Civil Rights Word Young Mother image

Commentary by Terri LaPoint
Health Impact News

Losing a child for any reason is one of the most devastating things that can ever happen to a parent. The process of dealing with Child Protective Services and family court, while never easy, often serves to dehumanize parents and children. Instead of serving to help families overcome challenges, the system creates further harm when it treats parents as though they are worthless.

Not only are civil and constitutional rights violated routinely, but many parents find that the system seeks to strip them of their basic human dignity.

Law professor Vivek Sankaran recognizes that the treatment of parents by the courts is counterproductive to goals of restoring the family and helping the children.

Sankaran wrote a piece for the American Bar Association addressing these concerns, with suggestions that could be implemented by the courts when dealing with parents facing allegations by CPS.

I would add a couple more suggestions:

  • Require actual evidence before accusing a parent or taking their children.
  • Ensure that social workers, doctors, police, attorneys, and judges follow the law.

My Name Is Not “Respondent Mother”: The Need for Procedural Justice in Child Welfare Cases

By Vivek Sankaran
American Bar Association


A Parent’s Day in Court

You are a parent whose children are in foster care. Your court hearing is today, after which you hope your children will return home.

Upon leaving the bus, you wait in line to enter the court. At the metal detectors you’re told you can’t bring your cell phone inside. With no storage options, you hide your phone in the bushes, hoping it will be there when you return.

You get past security, nervously looking at your watch. The hearing starts at 8:30 a.m. The courtroom is packed – with other parents, caseworkers, lawyers, foster parents, relatives – all ready for their cases to be heard.

Time passes slowly. You sit alone. While you see other people on your case talking to each other, no one approaches you, not even your lawyer. You have many questions about this hearing but don’t know who can answer them. The longer you wait, the more anxious and afraid you become. The nerves start kicking in. You just want your children home.

The clock reads 9:30 a.m. Abruptly, the judge walks in, everyone rises, and the proceedings begin. No one apologizes for the delay.

Next, a flurry of activity, none of which you understand. Lawyers move around the courtroom, parents are crying, papers are distributed, hearings conclude. A new case is called. This pattern repeats until the clerk says your children’s names. You nervously move forward.

The professionals on your case introduce themselves. The person beside you – whom you’ve only spoken to briefly – introduces himself as your lawyer. You discover another person – whom you’ve never met or spoken to – represents the best interests of your children. You have so much you want to share and understand. Why is this all happening?

After the professionals introduce themselves, the judge – without looking up – asks: “Will the Respondent Mother introduce herself?” Those words sting: “Respondent Mother.” You feel like a criminal. Your identity is reduced to a label, to something other than a person. You raised your children. You have a name, but no one uses it.

Suddenly, the hearing is over. The foster care worker and the children’s lawyer recite the bad things cited in the petition – things that don’t completely reveal the truth – but neglect to tell the judge what was going well for your family. Your lawyer mutters a few words but says little because he doesn’t know the case and has never spoken with you outside court.

You want to speak but your lawyer tells you to be quiet. You have so much to share: you read to your children every night, got them to school every day by yourself, took them to their grandparents’ house to play with their cousins. Now you can’t do these things. Now you’re just a “Respondent Mother” who no one wants to hear from.

After the professionals speak, the judge quickly says the children will remain in foster care and sets a court hearing months later, without asking about your schedule. Everyone hurries from the courtroom. The clerk hands you a court order, which your lawyer says lays out everything you need to do. He then hurries off.

You look at the paper, a pre-printed form with boxes checked and legal jargon you don’t understand. Confused, you look around for your lawyer. He’s working on another case, one of many he is assigned to that morning.

You leave feeling dejected, hopeless, and angry: What happens now? When will you get your children back? Will your cell phone be under the bushes? You never want to go to court again.

Continue reading the rest of this article at the American Bar Association website, where Vivek Sankaran makes the following main points:

Most child welfare cases involve parental neglect not horrific acts

Court compliance is higher when parents are treated fairly

Children have better outcomes when raised by family

Building a Court Process that Support Parents