For the last decade, I have watched the erosion within the judicial system concerning Children and Family Services’ child protection department. With few options, low budgets and stringent timeline laws, more single mothers and families are being required to sign over custody of their children or suffer the consequences.
The purpose of child protection was initially meant to protect at-risk children, removing them in only the worst-case scenario, offering services to rectify whatever problems and address challenges needed to be met, with reunification being the end result.
In the last 10 years, new laws were enacted to limit time for reunification to six months for newborns and toddlers, and one year for all other children under the age of 18. This would seem a considerable amount of time for anyone who has not experienced the wrath of the child protection system, with its sometimes unrelenting hold over one’s life with guardians ad litem, who speak for the children and are unpaid volunteers.
In fact, more and more women are being required to turn their children over as a ward of the state if there is no family to take the children. When the timelines are reached, the mothers are then “told” to sign over custody of their children or risk losing their parental rights altogether. When you lose your parental rights and you have another child, child protection comes to the hospital and takes custody of that child, too.
Children used to be removed from their family if there were obvious signs of abuse or neglect. Now children are removed for accusation of abuse or neglect. CHIPS petitions (petitioning the court for children to receive out-of-home placement involuntarily or require families to comply with recommended services) and “failure to protect” charges are liberally passed out, even in cases such as lactose-intolerant children who don’t gain weight after they leave the hospital.
The ever-popular “egregious harm” charge is used for the mother and father who had an argument and a neighbor called it in as a domestic disturbance. Both parents go to jail and all the children go to a foster home. Egregious harm means you are unable to feed, clothe, care for or send your child to school.
No one wants to go back to the days where there is a complaint filed or a tip given and there is an investigation and nothing is done. Nor do we want an extreme and overbearing system where parents are guilty until proven innocent, with parents jumping hoop after hoop, there is zero tolerance for error and no mistakes are allowed.
Six months or a year is not a lot of time for people without problems, let alone with problems such as drug addiction or alcoholism. People living below the poverty level can find having a dearth of monetary resources a huge problem within itself.
How can we restore child protection to where there is a happy medium, where there is less bias? How can we get these children home to their waiting families? How can we make sure that only the children that are supposed to be put up for adoption are adopted out?
There needs to be more time, less expectations and shorter case plans that can be carried out in the length of time given or more time allotted. There should be extensions that can be given at the judge’s discretion.
Most of all, reunification needs to once again be the end result.
Jessica Wright is an inmate at Shakopee Correctional Facility.