.
Foster Parents’ Right to Be Heard
Your right to be heard at all dependency hearings is established by State and Federal law. U.S. Congress amended the United States Code, 42 U.S.C. 675(5)(G) with the Safe and Timely Interstate Placement of Foster Children Act of 2006, to read:
“the foster parents (if any) of a child and any preadoptive parent or relative providing care for the child are provided with notice of, and a right to be heard in, any proceeding to be held with respect to the child, except that this subparagraph shall not be construed to require that any foster parent, preadoptive parent, or relative providing care for the child be made a party to such a review or hearing solely on the basis of such notice and right to be heard.”
This struck the somewhat ambiguous language “right to an opportunity to be heard” and replaced it with “right to be heard”. In 2007, the Washington State Legislature brought the Revised Code of Washington into agreement with Federal Law by adding a new section to RCW 13.34, in Section 1 of House Bill 1287:
“The department of social and health services or other supervising agency shall provide the child's foster parents, preadoptive parents, or other caregivers with notice of their right to be heard prior to each proceeding held with respect to the child in juvenile court under this chapter. The rights to notice and to be heard apply only to persons with whom a child has been placed by the department or other supervising agency and who are providing care to the child at the time of the proceeding.”
This may be new to some. I still hear reports of foster parents denied their right to speak at hearings. Be prepared to cite the law and insist on your rights. In one case, the public defender muzzled a foster parent by claiming there had not been notification that the parent intended to speak. This defies the clear intent of both Congress and the Legislature.
It is in the best interests of the child that all information be given to the judge. This was the clear rationale used in passing these laws. No one knows this child better than you do. The law requires the foster parents be notified of proceedings and their right to be heard; this notification is usually filled by the ISSP which arrives 10 days or less before a hearing. Foster parents are typically not lawyers or versed in court rules, which do not even specifically refer to foster parents. Requiring strict adherence to a rigid notification rule effectively nullifies a meaningful right to be heard which can only end in harm to the child’s chances of a positive outcome.
The foster parent is not being called as a witness. The foster parent is allowed to speak as a matter of right. The weight of the law on rights is very clear – it is the denial of rights which requires due process, not the recognition of rights established by both the U.S. Congress and Washington State Legislature. The foster parent no more needs to give notice than does the Attorney General that he or she intends to speak. If the foster parents are present, they have the right to be heard. Adequate notice was already given to all parties when this right was published into law.
Be prepared to defend your right. You may find it safer to notify the AAG and
the lawyers representing the bio-parents that you intend to speak as soon as you
receive the ISSP.
Prepare Your Child
The hardest part of being a foster parent may be preparing your child to go to a placement you believe is dysfunctional or not safe. You may find it hard to even contemplate, because you don’t wish to admit that it may happen. However, you must prepare for all possible contingencies.
As much as you want to, you cannot tell your child she can stay with you forever. You can say, however, “I love you forever. I will always love you and care about you. You make us very happy and we are always glad to have you in this home. There will always be someone to take care of you. You will be safe and never be alone.”
Get your child into counseling to deal with transition issues. Get services to deal with any of your child’s behavioral, developmental, or emotional issues.
Teach your child to dial 911, and explain when it is appropriate: when there is a fire, when someone is hurt and can’t get help, or if a bad person is trying to hurt you. You should not specify someone – that is not fair and will only hurt the child’s chances of a successful placement, as well as how your concerns are perceived by others. The child should understand that 911 will bring an adult they can trust to help them.
You have placed your heart in the line of fire. You have opened your home to children that are abused and neglected. You will meet many good people working within the system who are doing their best, often accomplishing incredible things. You will also work with some that are frankly incompetent. The system hurts kids. There is a good chance it will hurt you. If you open your heart, it will hurt you. Open it anyway. You’re not doing it for the governor. You’re not doing it for the department. You are doing it for that wide eyed child that is more lost in the system than you are.
But you need to protect yourself, too. You may not get the outcome you want. Bonding goes both ways. As much as the children are hurt by the loss of separation, so are we. Don’t be afraid to get help. There is sometimes a stigma about being “in therapy”, but the truth is that counseling helps. Foster parent groups can help. We need each other. Sometimes all you need is just someone listening that’s been through it and understands.
One of the many provisions of Sirita’s Law, House Bill 1333, passed in 2007 by the Washington State Legislature, was to involve foster parents in transitional services. In Section 7, it amended RCW 74.13.330 and 1990 c 284 s 23 each to read:
“Foster parents are responsible for the protection, care, supervision, and nurturing of the child in placement. As an integral part of the foster care team, foster parents shall, if appropriate and they desire to: Participate in the development of the service plan for the child and the child's family; assist in family visitation, including monitoring; model effective parenting behavior for the natural family; and be available to help with the child's transition back to the natural family.”
This does not give foster parents visitation rights, contrary to a popular
misconception. It recognizes, however, that the child needs continuity in care,
the child will be grieving for the “family” she lost, and the foster parents are
uniquely suited to help the new family deal with the child’s issues.
There are two paths you can follow. You can work with the social worker and the new family to voluntarily allow visitation. The law also creates a precedent which can be cited as the authority for a judge to order visitation in the best interest of the child up until the dependency is removed.
Join the Fight
You want a positive outcome for your child. The best way to get it is for us all to band together for positives outcomes for all the children. There are thousands of us foster parents. We have a voice that is respected. We have an issue with which none can argue – the safety and well being of children.
Do your legislators know your story? Have you ever called them in support of foster kids? Do you even know their names? If you want the laws to change you have to speak up. In Washington State, it’s even a free call: 1.800.562.6000. Meet your legislators, and let them how much pain is out there. E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org to get on our e-mail list. When we stand together we are a powerful force for the children, and for change.
And don’t give up. You aren’t alone.