A Crash Course on TPR (in our experience)

By popular demand: a crash course on the Termination of Parental Rights (TPR) process (disclaimer: this is based on our experience, your mileage may vary). For the vast, vast, vast majority of children that come into care, the initial goal is reunification with the parents. For a multitude of reasons, the goal may at some point change to TPR & Adoption. (Updated 11.27.14: now that we’ve done this a couple of times, I have more information.)

  • DCF or GAL requests a change of goal to TPR/Adoption
  • The judge asks the other attorneys (DCF, GAL and parents’ attorneys) their position on the change
  • The judge may order the change of goal. If not, continue current case plan; lather, rinse, repeat
  • If judge approves TPR/Adoption goal, an Advisory hearing is set for approximately 45 days later
  • At the Advisory hearing, if it’s not continued*, each bio parent has the following options:
    • Fail to show up for the hearing. In this case, their parental rights are terminated by default. This is considered an involuntary termination (this is a surprisingly popular option).
    • Show up and voluntarily surrender their child. This is a no-take-backs situation. The judge takes the time to make certain the parent knows what is happening and that they can’t change their mind later and hasn’t been promised anything, blah, blah, blah.
      • If a bio parent nos-shows the Advisory hearing or voluntarily surrenders, a Disposition hearing is set for 2-3 weeks later At this hearing the termination/surrender is “dispo’d” or finalized and and that bio parent has no further rights to the child. 
    • Show up and contest the termination. Then a date is set for TPR Pre-trial and TPR Hearing.
      • If they lose at the hearing, their parental rights are involuntarily terminated.
      • If they don’t show up for the hearing, their parental rights are involuntarily terminated.
      • If they no-show or lose the TPR trial, the case is typically “dispo’d” immediately.
  • After dispo, there is a 30-day appeal period for involuntary termination of parental rights
*Why might it be continued, you ask? I’m sure there are myriad reasons. The State of Florida prefers not to terminate the rights of one parent while leaving the other parent’s rights intact.

There are exceptions, when one parent presents a demonstrable threat to the child and the other parent lives out of state and is trying to get a homestudy done, is one example I’ve heard. But in the normal course of business, the State prefers to sever all parental rights at the same time. For this reason, if one parent surrenders, but the other wants a trial, the surrender will not be “dispo’d” until the second parent’s rights are terminated. Also for this reason, if the bio father has not been identified, the Advisory hearing can continued. – How many times can it be continued? I’ll have to get back to you…

Step-by-Step Guide: What to Do If Your Family (Or Friends) Isn’t Supportive Of Your Decision to Foster?

Steps 3 & 4 apply to anyone considering foster care, but especially to those without a strong, well-developed support system.
Step 1Do it anyway. 
Seriously. For two reasons: A – Foster parents are desperately needed, and not enough people are willing even to consider it. Are you really going to let other people keep you from doing something that is so urgently needed? The starfish aren’t going to save themselves. and B- They just might surprise you. There’s a good chance they’ll come around once you actually have the kids. I only have anecdotal evidence of this happening – but I have a lot of it. I know many families with similar stories.
Step 2: Be very clear with your expectations.
Treating a foster child differently than other children in the family is unconscionable. And everyone you know should know that it will not be tolerated. Be explicit – do it nicely, but don’t leave any grey area.
Step 3: Connect with other foster parents to develop a support system.
This is particularly critical if the majority of your family and friends are not supportive. Foster parenting is HARD. 
In infertility circles, we talk about the roller coaster. You start a cycle and you’re hopeful. Even if you’re not, you force yourself to think positively. This could be the one. You temp and you baby dance and you chart and you temp and you hope and you analyze every. single. possible. symptom. And you get your hopes up. And then you get your period. Infertility is a never-ending cycle of ups-and-downs. 
If you don’t think your sanity/marriage/blood pressure can survive the infertility roller coaster, foster parenting may not be for you. 
The foster care roller coaster requires you to greet a strange child in the middle of the night, hand them your heart, and then watch the system jerk you -and them- around for the next year-and-a-half. All while smiling, being flexible, understanding and positive – and as supportive as possible the the bio parents who caused this situation in the first place.
The foster care roller coaster is a never-ending cycle of ups and downs, but it also spins you inside-out, turns your upside-down, drags you through razor blades and rubbing alcohol, punches you in the stomach – and then asks you to get up tomorrow and do it all again – with a smile on your face and a positive attitude. 
So. You need a strong support system. It is ABSOLUTELY CRITICAL that you have someone you can call when you need to cry – or scream; someone who won’t say they told you not to do it, or that this was your choice, or *god forbid* it could be worse; you could have cancer and no job/money/house/electricity…. 
I strongly believe that other foster parents are the best people to have on the other end of the phone when you just need to process the wonderful, horrible, beautiful, bewildering adventure that is foster care. So even if you have family that will be happy to love your ducklings and babysit on demand, connect with other foster parents. Because no one can understand the frustration of foster parenting, or the desire overriding necessity to keep doing it, like a foster parent.
Step 4: Buy a mini-fridge and put a padlock on it.
Stock the fridge with beer or other adult beverage of your choice.You’re going to need it.

