Friday, November 22, 2013

Foster Parent Friday: Mediation???

Q: Mediation...What's that? (often more body language in a way to say...what does that mean for your life or in the case and how does that work?).

A:  Our case went to mediation on Wednesday.  Of course this means that in the weeks leading up to the big day we asked everyone we could for prayer that things would go smoothly.

In all honesty, I had a hard time asking for specific prayer.  What I wanted to say and we said in private was "PLEASE GOD LET THEM RELINQUISH!" but my mommy heart knows that termination of parental rights for any situation, voluntarily relinquished or not, is by nature trauma.  Yes, it can be the right answer but it still is finality for birth parents losing their children and it means our children were permanently removed from their birth parents.  Big mixed feelings.  Thankfully a sweet friend of mine called it out and said "OK...we'll pray they relinquish their rights and the babies can stay with you forever".  Thank you sweet friend for saying out loud what I'd been feeling in my heart.

As we've told people about mediation many times they've got that confused look on their face, wanting more information.  Being a foster parent is about people always wanting more information and I can't blame them.  People tend to know the concept of mediation - its a legal process where people get in a room and try to work out a deal - but how that relates to foster care is a bit foreign.  So here's my explanation.

Have you ever watched Law & Order (come on - certainly you have right!)?  Or any other police/lawyer drama/documentary?  You know when the DA offers a deal to the accused criminal...they say something like "we'll give you 15 years instead of life" and then there is a back and forth with the attorneys trying to come up with a deal?  The DA will say something like "Ok - we'll go to trial and you'll go to prison for life" or the defense attorney will say something like "Are you kidding?  You're evidence is circumstantial...we'll take our chances with a jury".  Though this isn't officially mediation, it gives you a good feel for how mediation is used in termination cases.

At the point a trial is going to termination, theoretically CPS and the DA that represents the department have decided that for some reason the birth parents are not safe for the children despite having been given every opportunity to do so.  In my experience, this usually happens at around the 6-9 month marker in a case because federal law requires cases to be done in 12 months, 18 with extenuating circumstances.  So at the 6-9 month point in a case a formal decision is usually made to keep going toward reunification (and start working the kids towards that with more frequent visits, maybe setting a go-home date, etc.) or the department decides to formally change the case goal to termination (and relative adoption, non-relative adoption, permanent managing conservatorship, etc.).  This means the case "will be going to trial", a trial date is set if one isn't already on the calendar (in my experience they put one on the calendar at the beginning of the case to mark the date and protect the judges calendar) and people in the case start working toward that goal.

Though the department sets the official case plan goal there are many other people who have to get aligned around that for termination to occur.  Certainly there are the named mother and father (or "unknown father" if that's the case) but there is also the Attorney Ad Litem (kids attorney) and Guardian At Litem (CASA or the AAL) also have to agree.  In some cases there are also people who have intervened in the case because they have a significant relationship with the child (could be a grandparent, aunt/uncle, cousin, brother/sister, or even longer term foster parents).  Just as in the Law & Order case, in order for trial to be successful evidence has to be strong but the list of people wanting to see "guilty" (termination) needs to be longer than the list wanting to see "not-guilty"...the goal is whenever possible to have trial work out in your favor.

In comes mediation...I believe it's either a rule OR at least best practice that mediation occurs before a termination trial.  Though much of the work is done ahead of time, mediation is a formal time for all parties to come to the table and try to work out a deal so that when trial comes the mediated agreement is presented to the court and the judge can make a final order (ruling) about the case that represents what everyone is in agreement with.  By doing this, trial is avoided and presumably the best interest of the kids has been preserved.  There's less risk that the judge will dismiss the case or the department will lose and the kids will be immediately sent back to an environment the dept. feels is unsafe.

The department's goal in mediation is typically to have the biological parents surrender (relinquish) their parental rights.  For a parent, surrendering rights voluntarily is usually better than having them terminated from a legal perspective.  Bluntly, if you have your rights terminated by the court (non-voluntary) you might have a goodbye visit and then you will never see your kids again.  Ever.  Furthermore in the state of Texas you are then subjected to automatically losing any future children you have, even if you get your life together.  Non-voluntary termination is grounds for both removal of a child and termination on future children.  That's a big deal in my book.  Most parents who love their children and have good attorneys will start to see the writing on the wall and be able to weigh the consequences of voluntarily relinquishing vs. taking their chances with the trial (judge or can happen either way).  The stronger the case is, the more likely a parent is to consider relinquishment.

