Permanency: What are the Options?

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by Kelle Gillmore, CASA Staff Attorney

Permanency planning is an important part of acting as Guardian Ad Litem.  The Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA), requires States to hold permanency hearings every 12 months when children are in alternative care.  In addition, States are required to pursue other permanent options for children once they are out of a parent’s home for 15 of the preceding 22 months.  As the Guardians Ad Litem, we have an inherent interest in making sure permanency is achieved in the most efficient and safest way possible while operating in the best interest of the child.  This includes making sure parents are offered all available services to achieve safe reunification.  If reunification with a parent fails, we look to Adoption, Guardianship, or Another Planned Permanent Living Arrangement to achieve permanency for the children we represent.

So what is the difference between adoption and guardianship?

Adoption is a legal process which permanently gives parental rights to an adoptive petitioner.  This legal process terminates the rights of the biological parents permanently and places the new adoptive petitioners as the parents for all legal intents and purposes.  The child is now an heir to the adoptive petitioners and those petitioners are legally bound to that child forever.  These petitioners could be individuals who never knew the child or family prior to Court intervention, they could be a kinship provider (someone the family or child knew before coming into care), or they could be a relative of the family including a grandparent or even adult child.  Regardless, these individuals petition the Court asking to be named the biological parent of the child.

Guardianship is a legal proceeding through the probate court in which the adult guardian is asking for an order to make decisions regarding the minor child as a parent would until that child reaches the age of 18.  Those decisions include educational, medical, and daily decisions for the child.  This form of permanency does allow a parent the opportunity to regain custody should they petition the Court and prove that they are fit, willing and able AND that it is in the child’s best interest.  This is a rather huge burden for a parent to prove because if a child has been living with the Guardian and thriving, it is unlikely that the parent can meet the burden of proof that it is in the child’s best interest to move him or her.  A Guardianship terminates upon the child’s 18th birthday and cannot be renewed or extended unless the child does not have the mental capacity to care for himself or herself.

When an older youth either does not have an adoptive resource or potential guardian, they achieve permanency though Another Planned Permanent Living Arrangement (APPLA). This however, is used only for older children or children who will not consent to being adopted or placed in guardianship.  Children over the age of 14 in Missouri have the right to consent or not consent to the Adoption or Guardianship.  If they will not consent, we look at other options, which include keeping them in alternative placement until they ultimately age out of the system at 21 years old or request to be released from jurisdiction after their 18th birthday.  APPLA can be a foster home, a kinship or relative home, a group home or even a child’s own apartment.

Each case and each child requires specific permanency planning and the Guardian Ad Litem has a duty to his or her client to consider all of these options.

MOCASA: The View from 10,000 Feet

 by Megan Phillips

Ms. Phillips, a Kansas City native, served eight years on the Missouri CASA board of directors and two terms as President.  She is an attorney and judicial clerk for the Missouri Court of Appeals for the Eastern District and was previously a teaching fellow for the Family Violence Clinic of the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Law.  Ms. Phillips is Chair of the Missouri Joint Commission for Women in the Legal Profession and former President of the Women Lawyers’ Association of Greater St. Louis.

Jackson County is one of 21 local CASA programs under the statewide umbrella of the Missouri CASA Association (MOCASA).   As a state office, MOCASA doesn’t provide direct services.  Rather, its role is to support local programs with technical assistance, funding, grant compliance, resource-sharing, and policy advocacy.

Currently, there are over 12,000 children in foster care in Missouri.  About 3,300 of them benefit from the powerful advocacy of the 1,300 CASA volunteers throughout the state.  Jackson County CASA is one of the largest local programs, serving approximately 1,000 children with the help of over 320 volunteers.   MOCASA’s mission is to help existing programs grow – particularly in smaller communities with fewer resources and staff – and to establish new programs where needed in order to deploy more volunteers to serve more children statewide.

MOCASA employs a highly competent and effective staff.  Beth Dessem, our Executive Director since 2002, possesses a wealth of institutional knowledge and expertise and is highly respected both in Missouri, as Chair of the Children’s Justice Task Force, and within National CASA, as a former officer on its board of trustees.  Deputy Director Leanne Reese, joined MOCASA in 2008 after years in private law practice, bringing an invaluable skill set to the team.  Operations Manager Marilee Fischer handles office administration and accounting with competence and a smile.  Finally, MOCASA is now hiring a director of development and community relations.  Everyone on the team wears a variety of hats.  Thanks to their remarkable effectiveness, MOCASA has become a leader and model for other state CASA offices across the country.

