The first responsibility of any foster parent is to support the reunification efforts of the child welfare agency. Decades ago, children would end up staying in foster care for years waiting for their parents to clean up their acts so they could go home. With the enactment of the Federal Child Welfare Act of 1997, the practice of languishing for years in the child welfare system has been greatly reduced.
The federal guidelines of the welfare act entices the state child welfare agencies to be more proactive in reunifying children with their parents or seeking termination of parental rights within a specified time period. As a result of this act, many individuals and couples have become foster parents in order to adopt kids who become legally free. But what steps does the state child welfare agencies have to take to terminate the parental rights of foster children so that the biological parents are given due process?
The rights of the parents are given serious consideration until a judge determines that reunification services are no longer in the child's best interests. When a child initially enters the child welfare system as foster children, the issues leading to the removal from the home is brought before a judge who determines whether there is any merit in the child staying in foster care. When it is determined that a child must remain in foster care, the parents are then given a case plan to complete in order to address the issues that led to the child's removal in the first place. Periodic (every three to six months) review hearings are held in order to ensure the parents are completing the items on the case plan.
After twelve months, if the child (or children) is not returned home before then, the child welfare agency and the parent goes before the judge for a permanency hearing. Often the outcome of a permanency hearing is to either grant a six-month extension for the parent to complete the case plan, grant a petition for guardianship from family, or grant a proposal for termination of parental rights and adoption by a non-relative. If the permanent plan is for termination of parental rights, the state is given time to submit the legal paperwork for termination and the court approves the petition. The court then schedules a pre-trial conference (or hearing) where the state will try to encourage the parents to relinquish their rights. By this time in the case, many parents will relinquish their rights as the state agency has built a solid case against them.
If for some reason, parents choose not to relinquish their rights, then a termination of parental rights (TPR) trial is held where the state and the parent bring in witnesses in order to prove their cases. By this time the child has been in the custody of the state for eighteen months to two years and the state has built a solid case against the parents and very few TPR trials are lost.