Parents have a constitutional right to custody of their children. But parental rights have limits: If a parent’s actions or inactions put their kids at risk of harm, the government has the power to intervene. And when the harm is serious, the government can physically remove the children from parental custody.
But that’s not the end of the story. In most situations, the government must give parents a reasonable opportunity to regain custody by correcting the problems that led to their kids being taken away.
This article discusses some general things for parents to be mindful of when working with child protective services (CPS) and social workers to regain custody of their children. However, every case is different. So, you should always check with an attorney about the circumstances of your case before taking any specific action.
Roles of CPS and the Juvenile Court
Each state has government agencies in charge of looking after the wellbeing of children. The names of these agencies differ, but they are often referred to as “child protective services” or “CPS” for short. CPS investigates allegations of child abuse and neglect. The individuals from CPS who handle these investigations are usually social workers. A CPS social worker who concludes a child is at risk will typically bring the situation to the attention of the “juvenile dependency” court by filing a “petition.”
The filing of the petition marks the beginning of a juvenile dependency court case. A judge who finds—based on the petition and the evidence presented by CPS—that the child has been seriously harmed or is at risk of such harm, will ordinarily order CPS to remove the child from the home.
Family Reunification Services
“Family reunification services” are the means by which parents get back custody of their children. Basically, after removal, the social worker will come up with a “case plan” to remedy the family’s issues that resulted in CPS involvement. For instance, if the children were removed because of domestic violence in the home, the parents’ case plan might include:
- domestic violence prevention courses
- parenting classes, and
- conjoint therapy for the parents to discuss their issues with a counselor.
Typically, the social worker refers the parents to the service providers, and it’s up to the parents to enroll in and complete the services. How the parents do in reunification services is one of the most important factors in determining whether they regain custody. To be successful in services, parents might want to consider some suggestions:
- Don’t delay in getting started. The time parents have to reunify with their child is limited. Depending on the circumstances, a parent might have six months or less to show the court some progress. So getting started in services right away is imperative.
- Let the social worker know if you have problems. Parents often have issues that come up when trying to enroll in or complete services. For instance, a particular therapist may not have any openings or a certain parenting class might not be starting for several months. If obstacles come up, the parent should let the social worker know right away. Social workers are responsible for helping parents resolve these kinds of issues. But that can’t happen if the parents don’t say anything.
- Attendance and punctuality are important. Service providers communicate with the social worker and usually provide written progress reports that the judge will see. If a parent doesn’t show up for sessions or shows up late, the judge is likely to think the parent isn’t taking things seriously.
- Go along with the program. Parents sometimes think showing up for services is enough—usually, it’s not. Judges expect parents to participate, follow the rules, and make a genuine effort in services. So, defensive or defiant behavior isn’t going to serve parents well. Parents should try their best to come to services with a positive attitude and go along with the program. A good progress report from a service provider normally goes a long way with a judge.
Parents are entitled to reasonable visitation during juvenile dependency cases. (Generally, visitation can be terminated only if the parent’s conduct during visits puts the child at risk of serious physical or emotional harm.) Much like with reunification services, how parents do with visitation can have a big impact on whether they ultimately regain custody. So, parents want to make sure they show up on time for all visits and do their best to engage with their children during visits. It’s also important to follow visitation rules and the instructions of visitation monitors (if visitation is supervised).
When parents do well with visitation, the social worker will typically recommend increasing the frequency of visitation or changing a parent’s visitation from supervised to unsupervised. As parents make progress in visitation, judges usually become more comfortable with returning the children to the parents’ care.
Dealing With Social Workers
In addition to working directly with the family, social workers have a duty to report the family’s progress and make recommendations to the juvenile court. The social worker does this by periodically filing progress reports with the court. Judges rely heavily on these reports when making decisions in the case.
Social workers are supposed to be neutral and objective reporters. But they’re human like the rest of us, so a social worker’s opinion of a parent can certainly color the progress report for or against the parent. Therefore, parents are well-advised to maintain the best possible relationship with their social worker. Here are a few tips:
- Stay in communication. If a social worker can’t get in contact with you, it looks bad. If you change your address or phone number, let the social worker know about it right away. Also, you should always show up to appointments with your social worker on time and return calls from your social worker as soon as possible.
- Be respectful. CPS cases are normally emotional for parents, and it can be easy to lose your cool. But taking your frustrations out on the social worker isn’t going to help your cause. Be mindful of how you speak to your social worker. Maintaining a cordial relationship with the social worker will give you a better chance of getting back your kids.
Dealing with social workers can be difficult for parents. But in many cases, the social worker ends up being an advocate for the parents in regaining custody. So parents should make every effort to establish and maintain a good relationship with their social worker.