What to Do If Your Family (Or Friends) Isn’t Supportive Of Your Decision to Foster?

My mom was dead-set against me fostering. For all the silly reasons that you’ve probably heard from your “support” circle. I listened to her apprehensions (if you know my mom, you know that I didn’t really have a choice on this one), thanked her for her concern, and told her I was going to do it anyway. My in-laws, on the other hand, were fairly supportive (more on that later).

Before we actually got licensed, we very clearly and explicitly laid out our expectations to all of our family and friends: Every child in our home will be treated as our own child, for as long as they remain in our home – by everyone in our lives. Full stop. If anyone felt they couldn’t abide by this one non-negotiable rule, that was fine – they were welcome to remove themselves from our lives and those of our children. Period.

We have actually been incredibly surprised by most of our parents – pleasantly so by my mom and mother-in-law, not so much my father-in-law (the pleasant part anyway). My dad is my dad. He just goes with the flow – just like I expected him to. (Again, if you know my mom, you know that he doesn’t really have a choice.)

My mom and mother-in-law have taken a genuine interest in the kids in my care. My father-in-law has no idea how many kids are currently in my home, much less their names, and couldn’t care less.

My mother-in-law (Grandma Duck) visits Florida frequently and recently moved down here – she and her husband (Grandpa Duck) see the kids much more often that we expected her to – and is genuinely concerned about them and their cases. If I vague-book something negative about foster care, Grandma Duck will message me as soon as she sees it to find out what has changed and what is going on with the kids.

My mom (Meme Loon – what? it’s a waterfowl! it fits the theme!) …Anyway, Meme Loon sends birthday balloons and recordable story books with her voice reading the Christmas Story to Lady Bug. She was dead-set against my being a foster parent, but she is all-in with being a foster grandma. The best example of how she has surprised me: we really weren’t sure how our families would react to the possibility of our adopting a mixed-race baby. I sent Meme Loon a link to the pictures we had had made of the toddler ducklings for Mother’s Day. The next time we talked and I mentioned Squirm, she interrupts me and says, “You have to keep that baby! That is YOUR baby!!” She didn’t even know yet that adopting him was a possibility. We recently found out that Lady Bug will likely be leaving us soon. I called Meme Loon and told her that if she wanted to meet Lady Bug, she’d better get out here. She and my sister (Auntie Loon) will be here for July 4th weekend!! (I’m soooo excited!!!!!)

So… what do you do if anyone in your circle isn’t supportive of your plan to foster? Come back tomorrow for my step-by-step guide. 🙂

Attached? Who, me?

Foster parenting isn’t for everyone. It’s hard. And frustrating. And heart-breaking. And frequently thankless. It’s also wonderful and humbling and immensely rewarding. If it isn’t for you, that’s okay. Please don’t feel like you have to justify that to me.

Not everyone can foster – not everyone SHOULD foster. If you don’t feel like you can take in someone else’s child and love them like your own until it’s time for them to leave, please don’t sign up for foster care. If you only want to adopt because you don’t get enough validation from your cat, please just pass on foster parenting. There are other reasons for not fostering – My career is too demanding; I drown goldfish and cacti; I don’t want to expose my kids to that instability; I live in a 1-bedroom walk-up; my cat tries to eat babies….

