PART 4: Court
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Maria, Emily’s CASA Volunteer:
Emily’s caseworker and I paid her a visit the other day to see how she’s doing. First, we checked in on how she’s feeling about her foster parents. It’s not home, of course – but she’s starting to feel more comfortable with them. She even mentioned that they often play board games together, and that they like putting her drawings up on the fridge.
She’s having a little bit of a harder time with school, though. It’s difficult enough being the “new kid” all over again, and to make things worse, she told me a group of kids has been picking on her and making fun of her cardboard sword. None of those kids have any idea what Emily has been through or why that sword is so important to her, but that doesn’t make their behavior okay. I’m going to mention the problem next time I speak with her teacher and see what can be done about it.
The last thing we talked to her about was attending her status hearing. Court is a scary process even for grownups sometimes, so I wanted to make sure that she knew what to expect, especially since her dad will be there. She’s nervous about seeing him, and being in front of a judge. Her caseworker and I reassured her that we’d both be there, as well as her mom, and that everyone else there, including the judge, only wants to keep her safe and do what’s best for her.
Her caseworker left soon after that, but I stayed a little longer to make sure she was feeling better about everything. I reassured her that it was okay to be nervous, and that going to court and talking in front of a judge was scary even for me. I told her that if she wanted, she could bring her sword with her if it would make her feel better.
After our visit, I finalized my court report in preparation for Emily’s hearing. I expanded on the strategies that could help to meet her needs detailed in her service plan, mentioning that she enjoys games and expressing herself through drawing, so some sort of art or play therapy might be a good fit for her. I also made sure to mention my concerns about the bullying at school, and that I’d like to explore getting her grandparents more involved in her case.
I’m so proud of Emily and how brave she’s been through all of this. She’s already faced too many dragons, and she’s only going to face more. This time, though, I’m going to be there for her every step of the way so that she doesn’t have to fight them alone.
I went to court today. It was the first time I’d seen dad since everything happened, but Maria was with me the whole time. I brought my sword, like she said I could… and I saw that she brought her own sword, too.
Thanks to Maria, facing dad wasn’t as scary as I thought it would be. Maybe the most important thing in fighting dragons… is not doing it all by yourself.
The hardest thing was being in the same room while everybody was talking to the judge about me and my parents. It went on for a long time, and there were parts of what they said that I didn’t really understand. But after a while, the judge took me into another room to talk in private. Maria came, too, so that I didn’t have to go alone.
He asked me a few questions about my foster home, how I’m doing in school, the types of things that Maria and my caseworker like to talk about. We also talked about mom and dad, and he explained that they were both going to get help while I was in foster care. I told him I miss my mom, I miss my bedroom, I miss my old friends and my old school… I just want to go home.
I hope this is all over soon.
Emily is warming up to her new foster parents, and developing a closer, more trusting relationship with her CASA volunteer. This comes at a time when support and positive relationships are more critical for her than ever, given that she is starting to face more “dragons” – a school bully and a scary situation (attending the status hearing for her case).
Children in foster care are required to attend their court hearings to ensure their voice is heard, unless the court specifically excuses the child’s absence. Maria knows that this will be scary for Emily, especially since her father will be there. That’s why she does everything she can to prepare her and make her feel safe, even going so far as to craft a cardboard sword of her own, signifying for Emily that she no longer has to fight her dragons alone.
The status hearing is held within 60 days of DFPS assuming temporary custody of the child. The purpose of this hearing is to review the details of the case, the content of the child and family service and visitation plans, and the permanency plan. The judge receives and reviews all the relevant court reports and supporting documents prior to the hearing, so typically, they hear updates and ask questions of the legal advocates, such as the CPS caseworker, the child’s and parents’ attorneys, and the CASA volunteer.
After hearing from the legal advocates on the case, the judge speaks with the child, if present, either in the courtroom or privately in their chambers depending on the child’s wishes and the setup of the court. Emily decided that she wanted to speak with the judge privately, with Maria there.
The judge also speaks to each parent, ensuring they are aware of the contents of their service plan, and gives them the chance to ask questions and comment. Emily’s parents have both agreed and signed on to their service plans. As of now, Emily’s father is still not permitted visits with Emily, and will only be considered for further involvement if he follows his plan. Both he and Emily’s mother have the right to request future reviews and modifications.
After hearing from all parties involved in the case, the judge:
- Approves CPS continuing as temporary conservator of the child (or if it is determined that the child can safely return home, orders the child be returned home).
- May make orders related to the services either the child or the family are receiving, or may make modifications to and/or approve the visitation plan.
- Formally asks all parties present whether the child or the child’s family has a Native American heritage – these children are subject to different legal requirements under the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA).
- Reviews and approves the permanency plan for the child, which is CPS’s plan for moving the child out of their temporary care and into a safe and permanent living situation. In Emily’s case, the plan is currently reunification with her mother pending completion of her ordered services, with a concurrent (or alternative) plan of adoption by a relative. For detailed information on permanency planning for a child, see the Case Planning for Positive Permanency section of the CPS Handbook.
The judge also confirms with the parents that they understand that cooperating with their service plan is the best course of action for returning the child home to them safely, once again informing them that “parental and custodial rights and duties may be subject to restriction or to termination unless the parent or parents are willing and able to provide the child with a safe environment.”
Finally, the judge orders the next hearing to be set so that all the parties know when the next court date will be. Tune in next month for the next part of Emily’s story.*
*This is a fictional story based on real-life situations that many children in the Texas foster care system face. No confidential information about any real children or families has been disclosed.