MOCASA’s board of directors is comprised of dedicated citizens from a variety of regions and professions.  You can read more about them here and we are always looking for new members to help us strengthen the organization in order to expand our reach and help more kids.

Last but certainly not least, MOCASA is fortunate to benefit from the insight of Jackson County’s Martha Gershun, who currently serves as the local programs’ representative and liaison to the MOCASA board.  The program director has a critical function on the MOCASA board by conveying the needs and concerns of the local programs.  Martha is the zoom lens through which the state board, flying at 10,000 feet, acquires an accurate view of the local programs’ work in the trenches.  We appreciate the passion and dedication of Jackson County CASA staff, volunteers, board, and other supporters, all who make a difference in children’s lives every day.

Update from the Eastern District of the Missouri Court of Appeals

Kea1by Kea Bird-Riley

In December 2014 the Eastern District reversed a judgment in a guardianship case for an “utter lack of factual findings and legal conclusions” supporting the trial court’s decision.

In the Matter of J.D.D., the appellant appealed from the trial court’s judgment denying his petition for letters of guardianship over the minor child and granting the mother’s petition for habeas corpus. Although Appellant was not the child’s biological father, the mother listed Appellant as the child’s father on the birth certificate. Mother also signed a release allowing Appellant to take the child home from the hospital after the child’s birth. Although the mother was still responsible for the child’s health care needs, she failed to provide financial assistance for the child’s extensive health care bills. Moreover, Mother did not attempt to see the child until almost two and a half years later. Subsequently, the mother filed a Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus and requested physical custody of the child. In response, Appellant filed a Petition for Guardianship. In addition to presenting evidence of the mother’s abandonment and neglect of the child, Appellant also presented evidence of the mother’s physical inability to care for the child. Appellant argued that the trial court’s judgment was unsupported by substantial evidence and against the weight of the evidence because the evidence also established Mother’s mental and physical incompetence. In addition, Appellant argued the mother was unfit to assume the duties of natural guardian because she abandoned and neglected the child. The Court noted the creation of a rebuttable presumption in favor of a natural parent as the appropriate custodian for a child; however, such presumption dissipates upon the presentation of evidence that the parent is unfit, unwilling or unable to care for the child. The Court considered the mother’s failure to provide for the child for two and a half years as abandonment and neglect.

4th Annual National Parent Attorney Conference

Center for Children and the LawThe American Bar Association Center for Children and the Law is calling for workshop proposals for its back-to-back conferences in July 2015.  The 4th National Parent Attorney Conference: Advancing Justice Against the Odds (hosted by the National Project to Improve Representation of Parents Involved in the Child Welfare System) will be held on July 22-23, followed by the 16th ABA National Conference on Children and the Law: Advancing Access to Justice for Children and Families on July 24-25, both in Washington, D.C.  The RFPs can be found here and the deadlines are January 12, 2015.

The National Conference on Children and the Law focuses on a wide range of child law issues that emphasize how best to support children and families through the child welfare and court systems, while the National Parent Attorney Conference will specifically focus on parent representation and ways to meaningfully engage parents and their attorneys/advocates in their own child welfare cases.

Some Thoughts About Representing Older Child Clients

Mary Kay O’Malley has been the director of the Child and Family Services Clinic and associate clinical professor since 2002. She obtained her Bachelor of Arts from St. Mary-of-the-Woods College near Terre Haute, Indiana and her Master of Arts from UMKC. After working as a social worker for the Missouri Division of Family Services for 13 years, she graduated cum laude from the Washburn University School of Law in Topeka, Kansas. Professor O’Malley was employed as a prosecuting attorney at the Jackson County Family Court for six years and a partner with Raith and O’Malley P.C., focused on juvenile and family law. Her other teaching assignments include the law school’s Guardian ad Litem Workshop, and she is the legal director of the Kansas City Youth Court program housed at the law school.