Regardless of why you choose not to foster, please, please, PLEASE(!!!) do not tell a foster parent that you can’t foster because “I’d get too attached.” If I hear that one more time, I may just lose my mind.

Just stop and think for one second. Do you really think I don’t get hopelessly, heart-breakingly attached to the children in my care? Do you think it isn’t excruciating when a child leaves our home – a child who’s slept in my house and played in my yard for weeks (never mind learned to walk in my living room and fallen asleep in my lap for months)?

Maybe what you really mean is that you’re not crazy enough to subject yourself to that. Or not strong enough. If that’s the case, say that. But don’t look me in my face and imply that you’re more compassionate/empathic/loving than me and so you would hurt more than I do when they leave.

I watched Mother Goose (my foster-parent mentor) take in a terminally-ill infant and love her completely and unreservedly until the baby passed away in her arms. And then struggle to put the pieces back together so she could take in the next baby that needed her.

Honestly, anyone who’s heart wouldn’t shatter when these kids leave has no business being a foster parent. I don’t believe it’s possible to truly love a child like they’re yours and then just be hunky-dory when they’re not anymore.

I don’t do this because it’s easy for me – or not painful – or god forbid, for the money. And I don’t do it because I enjoy having my heart ripped out every other week. I do it because … well, because I have to. I can’t save all the starfish. But I can make a difference for this one. I do it because I have to. If you don’t have to, that’s okay. Truly. This isn’t for everyone.

The Fosters: a foster parent’s perspective

If you don’t know, this month ABC Family premiered a new drama about the Fosters, a foster/adoptive family navigating the challenges of parenting teenagers, foster care, a multi-racial family and same-sex parents.
Full disclosure: I didn’t have high hopes for this show. I wanted to like it, but I didn’t think I would. I felt like they were piling on a ridiculous amount of extraneous drama and the beauty and realities of foster care would get buried underneath all the controversy and angst.
So I was happily surprised when, in the opening scene, one of the most unsettling phrases a foster parent can hear forced Lena to make a decision that she knew would distress her partner and turn her family upside down.
The phrase? – “I guess I could take her to one of the group homes.”
The decision?  The only one a foster parent hit with “group home” can make – even when you don’t have room for another child, much less one with too much baggage and a questionable history – “Of course we’ll take her. It’s just for a few weeks, right?
It was then that I knew they’d nailed it.
Yeah, they got some details wrong – case workers rarely ask you to drive to Juvie to meet a kid you haven’t agreed to take. And most (if not all) states have rules requiring that you have an actual bed for any child that comes into your home.
But that’s another place that they got it exactly right. When a child needs a place to sleep, and there aren’t any good options that follow all the regulations, sometimes the rules are bent – or blatantly ignored.
Later in the show, they nailed it again when Callie asked Brandon why he agreed to his moms bringing in foster kids, and Brandon replied “I figured there was enough to go around.” “Enough of what?” asked Callie. “Everything.”
And again at the end when Stef tells Lena that Callie and her brother can stay for a while, because “we are not sending these kids back into that system… We’ll make room.
There were smaller moments that were dead-on:
  • the morning chaos of trying to get 37-some-odd ducks out of the house on time. And then you add another one and just work them into the pattern.
  • Callie broke what was obviously a cardinal rule prohibiting teenager consumption of coffee, and the only reaction was Lena asking Callie if she would like some cream. Foster parenting requires a delicate mixture of structure and flexibility – sometimes realizing that ironclad rules aren’t as important as making the new duckling feel secure and wanted. 
  • when Callie is absolutely certain that her new foster family will send her away, and Stef knows she has to convince Callie that she’s not disposable.

There were definitely some inaccuracies and some of them probably only recognizable by foster parents. (If you’ve had a home-study, you know the big one I’m talking about). But they definitely got the big stuff right – the stuff that makes foster families wonderful, terrible, insane circuses. 

Those things, they nailed.