In litigation brought by the division of Child Protection and Permanency (DCPP)(formerly the Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS)), one year is a very significant benchmark in the case. After one year in litigation, the court is required to conduct a permanency hearing and to approve a plan to achieve permanency for the child. That plan may include reunification with the parent, termination of parental rights followed by adoption, kinship legal guardianship with a relative, or one of three other alternatives. N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.50.
Though there is no statutory requirement for litigation to last one year, anecdotal experience from child welfare attorneys supports that this is typical. Various, however, a requirement for a permanency hearing within one year pursuant to the a
Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA).
Further, parent educational materials distributed in child welfare courts, provided by the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC), that the case should be resolved with reunification, if possible, within one year.
But should we accept the de facto presumption that the litigation must last a year? Does having a one-year “benchmark” allow the agency to justify its delay in implementing necessary services to achieve reunification? Does having a one-year benchmark encourage the agency to talk on additional requested services for family over the course of that year, knowing that the practice typically includes a one-year period of litigation? And because it is exceedingly rare that a court will not grant the agency its request for additional services, what is lost, really, by requesting more and more and more of a parent because the agency has one year to play with?
It is a dirty little secret of child welfare agencies that services are often provided to families solely for the purpose of meeting the statutory requirement down the line to terminate parental rights. Now that ASFA requires concurrent planning, the agency cannot take this “over servicing” approach with only those families anticipated to have termination in their future; it adopts this approach for all families.
The consequence of this “standard operating procedure” is that many families are simply tortured by a one-year entitlement by the agency to control its life, rather than a strategic, directed approach to help families and end litigation. It is true that many families achieve reunification before the end of litigation, as a parent may seek return of the child at any time, which shall be granted unless there is evidence of harm to the child’s health, safety or welfare. See, N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.32(a). Yet, it is all too common that the division successfully opposes reunification upon the stated concern that a lapse of perfection upon reunification will only result in a subsequent removal.
This concern is not totally unwarranted. However, the one year benchmark is far too often used as a guillotine over families, rather than a tempered response to the circumstances presented to the court. Wow the benchmark appears to be here to stay, we should not accept that one year is a magic number that should guide most cases. Each case requires and deserves a case-by-case individual approach.
If you or someone you know is involved in child welfare litigation that appears to be dragging on needlessly, contact Paragano & Williams, LLC for assistance resolving your matter expeditiously.