by Mary Kay O’Malley

Mary Kay O'MalleyThe most obvious difference between representing younger and older children is the older child’s ability to communicate. Along with a larger vocabulary, older children usually have more advanced emotional language skills and a better understanding of their circumstances. This raises the question of how much input an older child should have in what happens to them. There are many important reasons to engage older children fully in discussing their goals and some of the ways in which those goals might be achieved. Too often it seems that Guardians ad litem (GAL) merely ascertain the child’s feelings, but spend little time considering the child’s competence to independently see and assess his or her options. No doubt some older children would make bad choices and a GAL would have to recommend a course of action contrary to the wishes of the child. Still, many young people have good insight into their families and what to do to remain safe. In that case shouldn’t the Guardian ad litem engage the child in the representation and incorporate the child’s wishes as much as possible in any recommendations made to the court? It is the child’s life after all, and like anyone, older children may accept a contrary position as long as they feel their opinion was heard and respected. For this reason, the GAL will need to spend ample time talking with older youth.

According to the Missouri Supreme Court Guardian ad litem Standards (Standards) a GAL must relate to the child “according to the child’s stage of development.” Standard 4.0. Understanding the child’s development aids the counseling process, facilitates trust, helps determine the truth and identify appropriate services. It also allows the GAL to engage in collaborative representation that can actually help model good decision making for older youth. Young people involved with the juvenile court system are powerless in almost every aspect of their lives. They often can’t drive a car or even go to their grandmother’s home without a worker’s permission. Some opportunities to practice problem solving skills are denied them because they live under the authority of the system. Engaging these children in decisions about their circumstances can be effective education and advocacy.

Here are some categories of information the GAL should consider when determining a child client’s developmental level:

  •  Cognitive functioning, based on assessments, evaluations, caretakers’ descriptions, and the GAL’s own impressions;
  •  Educational History, including grades, teachers’ comments, IEPs, and number of schools attended;
  •  Medical records, noting child’s growth and developmental history, milestones, and any significant illnesses or injuries that could have affected development;
  • Home environment, observations of stimulation, opportunities for learning, parental physical and mental health, and cultural differences; and
  •  History of trauma, understanding especially the possible reaction to stress (flight, fight or freeze) to understand the child’s responses.

Understanding the child client’s development not only helps with communication, but also allows the GAL to assess the child’s competency to understand information the GAL is ethically obligated to provide. Pursuant to Standard 9.0 the GAL must explain the court process and encourage older youth to attend hearings. For this reason it is advisable to provide older youth with a glossary of legal terms they are likely to encounter. The terms should be simply defined and the GAL should answer any questions the child client may have. The GAL must also explain the child’s role during the proceeding. More often than not it seems like the old adage “children should be seen, but not heard” prevails during hearings. Beyond a few questions like “how are you doing?” or “how is school?” many children are talked about, but not directly addressed during court proceedings. Former foster children have mentioned this lack of input as one of their major complaints with the system. Adolescents naturally resent adults who are condescending toward them and will ignore or rebel against a system that does not appear to value their opinions. Believing a judge does not care about them will reinforce the low self-esteem that often plagues children who have been abused or neglected. The GAL who has established a relationship and learned to communicate effectively with the child client can make all the difference in how an older child views the court and their own value in the process. For a great resource see the ABA’s article Counseling Children and Youth in Times of Crisis: Tips to Achieve Success and Avoid Pitfalls by Lauren Girard Adams, Esq. and Maisley Paxton, Ph.D., (2009).

Guardians ad Litem and Secondary Trauma

by Kelle Gilmore, CASA Staff Attorney and Guadian ad LitemKelle2

As professionals working in the child welfare field, we have to be cognizant that helping others who have been survivors of traumatic life events often puts us in an environment where we need to take steps to take care of our own mental, physical, and emotional health.

Secondary trauma, sometimes referred to as vicarious trauma, is described as the cumulative transformative effect of working with survivors of traumatic life events.  Individuals working in the child welfare field often experience stress or symptoms of trauma when working with traumatized children and families.

What are some common symptoms of secondary trauma?

