SAMANTHA (actor): I have the right to raise my baby as I see fit. The law says so.
NARRATOR (Voiceover): True! By law, every parent has the right to raise their child as they see fit.
KALEEM (actor): So nobody has the right to take away my child, right? Not DSS, not the State, not the Federal Government?
Video is approximately 13 minutes in English. Windows Media Player v.7.0 or higher required.
NARRATOR (Voiceover): True! Unless, under the law, the Department of Social Services determines that your child's health, safety or life was in jeopardy.
That's why your child was removed from your home and placed in foster care.
JANE (actor): If they think I'm not fit to take care of my children, they're gonna have to prove it in a court of law.
NARRATOR (Voiceover): True! DSS must prove the allegations against you in court in order to keep your child in foster care. And you will have an attorney appointed for you in your case.
ROBERTO (actor): Okay, so all I have to do is show up in court and pretty soon I'll get to take my baby home.
NARRATOR (Voiceover): False! The first hearing is one of many in a lengthy process. In order to prove yourself fit to get your child back, you will have to attend numerous court hearings, may be required to attend treatment sessions, talk to lawyers, go to more court sessions and report on your progress every step of the way. You will have to work hard to satisfy the court's requirements. You have only 12 months. And the clock has already started.
GRAPHIC The Clock is Ticking
JUDGE: The Department of Social Services has filed its petition and has said that (beep) is dependent and/or neglected, so that has brought us here today ...
NARRATOR (Voiceover): Less than a week after your child is removed from your home, you will appear in Juvenile Court for an initial hearing. It's the first in a series of court proceedings to get your child back from the custody of the Department of Social Services (also known as DSS or Social Services).
JANE (voiceover): At first it was little confusing. I mean there were a lot of people there in the courtroom. There was me and my lawyer at one table. At the next table there were folks from Social Services. And at the far table there was my child with her own attorney.
NARRATOR (Voiceover): Your first court appearance is a non-secure custody hearing, where a decision will be made about your child's placement. If you can't afford your own lawyer, the court will appoint one for you.
Your child may have a Guardian ad Litem volunteer, who makes recommendations for the child's well being. Along with the Guardian ad Litem is your child's legal representative, the GAL Attorney Advocate.
The attorney representing the Department of Social Services, the DSS Social Worker and other DSS members are in court to present their case before the judge.
JANE: I was a little scared by the judge and lawyers and everything. But my attorney was very helpful and seemed to really care about my situation.
JUDGE: Are there other relatives that are able to step in and possibly provide placement if ...
NARRATOR (voiceover): The judge orders a date for mediation, the next step in the court process. The different parties agree on a date and are excused from court.
Mediators are neutral. They are not a part of DSS and do not have a stake in the outcome of your case. At mediation, the parties work toward an agreement as to why your child was removed. You may also discuss what will be required of you to have your children returned to your home. You and your attorney, the child's Guardian ad Litem and attorney advocate, and the DSS attorney will interact with the mediators at this meeting.
JANE: You are going to have to talk to my doctor about that because I don't do cocaine.
MEDIATOR: What is the prescription?
JANE: I don't feel I have to disclose that right now.
ROBERTO: Why do these people need to know so much about my personal business? I mean, this is my family and my life, so why does everybody have to know whether or not I beat my kids?
NARRATOR (voiceover): Having your personal life aired in court can be uncomfortable. But you should keep in mind that DSS did not randomly try to interfere with your family situation; something happened to bring your situation to the attention of DSS.
Following mediation, the parties meet again in court for the Adjudication Hearing.
This hearing is more like a court trial. Facts from the DSS petition for removing your child from the home are heard by the judge.
DSS: The mother at this point is continuing to be inaccessible in developing a case plan making it very difficult for the case worker.
LAWYER: She indicates that she does not see a need for that at the present time ... um ... as to contact with social worker and visitation with juvenile we did not cover that but she wishes to be reunified and indicates that ... um ... she really does not need the parenting class and therapy.
NARRATOR: After hearing the arguments the judge will determine if the child has been abused or neglected, or is deemed dependent. Sometimes the judge will rule that the statements from the petition have not been proven. When that happens the case may be dismissed.
JUDGE: I will find that the department has proven by clear and convincing evidence, that (beep) is neglected and dependent with respect to his mother and will therefore adjudicate him neglected and dependent with respect to his mother.
NARRATOR: If the judge rules there is evidence the child was abused or neglected or found to be dependent, the court immediately proceeds to the next step, the Disposition Hearing.
ROBERTO: I don't know. I guess I thought I was gonna get my boy back right then. But nothin's ever easy. Next is when they laid it all out for me. That's when the real work began.
