The Family Reunification Act was recently introduced in the Minnesota Senate (S.F. 422). The Act’s purpose is to provide a process of reestablishing the legal relationship between children and parents whose rights had been terminated, under certain circumstances (see the bill text or my child welfare policy post on this topic).
As someone working in the field of (general) child welfare, this bill is particularly important because it has meaning for children facing emancipation from foster care without a “forever family.” It is likely that these children will reengage with their biological families, regardless of legal relationship, upon emancipation. To reestablish the legal parent-child relationship prior to emancipation means that a child can have a family with whom the child belongs, potentially reducing the likelihood of negative life outcomes. Furthermore, parent and child would have time to prepare themselves for such a relationship to be established.
In addition to this bill’s implications for children and youth in foster care, this bill also has great appeal for those interested in social justice issues. In the U.S., parents whose children have been removed from their care due to abuse or neglect must meet certain requirements in their case plans in order to maintain their parental rights. They have a finite amount of time to complete such requirements, and for those parents whose main issue is related to substance abuse or mental health issues, for example, the timelines can be a bit too tight. Failure to fulfill said requirements (generally) results in a termination of parental rights (TPR), freeing up the child(ren) for adoption.
In Australia, parents’ rights are not terminated; rather, the focus in child welfare appears to be on keeping families together and avoiding “forced adoptions” (adoptions that occur as a result of involuntary TPRs). Both Australia’s and the U.S.’s policies related to termination of parental rights were crafted based on what was considered to be in the best interests of children. I am a firm believer in the interconnectedness of “best interests of the child” and “best interests of the family.” I feel that in some circumstances, the strict timelines in child welfare are not appropriate and are not in the best interests of parent or child. In those situations, the ensuing TPR should have the option of being reversed, for the benefit of both parent and child.
For example, take into consideration a TPR that arises as a result of a mother’s drug addiction. Chemical dependency treatment programs may have long waiting lists. Relapse is not unlikely. Timelines, particularly for those children under the age of eight, can be pretty tight in circumstances of chemical dependency, but given enough time, services, and support, chemical dependency can be resolved. If the mother’s drug addiction is the only thing standing in the way of reunification with her child, why not allow for reestablishment of parental rights once the addiction is overcome?
What about incarceration? If a parent has fulfilled the prison sentence and is willing and able to care for the child still lingering in foster care, shouldn’t that parent have a way to reestablish the parent-child relationship? (Just a sidenote: In New York, they’ve taken it a step further. Rather than terminating parental rights, they have a program set up for mothers who have been arrested that allows them to live with their children while serving out their court mandates. Pretty great.)
What about parents facing deportation due to their undocumented status? It happens fairly frequently that parents who have been deported are charged with abandoning their children, subsequently losing their parental rights as a result. Their actual crime had nothing to do with child maltreatment, and everything to do with legal status. These parents should have a legal process available to reestablish their parental rights.
While the Family Reunification Act has largely been promoted as benefiting older youth in foster care without a permanency plan in place, I feel that it is appropriate to say it benefits families overall. It emphasizes the strengths of people, rather than their deficits, and considers parents’ ability to change in order to benefit their children.