Every few days, for several weeks, I have read briefs and opinions from parental termination proceedings appealed to the North Dakota Supreme Court. My original intent was simply to study how parents' attorneys in North Dakota argue "reasonable efforts"--or if they argue this issue at all. The principle is this: the state is required, in most cases, to make reasonable efforts to preserve and unify families in cases where the state finds it necessary to become involved in the lives of children. The law permits exceptions in cases involving aggravated circumstances--such as abandonment, homicide cases, if a parent has previously had parental rights terminated non-voluntarily (which means that a parent facing caseworkers who want to terminate rights also faces a terrible choice: fight the proceeding, with the threat of having other children taken away, or surrender one child in order to keep others--in the present or the future. Of course, other children could not be taken away unless they were also found deprived, but--informally or in some states based on statute, any history of deprivation becomes the basis on which later deprivation is found. And, based on the stories of parents who have been confronted by this choice, they are not told that having other children removed is a certainty. Still, imagine being the parent who is told, "give us this child and you can keep the rest." Imagine being the child who has been given away as the price for his siblings staying with a parent.
That's another issue (every issue I try to untangle turns into another issue, another path into the bramble patches). What about reasonable efforts?
In quite a few cases, it is not clear whether there ever was a reunification plan stated as such. One father who appealed had, he thought, followed the plan laid out for him. But the county's brief tells us that in the view of the caseworker, the plan was never intended as a reunification plan--it was intended "to strengthen him as a person."
Whoa. I reeled when I read that. Anyone should. Sure, as a mother, as a sister, as a friend, even as an acquaintance, I'm sometimes subject to having notions about what someone else should do to be a better person. In private relationships, it's called meddling (and is not the same as supporting or helping or caring about another person). On the part of the state? The sheer obliviousness, tone-deafness, on the part of state actors (that's what they are) making such a statement (the caseworker, but also the state's attorney who thought it belonged in a formal appellee brief) makes me shudder. On the part of the state, the word is hubris.
Generally, it looks like these cases do not specifically identify anything altogether conceded to be a reunification plan. Sometimes parents protest that they've "done everything" they were supposed to, but social services won't give their kids back. Sometimes it means the caseworker brings up something that was never in the written plan. Sometimes it means the caseworker just doesn't think it's time yet. The child welfare agency is never going to like the notion that a reunification plan is some kind of contract--but why shouldn't it be? Why shouldn't it be based on the deprivation findings, period, and why shouldn't caseworkers be required to lay out--in clear and measurable terms--exactly what parents must do?
At the very least, reunification plans need to be identified as such--and plans or recommendations intended to turn someone into a better, stronger person should come with a disclaimer ("these recommendations are not intended to contribute to reunification of child and parent").
(No, the appeals court did not reverse.)