NARRATOR (voiceover): The Disposition Hearing determines the roadmap for what it will take for your child to return home. The judge will listen to information and suggestions for the child's welfare and how to get the child into a safe and permanent living situation as soon as possible.
The hearing will also outline a case plan for parents dealing with problems such as drugs or alcohol, mental illness, domestic violence or some other form of abuse or neglectful behavior. If you have any of these issues, the Court may order you to participate in a F.I.R.S.T. assessment. F.I.R.S.T. stands for Families in Recovery to Stay Together. The initial assessment is designed to identify areas of substance abuse, mental health and domestic violence where parents may need additional support to achieve reunification with their children.
Parents who participate in the FIRST program receive an array of community-based services to support their efforts to bring their children home. Where the court determines it is in the child's best interest, the law allows parents to work their case plan for up to 18 months.
You've been given a mission, and the reward is getting your child back. But there's only a set amount of time left, and the clock never stops.
JANE: What do people expect? There were so many meetings
KALEEM: If anybody ever told me I'd be going to five classes a week while holding down two jobs I'd have called them crazy.
JANE: Alcoholics Anonymous, there were random drug tests, parenting classes ...
KALEEM: But that's what it took.
JANE: More meetings, then more meetings after that. I mean, I'm just one person!
SAMANTHA: It was a real wakeup call for me.
KALEEM: It didn't leave much time for play, you know what I mean? But it was that "playtime" that got me in trouble to start with.
SAMANTHA: Anyway, pretty soon I was changing the way I was living, who my friends were, how I felt about things. Everything about my life changed.
NARRATOR (voiceover): Within 90 days of the Disposition Hearing comes the first Review Hearing. The judge and all parties meet to discuss the progress of the parent, whether or not the program is working, and how the child's situation is progressing.
At any point in the court process the judge may decide the parents have resolved the issues that brought DSS into the case and reunify the family. But sometimes parents don't make adequate progress toward resolving their situation and the judge may order that DSS stop making efforts to reunify the family. The case may continue until reaching a Permanency Planning Hearing, where the focus shifts toward placing the child in a safe, permanent home as quickly as possible.
SAMANTHA: I was so angry, angry at my ex, angry at my job, angry at DSS for taking my kid. Well, I'm here to tell you, honey, it's not all about you. It's about the child. And if you don't get that in your head, and I mean real soon, it's going to be just you, without your kid.
NARRATOR (voiceover): If the judge decides the parents have not made sufficient progress to reunite with their children, there will be a Termination of Parental Rights Hearing, or TPR. The hearing comes as close to a full-scale trial as any other proceeding in the juvenile court process. Testimony will be given as to why the parent's rights should be terminated. You have the opportunity to testify and to bring your own witnesses to the hearing.
If the judge decides there are grounds for termination, and it is in the child's best interest to be permanently removed, the TPR will be granted and the child could be placed for adoption. This ruling is permanent.
JUDGE: And based on those findings of fact the court is concluding as a matter of law that the grounds of termination of parental rights have been met and that the evidence is clear, cogent and convincing that it is in the best interest of this child that we terminate the parental rights of both parents ... this child will now be placed for adoption.
NARRATOR (voiceover): Within 6 months of Termination of Parental Rights, the court holds a Post Termination of Parental Rights hearing, where parties present evidence and make recommendations for the child's permanent placement. You will not be present at this hearing, because you have already lost your parental rights. If you lose custody, the court still oversees the well being of your child until he or she is adopted or another plan is in place.
SAMANTHA: Anybody can give birth. But not everybody is cut out to be a parent. Being a parent is a huge responsibility, because your child's life is completely in your hands. I guess I forgot that ... until DSS and the court stepped in.
KALEEM: It was the hardest thing I ever did in my life. A lot of it hurt, really. But it was totally worth it.
ROBERTO: At first you think to yourself, "I've got a year to work all this stuff out." Then all of a sudden, it's like, "Can you give me a couple more months?" And guess what? The answer is "no."
JANE: They're serious about you only having 12 months to get your act together. I waited until it was too late. And now they're taking my baby away from me - permanently. At the TPR hearing the judge said, "That's it, the clock has stopped." And just like that, I lost my baby for good.
NARRATOR (voiceover): At least one of these cases ended in Termination of Parental Rights. But it doesn't have to end that way for you. Many parents who work the program and comply with court orders are successfully reunited with their children. If your case has just begun, don't delay. Start now.
Talk to people; your social worker, counselor and lawyer, your friends and relatives, your minister or priest. And do what the judge asks you to do. You have people and services waiting to assist you through this entire process. You are not alone.
The stakes are high. The task of putting your family back together will not be easy, but not impossible. It's up to you. The clock is ticking.
JANE: The clock is ticking.
SAMANTHA: The clock is ticking.
KALEEM: The clock is ticking.
ROBERTO: El tiempo ...