  • intrusive thoughts
  • chronic fatigue
  • sadness
  • anger
  • poor concentration
  • second guessing
  • detachment
  • emotional exhaustion
  • fearfulness
  • shame
  • physical illness
  • absenteeism

Some days are harder than others, but secondary trauma usually occurs after the culmination of bad days, weeks, months or even years.  As Guardians ad Litem, and even as CASA volunteers, we must remember to take care of ourselves first.  If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, reach out for help from other GAL’s or mental health professionals.  Spend time with other GAL’s to decompress, vent, or find solutions to issues that are bothering you.  We have a fantastic local resource here in Kansas City:  http://www.secondarytraumaresourcecenter.org. And nationally:  http://secondarytrauma.org/index.htm  Working in an environment that is supportive of collaboration with other GAL’s and child welfare advocates really does help.

We can’t fix everything for the children and families we work with, which is often frustrating and sometimes heartbreaking.  I have found that exercising, making time to socialize with other GAL’s, and meeting with my individual therapist can provide much needed support in keeping me healthy so I can represent kids more effectively.  We have to take care of ourselves in order to be able to take care of the children we serve.

The Prevention of Sex Trafficking and Strengthening of Families Act

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by Kea Bird-Riley, CASA Staff Attorney and Guardian ad Litem

Although political divisiveness in Congress seems the norm, one thing is certain: both sides of the aisle can come together to improve the child welfare system and to prevent children in foster care from becoming victims of sex trafficking.

The Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act, a bipartisan bill that President Obama signed into law this fall, is an important step in encouraging states to combat sex trafficking of youth in foster care. In addition to promoting normalcy for foster youth, the new law increases international child support recovery; and assists with placing children in adoptive homes or relatives’ homes.

Under this new law, the Children’s Division is required to identify, document and determine appropriate services for children in foster care. Children’s Division is also required to identify, document and determine appropriate services for children who are in the child welfare system or who are victims of sex trafficking or at risk of becoming victims.

Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act also renames the “Adoption Incentive Payments” program to “Adoption and Legal Guardianship Incentive Payments.” This new program provides more incentive for adoptive resources by extending the program through fiscal year 2015 as well as extending the Family Connection Grant Program for one year.

Title III of the act seeks improvements to international child support recovery. The act requires states to make necessary changes to implement the Hague Convention in enforcing international child support cases. States are also required to standardize data within the child support program in an effort to streamline with TANF, child welfare, unemployment insurance and SNAP. Finally, the law seeks to improve international child support recovery by requiring states to implement electronic processing of income withholding.

http://waysandmeans.house.gov/news/documentsingle.aspx?DocumentID=386089

National Adoption Day

by Claire Terrebonne, CASA Staff Attorney and Guardian ad Litem

On Friday, November 21, 2014, Jackson County, along with many counties Claire3across the country, celebrated National Adoption Day. Over 30 children children from Jackson County were finally adopted into 27 forever families just in time for Thanksgiving. Six of those children had CASA volunteers advocating for their best interests.

For Guardians ad Litem and others, adoption days are one of the few happy days over at family court. The day an adoption is finalized is one families will never forget. In fact, many adoptive families celebrate not only birthdays, but adoption days too. These heartwarming events are a time for closure and new beginnings, relief and hope, and (more often than not) grateful tears shared between a team of individuals who worked together to secure a safe, permanent, and loving home a child deserves.

National Adoption Day is a collective national effort to raise awareness of more than 100,000 children in foster care waiting for permanent and loving families. This annual event celebrated in hundreds of cities across the United States brings policymakers, practitioners and advocates together to finalize adoptions, create and celebrate adoptive families, and make the dreams of thousands of children come true.

Every year, more than 23,000 children age out of the foster care system with no families or permanent homes. And only 51% of Americans believe every child is adoptable. Since its inception in 2000, however, National Adoption Day’s efforts to bring awareness to foster care adoption have helped nearly 50,000 children find forever families. Last year, 4,500 children were adopted by their forever families during the 14th Annual Adoption Day.

In Jackson County the Children’s Division of the Missouri Department of Social Services reports that 205 children were adopted out of foster care between June 2013 and June 2014.  There are presently 43 children who are waiting for a forever family in Jackson County, and the majority of those are over age nine. Although 205 children celebrated the joy of being adopted last year, the data for the prior fiscal year of June 2012 – June 2013 shows that 70 children in Jackson County aged out of the foster care system and are now on their own without a permanent connection to a family through adoption or legal guardianship.

