It seems like every year we face the horrible prospect of parents suddenly separated from their children by CPS and facing the holidays alone. Families in Michigan and elsewhere tend to build important and enduring traditions around Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years. Children grow up with expectations about these special times they will have with parents and siblings during the holidays. In my experience, a holiday with a forced separation is one of the most depressing and difficult times for both parents and children to endure. And yet, it is the reality for many Michigan families.
Of course, there are DHHS workers who are sympathetic and helpful; wanting to make every accommodation possible to allow families to get together for some special time at Christmas or other holidays. Unfortunately, many are not so caring.
Attorneys, at least those who care, tend to spend a significant amount of their time during the holiday season trying to help parents arrange special time with their children and ease the pain of separation. Courts dealing with families are often working overtime to try to assist with special accommodations.
In Michigan, there are some hard realities that affect the process. One of those realities is that families who find themselves in court with children removed are still dealing with a CPS petitioner. The petitioner is the CPS investigator who brought the case to court. This person usually has one objective: to get jurisdiction over the children. Until that objective is achieved, the petitioner may be extremely harsh in dealings with the family.
Another hard reality is that courts rely heavily on information presented by the petitioner; both in the written petition and in the preliminary hearing. This information is often biased, false or needs to be put into perspective. Nonetheless, that is the information the court relies on to decide whether to remove the children. When a court has an incomplete picture about the family, it may be less inclined to accommodate parent requests for holiday parenting time.
Finally, there are practical realities that make it challenging to get holiday time with your children when they are in foster care. In most instances, this means that there must be a supervisor because the court order states that parenting time will be supervised. In most cases, that parenting time will be supervised by the agency (DHHS) at the outset of the case. This is a burdensome process that requires the children to be transported by the foster parents to the agency and requires agency personnel to monitor the process. There are some practical limits as to how many visits DHHS can get done during any holiday season.
From the standpoint of the litigation, there is often another consideration. When children are removed from the home, the court is required to bring the matter to trial quickly for the jurisdiction phase. Preparing for trial is something that requires a lot of time and attention for the trial attorney and for the parents. Because of this, it can be a difficult balancing act between dealing with the trauma of separation during the holidays and preparing the case and client for trial. Both are important. However, one is a short-term priority and one is a long-term priority.
There are no easy answers on how to deal with CPS induced holiday stress and trauma, but I have some suggestions based on years of observation and experience:
Addressing the Short-Term Family Needs:
- Do everything you can to keep the peace with your DHHS worker. Be polite and not confrontational during your conversations. Ask for assistance, avoid getting angry and avoid pointing fingers.
- If you are communicating by text or e-mail, be very careful. Read your message back a couple of times before you hit “send”. Your communication is likely to end up being discussed in court. Many people will say things boldly and aggressively when they are texting or emailing. Nasty messages always come to court and never reflect well on a parent accused of neglect or abuse.
- Offer to have your holiday time on a non-holiday date and time. This flexibility often makes it easier to give your family what it needs.
- Take advantage of every opportunity possible to communicate your love and affection to your children. If you can send presents or notes do so. Make sure that they are appropriate in every way. If you are sending notes or Christmas cards don’t talk about the case; don’t talk about reunification or make promises to your children. Assume that the cards are going to be read and judged by someone at DHHS before your child ever sees them.
Addressing the Long-Term Family Needs:
- In the big picture, children’s needs are pretty basic. The need food, clothing, shelter, education and parents who love and nurture them. If your kids are in foster care, they should be getting all of these except one. That is the priority that needs to be addressed and is likely the most important thing going on in your life: Your kids need you.
- Your case needs your attention. If you are rapidly moving toward trial, you should think about the fact that you will arrive at court on the first day of trial either prepared or unprepared. Obviously prepared is better.
- To the extent that you are able, consider shifting your focus from the pain of separation to the task of preparing for trial. I can’t write a manual on how to prepare for trial in a blog article, but here are some general things to consider:
- Your court may require a witness list. If your attorney is going to call witnesses at trial, she will need full names and addresses and would probably like their phone numbers. Put this information together, along with a brief summary of what this witness knows that will be helpful and get it over to your attorney.
- Your court may require exhibit lists, and the sharing of exhibits before trial. Read over your petition and think about what documents and photos you have that will be important to the issues raised. Get this information to your attorney in an organized manner.
- Ask your attorney what you can do to help prepare for trial.
- Prepare a “for your eyes only” written response for your attorney which addresses each allegation in the petition.
- Plan for court. A trial may last for a week or two. Make sure you are ready with appropriate attire, transportation arrangements, work arrangements, etc.
- Get organized. Don’t rely on your attorney to get you organized. Have copies of all important documents indexed and ready to go.
- Stay focused. Your mission is to work with your attorney and get your family back together.
- Don’t lose hope. People who lose hope fall into despair and become unproductive. This is the time that your family needs you the most.
In my experience, parents who work closely with their attorney to reunify their families almost always succeed. The hardest thing parents ever have to endure is separation from the children they love. I understand that it is difficult to be patient when you are hurting, but it is absolutely necessary to stay focused on what will help get your family back together. If DHHS, the courts and others end up keeping you apart for the holidays, try to channel the negative energy into your efforts to bring your kids home.