To help relinquishment be a more desirable option for the birth family, the other parties usually come to the table with some sort of proposal that offers future contact, setting up a semi-open adoption rather than a closed one.  The minimum I usually see is cards/letters/pictures once a year to give the birth parents the chance to see their kids grow from a far.  When the case is remarkably strong and especially when there appears to be a serious danger to the child/adoptive family with contact, this may be all that is offered.  Anything can be on the table as a proposal including phone calls, in-person visits, medical records, or pretty much anything else that might be important to one of the parties.  This mediated agreement can also allow the family and children to have a healing, long-term relationship, keeping the parents in the kids' life without having them be the day-to-day parent any longer.

In Summer's adoption we agreed to have cards/letters/pictures twice a year and visits 2x a year.  Twice a year visits was "unheard of" as it was presented to us back then. In my sister's case, the agreement included quarterly visits, which seemed like A LOT.  We also included several stipulations that are fairly common including if 2 consecutive visits were missed, if they violated our privacy, if a professional indicated the visits were hurting her, or if when she turned 12 she decided she didn't want to visit anymore, the visits would cease and there would be no more agreement.  The agreement was null after the first 2 visits passed and the parents did not visit.  We continue to have a relationship with them nonetheless.

So - you're dying to know - how did our case turn out?  It's not over yet.  You'll need to stay tuned, like us, to hear the rest of the story.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Thankful Thursday - Fantabulous News of Reunification

I can't believe I didn't write a post at all in the month of October.  Wow.  It's not because nothing was happening around here I can assure you.  Phew!  October is a month of celebration around my home so we try to do more than just survive but did we survive this year.

*Deep Breath*Sigh*

And now November is here and I come bringing wonderful news!

In September I pleaded with you all to help us bring Miss E home then later confessed Miss E was my niece with more details around what was going on in that situation.  This was just one experience of many in my world and the world of all of my foster-care-sisters around me.  Craziness that left me with such a heavy weight related to our role in foster care and adoption.  In all honesty sometimes it gets so heavy that I wish I could ignore the needs of foster children and move on with my life absent-minded of the fact that so many out there need foster and/or adoptive parents whether I want to pay attention to it or not.

There was mediation about Miss E's return on October 2nd.  The hopes were at that mediation everyone could be on the same page so that birth parents would relinquish with an agreement that my sister would regain custody and be the adoptive parent.  CASA was on board.  Ad litem was on board.  BIRTH MOM was on board.  CPS was not and said they would not get on board with that plan - they'd rather go to trial.  So after hopes and hopes were held high for weeks and then the morning was spent rejoicing that everyone else was on board, CPS came in to dash all those hopes in the afternoon by saying they would never agree to my sister getting custody back (even though they also said they have no concerns about Miss E's safety with my sister).

The next step was to meet with the judge to see what the judge had to say, informally of course, regarding where Miss E should go.  Theoretically, if the judge said given the circumstances she'd rule a certain way (but not actually rule that way since it was just an informal conversation, not a hearing), my sister would have the opportunity to get Miss E back soon after if CPS agreed to move in lieu of or in advance of a hearing.  Nope, they said, they'd never do that.

Nevertheless "we" went forward with that plan and waited 2 more weeks to meet with the judge hoping that though there was a good chance she'd say she agrees Miss E should move back there was a small chance that would actually happen because CPS insisted they needed to go to trial and be ordered to give her back.

2 weeks came and went.  There was a scheduling conflict and the date had to be moved again.  In between there's lots of talk about how it could go this way or that and this drama and that and what if we never see her again?  We tried to remain hopeful.

Another week went by and this time I couldn't make it to court to see how things would go.  I waited all day.    It should have lasted 30 minutes but it was on the calendar for the last thing at the end of the day so I had to wait for a response (as did my sister so I'm not trying to make this a sob story about mie).  After 15-20 minutes I texted my sister.  No response.  I was in an executive-level meeting so I tried to be discreet but I texted her again.  And again.  And again.  No response.  90 minutes after court should have been over I called with no answer.  And again.  And again.  Finally I got a text back:

"I'm busy now.  Call back later"

There were a lot of things going through my mind including - REALLY?  You're too busy to let me know how things are going really?

I had no other choice but to go on with my evening but it was very, very hard.  I didn't know if things had gone well and she was trying to surprise me or if things were still in progress and she couldn't respond or if things went really bad (read: the judge said no) and my sister was all alone dealing with her emotions.  I hated that I couldn't be there.  But I went home and my family had pizza.

At 7pm the doorbell rang.  We were still eating (it was a late night) so my hubby ran to get the door.  I knew it was my sister, or, that it should have been, but I had no idea what message she would be bringing.  I was beyond nervous.

Two seconds after my hubby went outside the doorbell began ringing overandoverandoverandover.  Clearly I was supposed to come to the door.

So I did.

I opened the door.

There was my hubby in the doorway.

Holding SuEden (Sweden).