Through our community’s continued support of National Adoption Day and similar initiatives, we can help those numbers grow by finding loving adoptive families for all children, including older youth. To find out more about National Adoption Day, learn about foster care adoption, and hear beautiful adoption stories, check out www.nationaladoptionday.org.

Upcoming Community & Bar Events in Kansas City

Plaza LightsKansas City comes alive during the holiday season, and not only with Plaza lights, law firm parties and traditional merriment. It’s also a great time to become more involved in our community, learn something new and make authentic connections that push us to know our city better and, in turn, serve the families of Jackson County in the most meaningful ways we can. Here are some upcoming events and trainings in the KC area:

8 or 3-hour Guardian ad Litem Training

December 4

A video replay in Independence, Missouri will cover topics such as best interests, domestic violence and the role of the guardian ad litem to name a few. Register here: http://www.mobarcle.org/cle-images/jalbum/2014GALw-links.pdf

Women’s Foundation of Greater Kansas City Annual Luncheon

December 5

11:30a.m.

The Women’s Foundation raises, invests, and grants funds to promote equity and opportunity for women and girls. This year’s event features former U.S. Secretary of State Dr. Madeleine K. Albright.

http://www.wfgkc.org/22nd-annual-luncheon/

 CASA Volunteer Training

Starts December 11th at 5:00p.m.

If you’ve ever considered becoming a volunteer attorney for Jackson County CASA, this is the training to learn more. Contact mhover@jacksoncountycasa-mo.org for the details.

KCMBA’s 130th Annual Meeting

December 12

11:30a.m.

Celebrate the 2014 KCMBA award winners and hear Bob Mankoff, cartoon editor for The New Yorker, deliver the keynote speech.

http://kcmba.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/2014-Annual-Meeting-Registration-Form1.pdf

Holiday Gifts for Children in Kinship Care

While the State of Missouri provides holiday gifts for children in foster care, those who are in “kinship care”—the care of a relative or close family friend—are not included.   Kinship providers are more likely to have stepped in because of a family member’s urgent need, without necessarily having the resources to provide more than the basics to these children.   So every year CASA collects gifts and gift cards for these children who might otherwise receive very little.  Teenagers can be especially difficult to shop for, but they really appreciate gift cards to places like Foot Locker, Kohl’s, Beauty Brands, Target, etc.

What other events, fundraisers and trainings are happening in Kansas City this holiday season? Bonus points for those of particular interest to attorneys wanting to become more involved in our community! Please post in the comments below.

We Are Family—Preserving Sibling Bonds

Kelle2by Kelle Gilmore, CASA Staff Attorney/Guardian ad Litem

Sibling relationships develop early in childhood. In fact, professionals now believe that the sibling bond is the longest-lasting relationship that most individuals form–longer than that of the relationship between parent and child, or between spouses. As professionals advocating for children, we should be concerned about how our decisions affect these relationships. Children in dysfunctional or abusive homes can forge especially intense bonds with each other as a support network. Often, children who come into care have been acting as the parent for their siblings: cooking meals, cleaning, bathing them, and helping them get dressed each day. At other times, siblings blame each other for their removal from the home. Whether the relationship is healthy or harmful, we know that the relationship between siblings affects future relationships they will form in life. Finding a foster home or permanent placement for a sibling group can be difficult. The more children involved, the more difficult it is to find a caregiver with enough room and resources to take them all. Sometimes siblings are separated when a child is placed with a different biological parent, or is in a residential facility or a specialized foster home. Regardless of the reason for the separation, professionals and caretakers should make a sincere effort to nurture and foster these lifelong relationships. When siblings cannot be placed together, every effort should be made to allow them frequent and meaningful contact. Sometimes this contact is more important than contact with a parent. The trauma for some children from being separated from their sibling becomes a secondary trauma to the removal from the home. This trauma does not go away overnight. It can have a lasting effect on the child’s future relationships. As child welfare advocates and Guardians Ad Litem, we have a duty to do all we can to push agencies and workers to find homes that are willing to take entire sibling groups. At the very least they should find homes that have foster parents or placement providers who know the importance of sibling relationships and are willing to work to maintain them. We should request Court Orders that require sibling contact and make sure those Orders are followed. We should also encourage foster parents, relatives, parents, and others to make this contact a priority. Educating the adults and professionals on our caseload is the first step in making sure we are doing all we can to protect these vital bonds.