It’s a week before court and you just realized you can’t pick your Guardian ad Litem (GAL) out of a lineup of two. Yep, you aren’t the first foster family to feel left out of the loop. While at times it will feel like the case is moving at a snail’s pace, suddenly you are at the next major milestone and you aren’t sure the decision makers are aware of all the critical details of the case. This is a scary feeling as nobody wants a negative outcome for the kids and as foster parents we often feel very powerless or that our voice isn’t heard.
As an advocate for the child and the person who is with them on a daily basis, we have an important role to make sure the children’s’ voices are heard. Don’t wait until it is the night before court; here are some best practices that can keep everyone updated as things evolve.
Why haven’t I heard from anyone?
Feeling left out in the dark is frustrating and scary but on the bright side, your caseworker is most likely keeping all the parties informed and meeting with them regularly (especially close to legal decision milestones). While the key parties might be doing work in the background, having direct contact with them is still important.
If the child is very young, there might not be a need for the CASA or GAL to directly communicate with the child. But if the child is older, the team should have some in-person communication to hear directly from the child about how the child is feeling and what their preferences are.
Who should I keep updated?
Most cases are going to involve a core team of: Caseworker, Guardian ad Litem (GAL), Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA), and the child’s therapist. There could be other adults depending on the needs of the child but those should only be brought in if the caseworker recommends it. Your caseworker will take the lead on keeping bio-family members updated so rely on your caseworker if they are requesting details from you.
Does anybody care about what I have to say?
Yes! You know the intricate details and are really helpful. Don’t assume everyone else knows the things you see daily in your house. While it isn’t necessary to describe every meltdown or accomplishment the child has, letting them know how key relationships with their bio-family are going, what areas they are struggling with or making strides in (school, self-esteem, socially), and if there are new issues that have emerged.
How can I keep everyone up-to-date?
This can feel overwhelming if you need to schedule multiple different calls and coordinate with assistants on top everything else you have going on like keeping the bio-families updated and running your day-to-day life. Email can be a convenient way of regularly updating everyone and it gives them a record of updates with dates if they need to refer back.
Sending a monthly update is a useful tool to make sure everyone has current information. Some court dates are fairly straightforward but major meetings where goals are changing or parental rights are being terminated are good check-in points. Scheduling a phone call or in-person visit around a month prior to court is good to ensure they can ask you their questions and you can voice any concerns well in advance.
What is happening next?
Legal jargon and governmental processes can get really confusing. Does changing the goal mean changing the placement? Are they going to rule out or decide on an adoptive placement at this hearing? Don’t try guessing what the outcome is going to be because you’ll drive yourself crazy. Instead have a direct conversation with your GAL and caseworker as they are the subject matter experts who can shed light on the process.
Be clear you want to know the specific decisions that will be made at court or family partnership meetings. For things that aren’t decided at that next court date, ask when that will happen and by whom (is that decided by the department only? By a judge at a future court date?). If goals are changing and biological family placements are being assessed make sure you know if based on the decision in court, will the child be moving? If so, what are the timelines for that and when will the child be informed.
Remember, you’re on the same team
The foster care system can feel frustrating at times, but try to remember that you’re all on the same team to ensure a positive outcome for the child. Many of the people involved in your child’s case are stretched thin, but you’re all working towards a common goal. Try to have grace and patience with your child’s team, but don’t hesitate to speak up and advocate for your child.