My sister was in the background filming our reactions, which is why she wouldn't text me back or answer my calls.  I'll spare you the details but the judge made it very clear that SuEden should have never been removed in the first place and against all procedural odds signed an order that gave my sister immediate custody of her daughter.  The foster parent was wonderfully supportive and upon hearing the order was signed sent a video immediately to my sister with SuEden saying something along the lines of "Hi Mommy.  I'm going to see you soon".  She went to pick her up and then came straight to my place.

I could watch the video of that moment over and over again.  I wish I could share it here.  It's all that's right in the world I tell you.  It's almost like the videos of the soldiers who come home and surprise their kids.  Because that night I (we) would have either learned that SuEden was coming home (even if it was going to take a little bit longer) OR that we'd never see her again.  It really was at that point.

Since then things have been up and down.  Things should have been done by CPS that weren't leaving my sister, theoretically, to pick up the pieces with an emotional but even more financial burden.  There still was the matter of a trial with several named fathers one of whom wouldn't sign away his rights because he wanted  a paternity test to prove he wasn't the father so no one couldn't come after him for child support later.  He didn't get the concept of signing away his rights I suppose.

Needless to say on Tuesday this week, once again against all odds, the judge terminated rights on all potential parents of SuEden, granting my sister sole managing conservatorship, and closing the case.  She's my sister's forever.  She's back home to stay.

This has been a very expensive endeavor.  There's several, several thousand dollars that have been spent so far and about $3K more will be needed to finalize the adoption.  If you feel inclined, please contribute to the "bring Miss E home" donation at the upper right side of my page.  Everything is helpful at this point.  We'll figure out the finances - God will provide.  In reality all that matters is our sweet niece is home and though the trauma of the ordeal is still very fresh she has always been and will always be very worth it.

On a side note - nearly everyone in this case is the same as in my case except for the biological parents, of course.  What made the judge rule in favor of my sister will almost certainly (in my mind) make her rule in favor of the birth parents in my case even though the situations are very, very different.  The attorney we would have chosen to intervene with and who made such a difference in my sister's case has now, unfortunately, already committed to be the mediator in my case, further hurting our chances to keep our kiddos forever.  In my sister's case she really was the best parent for her daughter.  In our kids' case I have serious concern (as does everyone in the case) as to whether our kids would be safe for very long if reunification happened.  I've known along every step of the way that as my sister's case goes, the opposite will probably be true of me and because we helped finance my sister's case our options to finance our own are limited.  It doesn't matter, it was the right thing to do and we believe our God is way bigger than any of these circumstances.  Nevertheless we and our kiddos could use your prayers as we prepare for mediation before the end of the year.  

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Tuesday's Tears - Just Getting By

Greetings everyone!  I miss you, I do.  The reality is life has overwhelmed me and though I check in from time-to-time to read a few blogs I have just not made the time to actually blog myself.  And, I'm struggling to come up with things to write about.  Same ol' story for you, I know...

I don't write much about my kids case.  We had a great period of time with no visits and wonderful kids and more bonding and promise of a great future together.  Then visits started again causing at least one kiddo to go into a tailspin that has taken time, patience, and a ton of emotional and physical energy to deal with.  It's sad really.  To the uninformed it looks like a kiddo who misses his birth parents and wants to be back with them but in reality its a kiddo who has been disappointed time and time again by unstable "role models" who should be there for him and provide a decent life for him and yet disappear (yet again) and reappear like nothing ever happened causing an overwhelming amount of emotion and insecurity in such a little guy who was already struggling with the last round of "abandonment" and trauma that just won't seem to go away when these people are around.  So now this little guy is full of rage and sadness that no little guy should be left to experience causing his brain to tell his body to act out with tantrums and fits because that's all he knows to do to get those emotions out and who else should be targeted with that than the foster parents who've committed to parent him for life (if that becomes an option) who don't abuse or abandon him.  So now we try to help him and all of our kiddos as much as possible without being able to confidently assure him that we too, in fact, will stay forever because there's only so much we can do to keep that promise when we don't know what the judge will say.  It's a complicated thing I'm working through here, which really just means taking it one day at a time.

(Yes, that is how I really feel).

A year ago today we arrived in Maui to enjoy our 5th anniversary trip.  Oh how we long for another Maui.

My uncle died yesterday.  Another uncle died a few months ago and a great aunt died a couple weeks ago.  Another uncle is in the hospital very ill - the family was somewhat mentally preparing for worse news on him when they received news about the other uncle's passing.  It's all sad really and yet marred by mixed feelings if I'm honest.  I'll probably be one of the few who are honest.  I'll probably be hated for it.  That's ok.  I'm sad, I really am.  I hope my family is comforted.  I hope I can be a comforting factor in all that could play out after his death.

I'm tired.  I wouldn't trade my life but I'm worn out a little bit at the moment.

I do have good news to share with you though so stay tuned until I get my act together to give it justice!