Saturday, January 1, 2011

Wyoming child protection laws--due process, reasonable efforts, and part of our story

Wyoming's rate for removing children from their parents is low--much lower than nearby states (North and South Dakota, Montana, Nebraska, Iowa--which have some of the nation's highest removal rates). Highlights of Wyoming's child protection laws:

Although Wyoming's child welfare courts are closed to the general public, parents can demand a jury trial. Any decision whether to file a petition alleging abuse or neglect must be made by the district attorney's office, not the child welfare agency. The court is required to ensure that reasonable efforts are made (not just to find that the agency has made them), and any decision that reasonable efforts are not required, or have not been made by the agency, must be made by the court. The court orders who will be on the child's planning team, and must include the child's psychiatrist or physician. The planning team--not the custodian acting along--decides what the reunification plan will be. The plan has to be based on issues and facts the court has ruled on, if any. If the plan changes, these changes have to be stated "with reasonable specificity" and approved by the court. 

How these provisions play out in real life, I don't know.  The jury provision is weak in one respect: if the jury finds the facts alleged in the petition to be true, this means the child is found to have been abused or neglected. The definition of neglect is broad:
"Neglect" means a failure or refusal by those responsible for the child's welfare to provide adequate care, maintenance, supervision, education or medical, surgical or any other care necessary for the child's well being. Treatment given in good faith by spiritual means alone, through prayer, by a duly accredited practitioner in accordance with the tenets and practices of a recognized church or religious denomination is not child neglect for that reason alone                      14-3-202(D)(vii)
 Conceivably, a jury might find allegations to be true even if it is questionable that the alleged facts would constitute neglect; perhaps preliminary hearings address this worry.

It may also be that the District Attorney's role, or that of the court-appointed multidisciplinary team, tends to rubber stamp child welfare agency decisions. Nonetheless, Wyoming statutes do provide some footing for a  parent defense attorney--if that attorney is willing--to challenge agency actions or court decisions.

Living under Wyoming laws would have made some difference to my son, my husband, and myself. Deprivation was adjudicated by the juvenile court (no jury in North Dakota!) based on lack of adequate housing.  But one of those kitchen-sink case plans was thrown at us. It included demands to participate in services for issues the court had specifically eliminated from its findings. As for housing, the best the agency could come up with was the requirement to obtain adequate housing. On the surface that might make sense, but the actual circumstances were complicated. My son's father had a home half paid for, but which needed repairs. He was unable to work due to a chronic illness which had recently been diagnosed and which was quickly becoming life-threatening. Without health insurance, assets he did have had to be earmarked for medical care. If he had decided to walk away from the house we was buying, those assets were enough to disqualify him for housing assistance. He needed a caregiver available 24 hours a day. The caseworker's expectation--not written, but verbally stated--was that I would simply apply for housing assistance myself and leave him behind. Of course, since I did not have custody of our son, I could not apply for family housing assistance. Housing assistance waiting lists were a year to two years long.

If I'd been the caseworker, I would have focused on two areas: the sick father and those home repairs that were most essential. While the caseworker nagged us for not getting counseling for my son's father and my not getting housing assistance to move out of the house, I was busy. First of all, my son needed help. As a "special needs" foster child with a foster father who refused to acknowledge his disability (while collecting premium "therapeutic" foster payments because of that disability) my son's welfare in foster care was greatly at risk. Although "therapeutic care" meant my son had an additional caseworker with the private agency in charge of the foster placement, that worker's unprofessional behavior ultimately got her fired--but we had to deal with it for a long time anyway. The school was denying special education services--a complicated, drawn-out battle on its own, and one the caseworker and her agency refused to get involved in. Later, when the placement (predictably) failed, my son was moved 140 miles from home, where the same problems continued to surface. In that placement, the therapeutic caseworker wasn't even on the job--that one had a chronic illness, went on medical leave, and the private agency did not assign a caseworker to cover the case, so my son did not even have a therapeutic case plan.  After 5 months he was moved again to a residential treatment center. There, a new set of problems emerged: mistreatment of my son (and other youth) by the treatment facility. Some mistreatment emerged as official licensing violations.  Meanwhile, his father regularly needed hands-on care at home, which grew to include special diets, help with bathing and other basic activities, scheduling appointments (eventually hundreds of miles from home). There was a long battle--which required a lawyer's help--to qualify him for disability benefits and, eventually, Medicare. In between all that was the house itself. My son's father managed to complete insulating the attic, saving on heating costs. A friend who helped him with that also replaced the kitchen sink and plumbing. I built and installed new kitchen cabinets and counters, replaced broken windows and screens, repaired a sagging porch and built new steps, sanded and varnished floors, and whatever else I could teach myself to do.

In spite of all that effort, our parental rights could have been terminated, simply because we did not comply with the recommendations of social services: parent counseling my son's father was too sick to participate in, chemical dependency evaluation he simply refused (the court had rejected the county's claims of chemical dependency). Non-cooperation with "recommendations" is enough for the court in North Dakota. In Wyoming, the multidisciplinary team would never have been able to write the case plan thrust on us for two years, because it was not supported by the original adjudication findings.

Of course, our rights were not terminated. Our first caseworker quit her job with the county. Her replacement took a step the first one never did: she filed "compelling reasons" not to terminate rights. (This is something only the agency can do; state law does not mention any provision for parents to petition the court to make such a finding.) This caseworker also confided (off the record) that there were people in the system who were "scared" of me. My battles on behalf of my son had created paper trails and resulted in outside investigations. I've learned that the last thing county agencies want is for this sort of thing to show up in the courtroom. Saving face--not safety of children--is what is ultimately paramount. Sometimes the question isn't whether a parent is "cooperative"--but what kind of skills and resources they can muster when compliance is out of the question. There is not enough leverage for us in the child welfare laws as written. Some of us can create the leverage child welfare laws don't provide--but you can bet that child welfare judges and referees won't hear anything about it. My "paper trails" involved regulatory agencies outside the child welfare framework, using state and federal regulatory resources. I didn't always win--but I caused scrutiny which was the last thing these agencies wanted. This tells me we need more scrutiny in the child welfare system by itself, including the child welfare courts. Those courts were not going to ensure due process, so I had to look elsewhere. 

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