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December 2020Vol. 21, No. 9Relentlessly Protect Relationships

Written by Vivek S. Sankaran, clinical professor of law, University of Michigan Law School

At the close of the termination of parental rights trial, the judge remarked, "I do believe that this is a situation where perhaps the mother can go on to be a meaningful part of these children's lives." 

The evidence supported the judge's assertion. The mother—my client—shared a close bond with the children, who were living safely with her sister. Her sister, while wanting to provide stability for the children, also wished to keep my client involved in their lives. And my client, who could not care for the children herself because of a serious mental illness, desperately wanted to stay connected with her family.

The judge understood all of this, so much so that he felt compelled to say it out loud. Nevertheless, he still terminated my client's parental rights to her children, permanently destroying her legal right to ever have a relationship with them again.

The judge's actions typify what happens all too often in child welfare, in which we have embraced a culture that welcomes—and even celebrates—the destruction of meaningful relationships. 

We separate children from their parents because the family might lack the funds to pay for housing.

We deny children in foster care the ability to see their parents due to the system's lack of resources.

We permanently destroy relationships between children and their parents because parents suffer from a mental illness, an addiction, or poverty, despite close bonds between children and their parents.

We have embraced this culture despite knowing that relationships are the foundational aspects of our lives. They provide us our reason for being. They sustain us during difficult times. They motivate us when we face obstacles. They give us meaning in a turbulent world. They are the asset we must relentlessly protect.

To fundamentally change the lives of children involved in the child welfare system, we must embrace a new mantra to guide our work: relentlessly protect meaningful relationships.

In such a system, we would never separate children from their parents due to their family's lack of income.

If removed, we would never deny children their right to see their parents absent clear evidence of harm.

And we would never terminate parental rights where children benefit from a relationship with their parent, even if that parent cannot personally care for their child.

Over the past 4 years, the Children's Bureau has taken important steps to implement a vision for child welfare that prioritizes the sanctity of familial relationships. Leadership has laid out a bold new vision of what the child welfare system should look like and how its intent should be to prevent unnecessary family separation by supporting families and disentangling poverty from neglect. It has moved to implement it through statutory reforms to fund prevention work, the interpretation of federal laws that recognize that lawyers can prevent unnecessary family separation, and the spending of discretionary funds to strengthen the health of communities.

But to truly implement this vision, more work must be done. For example, even with the Family First Prevention Services Act, state child welfare agencies need far more flexibility to spend federal funds on concrete supports that can keep children safe with their families, like obtaining housing, accessing public benefits, or getting the right educational services. The federal government must go beyond the new title IV-E support for legal representation and directly fund legal advocacy aimed at preventing families from even getting to the front door of child welfare. 

And Congress must amend the Adoption and Safe Families Act to prevent the needless and permanent destruction of families, especially where a child has a loving relationship with a parent, is living with relatives, or does not yet have an identified permanent home. The law must only allow for the elimination of meaningful relationships where no other alternatives exists.

My client will likely never have a right to see her children. The trial court took away this right from her because life gave her a disease she did not choose to have. But in the pain of her story lies a stark reminder of our need to fight for justice in child welfare. And that fight must center on relentlessly protecting relationships between children and their families.