When Should a Child in Foster Care Have a Say in Their Future?
Monday, June 1st, 2020
When a child has been removed from their family and placed into foster care, the court must decide the child’s bests interests when determining where and with whom they will be raised. Virginia requires judges to consult with each child placed in foster care during permanency hearing proceedings to determine whether the child should return home, live with a relative, be adopted, or stay in foster care indefinitely. But there are always developmental, psychological, and emotional factors to consider when determining a child’s best interests. If a child is able to offer their own thoughts and preferences regarding where they will live, should they not have a say in their own future?
Frustratingly, there is currently no system in place to track the actual numbers of court cases in which children are consulted as the law requires: although this consultation is a legal requirement whenever possible and the court orders include a form for the judge to fill in after the hearing, the court system does not compile and track the data. Unfortunately, we have seen in many cases the judge defaults to checking the “no” box on the permanency hearing order when asked if the child was consulted during a permanency planning hearing. This is often the case even when the child is old enough to contribute to the decision-making process.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced social workers, advocates, and courts to become more creative in how they interact with children and families, and that creativity is paying off: social workers report that parents participating via video are often more engaged in meetings and court hearings; and using video technology has enabled increased visitation between children and parents, improving communication and bonds. The increased availability of video court hearings, and the increased familiarity with their use, means that judges can now more easily communicate with children, who are able to participate from home, school, or wherever they happen to be. Further, since federal regulations mandating “in-person” or “face-to-face” meetings have been expanded to include video meetings due to the crisis, advocates for children and families have an opportunity to push to ensure the child is consulted in every permanency hearing, and even foster care review hearings. Busy GALs who sometimes do not have time to visit a child’s home or school to consult with their client can seek court permission to meet with the child via video prior to hearings: both to report on the child’s well-being, and their wishes.
Something as simple as meeting with a child, even virtually, could make a world of difference during such a traumatic time in a child’s life.