Courts try to avoid removing a child from his parents’ custody whenever possible. Separating a family is usually a last resort and only happens when parents cannot resolve some problem sufficiently to care for their kids. Several steps are involved in the process, the last being a permanency hearing. The exact procedures can vary from state to state, so check with a local professional to find out what the specific rules are in your area.
Proceedings begin when a minor child is removed from the care of his parent or parents due to issues of neglect or abuse. They might also be initiated while the child still lives in the home if problems there are suspected. The first step is typically a fact-finding hearing where a judge determines if incidents of abuse or neglect really did occur. If the social services agency can’t substantiate its allegations to the court’s satisfaction, the child can go home and the case is closed. Otherwise, the state takes the child into its custody for a period of time during which all parties involved try to come up with a plan to either reunify the child with his parents or place him somewhere else on a permanent basis. Another hearing is scheduled, typically called a dispositional hearing. This proceeding focuses on creating a plan to reach a permanent resolution. Dispositional hearings may be held at regular intervals to keep tabs on the progress of the situation.
As part of ongoing dispositional hearings -- and sometimes even before the first one occurs -- the court may order social services to investigate the child’s home, family members and others living in the parents' residence. The judge may request psychological or mental health evaluations. The professionals who do these investigations typically prepare reports and submit them to the court to help the judge determine the best course of action for the child.
The Permanency Plan
The permanency plan arrived at during dispositional hearings details steps the court wants to see taken to arrive at a permanent home and solution for the child. In some states, courts implement two permanency plans: the ideal one and a backup plan in case the first one doesn’t work out. The ideal plan is to get the child back to his parents, but the parents must rehabilitate during this time to make it possible. They might be ordered to participate in drug or alcohol counseling, in anger management, or make other changes to their lifestyles so their child can live with them safely.
The Permanency Hearing
At the permanency hearing, the court determines whether the permanency plan has been successful. Evidence and testimony may be taken to establish that the plan really is in the child’s best interests. There may be more than one permanency hearing if the court feels it must continue monitoring the situation; in this case, the judge typically sets a deadline by which permanency must be achieved. At the final permanency hearing, the judge might decide that the parents have made no real effort toward reunification with their child and he might order that their parental rights be terminated. When this happens, the child is placed for adoption or with a legal guardian, possibly a family member. If an extended period of time has passed, such as one to two years, and permanency for the child is still nowhere on the horizon, parental rights are terminated by statute in some states -- it’s the law and is not left to the judge’s discretion any longer.