Court Ordered Services: Helping families heal together

Jun 09 2016

Court Ordered Services: Helping families heal together

By Steven Olender

Ultimately, the goal of the child welfare system is to ensure that children live in safe, permanent homes. Knowing how traumatic it can be for children to be removed from their homes and families, CPS and the courts are repeatedly faced with the decision whether it is in a child's best interest to stay in their home or to be moved into foster care. For cases where there are demonstrated safety concerns, but where the children are not in immediate danger, the court may initiate a Court Ordered Services (COS) case. Children in COS cases remain at home or are voluntarily placed with a relative, while their parents engage in support services like psychological evaluation and therapy, drug rehabilitation or domestic violence services. Parents in COS cases also retain their legal rights. 

COS cases should be less traumatic for children because there is typically less disruption in their lives. They often stay in or near their homes and don't have to change schools.  The hope is that these cases will also come to a more expedient conclusion because the concerns are less severe.

Recently, CPS was faced with a case where the parents' drug use was the presenting concern. Because there was sufficient family support to ensure the children, a four year old girl and a six year old boy, were safe and cared for, CPS moved forward with COS instead of taking the children into the foster care system. The children went to live with their grandparents while both parents entered therapy and drug treatment. CASA was then appointed to the case to monitor that the children remained safe and that services were completed.  

During services, the mother's therapist delved into the roots of her drug use and realized that she had been using as a way to medicate an undiagnosed case of post-traumatic stress disorder brought about by a severe trauma she'd experienced as a child. By getting her a specialized therapy for PTSD, they were able to address the debilitating anxiety and flashbacks she had been experiencing for years. Removing the impetus for her drug use meant that she was able to stop using through effective therapy and drug treatment, as was the father, whose drug history was less extensive.

Fortunately, on this case, the parents were committed to the process, which made CASA's job an easier one. As they progressed, CASA advocated for the parents to have increased visitation so that the children could have a greater sense of normalcy. After eight months in drug treatment both parents had stopped using. CASA ensured that they were connected to community resources that would help mitigate stressors that could lead to relapse and then felt confident advocating that the case be closed and the children return home. In the end, the parents were grateful for the intervention because it gave them the tools they needed to better parent their children.  The children are safe and thriving.

In theory, COS cases should follow the path of this family – services are provided and concerns are quickly addressed with as little disruption for the children as possible. The reality, however, has not always been so ideal. Many COS cases, while lower in risk, linger for extended periods of time because they lack a legal deadline and the associated timelines and structure. When a case lingers, it extends the disruption it has in a child's life, making it more likely to have lasting, traumatic effects.  

Travis County is piloting a new program to reverse these effects. For cases that qualify, a scheduling order will be issued at the case onset, setting a seven month deadline and staged requirements.   At the seven month hearing, the family will either demonstrate they have completed their ordered services and are able to create a safe, supportive environment for the children or CPS will request to elevate the case and request Temporary Managing Conservatorship of the children. Families will be offered the same services they would on any case, but for COS cases in the pilot, there is a specific focus on timeliness and expediency.  Mediation will be available from the start, which will allow for cases to come to a resolution sooner, if appropriate. 

Moving forward with these practices will help to alleviate some of the burden placed on children in these cases. We know that the longer a child spends in foster care, the greater their likelihood of trauma from the experience, and COS cases help to lessen that likelihood. But we also know that a case which languishes in the system can be traumatic for children. Reforming the COS system will help us to mitigate these risks and to ensure that children end up in safe, supportive homes, with as little negative effect as possible.