One More Kid in the System: Unpacking Refusal to Assume Parental Responsibility

Jan 26 2017

One More Kid in the System: Unpacking Refusal to Assume Parental Responsibility

The majority of cases in the child welfare system open when the state determines, through investigation, that children are unsafe due to parental abuse or neglect. In a small handful of cases, though, parents voluntarily cede their rights to the state. This is called Refusal to Assume Parental Responsibility, or RAPR for short.

While this occasionally occurs with biological families, the form it most often takes is that of a disrupted adoption. Parents feel they are not prepared to meet the needs, or underestimated the difficulty of meeting the needs, of children they've adopted. This occurs in many cases because children who have experienced trauma struggle to regulate their emotions which can lead to acting out, skipping school or using illegal substances to test boundaries or in an attempt to reconcile the pain they are feeling. In others, mental health issues are involved, either in the case of the children or their parents. The issue comes to a head when the child enters a mental hospital or the juvenile justice system and the parents refuse to pick them up.

It puts the courts in a difficult situation as no abuse has occurred, but the judge cannot order a parent to take care of a child they don't feel they can keep safe, or from whom they fear harm will befall themselves or their other children. The court, however, does not simply let parents sign away their rights. A RAPR case is treated like any other CPS case, with families receiving services and the state, in essence, suing for custody of the children.

This is a sad state as, for most families, RAPR is something of a cry for help, not an act of malice or neglect. "Sometimes they just need help," says Stephanie Weiss, CASA's Director of Advocacy. "It's sad that they have to give custody of their child to CPS to get the help they need." Most biological parents and many adoptive parents will agree to go through services to find the roots of the problem and solve them, bringing the kids back into the home. Others are more cautious or outright refuse to try.

For those children whose parents refuse services or who fail to reunify after services have been attempted, finding a new adoptive family is difficult and we are left to prepare them for adult living. "These tend to be the kids that aren't prioritized. They're not the sweet fragile infant that everyone rushes to help," explains Weiss. "It's easy to pour services into that kid. But when you get a 16 year old with mental health issues who is using drugs and running the streets and involved in a gang, not everybody rushes to help those kids. They're the ones who need it most."

RAPR can have drastic impacts on children, most of whom have faced significant trauma already. "Obviously, by the time we get to the point where a biological parent is asking a state agency for assistance parenting their child, it's a Pandora's box of traumatic experiences that led to that point, many of which are unknown," explains Charron Sumler, who leads CASA's efforts in trauma-informed advocacy. For children in disrupted adoptions it can be worse. "In essence, now they feel abandoned twice and so trying to create that connection and bond and trust in another family - or in anyone else - is incredibly difficult," Alisa De Luna, Senior Director of Community Initiatives at CASA explains. "When you have a family fail a youth after they appeared before a judge and the community promising to take care of them and be their forever family, sometimes that's harder for the youth to handle than whatever may have happened with the biological family in the first place."

And from a TBRI perspective, RAPR runs counter to everything we know about mitigating trauma. "If [the reason for RAPR] is behavioral, the parents are asking the child to prove why they should be loved. They are using love as a reward, using basic needs as a reward," says Sumler. "It's the anti-trauma-informed response. It's saying 'when she does this, then I'll bring her home.' From TBRI, we know that we want to always connect while correcting. RAPR splits that. "

So what do we do to protect kids from this trauma? "We need to think and look really creatively at resources for what the actual problem is," says Weiss. "Is it mental health? If so, what type of assessment, evaluations and services will help? Is it juvenile justice? If so, what will help the parents set better boundaries and understand the problem?" And while children are attending counseling or getting involved with groups that will better channel their energies, we know that it is particularly important for parents to be included in their treatment. For this, especially, we utilize CPS's Reintegration Project, which helps families manage mental health issues for children returning to the home.

Ideally, though, we work to prevent RAPR before it happens. By proactively working with adoptive families to ensure they understand the reality of adopting children who have experienced trauma – that they are signing up for a lifetime of hard days in addition to the joys of adoption – we can minimize the likelihood of a RAPR situation. Specifically with children being adopted, there can be a great deal of mistrust and a lack of attachment that must be worked on, and worked on early, before it grows. For this, CASA has to work to foster a greater level of understanding and to make sure families are connected to the resources they need to succeed.

For CASA volunteers, working on a RAPR case can be challenging, but also extremely rewarding, as they are able to be the stable, positive, healthy adult that is consistent in a child's life. "Sometimes volunteers get frustrated and don't know how to be helpful since there are already so many family dynamics and burned bridges," Sumler explains. "But just being there consistently, modeling healthy relationships and never giving up is often more than many adults have shown them."