Foster parents play an integral role in their foster child’s life and this is all too apparent when it comes time for court. The judge’s role is to make a determination of what is in the best interest of the child. The foster parents’ role is critical in helping the judge form the right decision. Judges can only make the best decision for the child if they have good information. Court is an important step in ensuring the children you foster are placed in care that is safe, loving, and eventually permanent home.
What are Your Rights as a Foster Parent?
Foster parents have a legal right to information regarding court hearings pertaining to the children they foster. Foster parents have a legal right to attend and participate in these hearings. You should be receiving notice of any and all hearings. If this is not the case, contact the clerk of juvenile matters and your social worker.
Judges value your input. They understand that you are currently the most important person in your foster child’s life. You are drying tears, making important decisions regarding their everyday needs and ensure they feel loved and safe. The judge depends on your testimony to have the clearest picture of the child’s life and what is in their best interest. You have a right to share such information at any and all hearings.
You have a legal right to attend review hearings which are usually held every six months until your foster child receives permanency or the case is closed. Review hearings can stand alone or be combined with permanency hearings. Permanency hearings must be held before a child reaches one year in foster care and again every 6 months thereafter. Post-TPR (Termination of Parental Rights) review hearings are scheduled when termination of parental rights occurs. They take place every six months until the child is in a permanent home.
There are also two other types of hearings of which foster parents may be informed, but are not legally obligation to be notified of or participate in. These hearings include termination of parental rights hearings and adoption finalization or permanent guardianship hearings.
It is your right to be involved in hearings and also ensuring the children in your care have a voice. You are a voice for the voiceless in these proceedings and must ensure the children are heard in the court system.
What Does It Mean to Participate in Court?
You are one of the most integral parts of the village it takes to ensure the children in your care are safe and loved. Your participation in court is critical to ensuring the best interests of your foster child will be met. Having a clear understanding of how to participate will be key to ensuring your foster child’s interests are best represented.
Do not come to court unprepared. Make sure you have as much information as possible so you can answer the judge’s questions in a clear, concise, and beneficial way. Again, you are critical to ensuring the judge makes the best decision for the child.
A practical way to ensure you are prepared is to keep a journal. Do not worry about whether the information you gather is admissible in court; leave that worry to the attorneys and judge. Having a master calendar, day planner, or journal in which you transcribe what takes place in your foster child’s life will be most helpful. You can begin to see patterns forming. Does the child react differently, have nightmares, unexpectedly wet the bed, misbehave, or share certain feelings after visits with their birth parents. If visits or calls are scheduled with the birth parents, do they take place? Does the birth parent participate where and when they are allowed to in the child’s life? Also including milestones, victories, and points in the child’s emotional, physical, or academic development while in your care can all be beneficial to the judge.
Many foster parents worry about whether a child should attend review and other hearings. Talk to your social worker about this. They have dealt with court many times and can offer advice and counsel on how best to proceed regarding the child’s participation. Again, what is most important is what is in the best interests of the child. If all agree it is best for the child not to participate, maybe consider having the child write a letter to the judge.
What is Court Actually Like for Foster Parents?
Once the day of the hearing arrives you may be nervous or unsure of what to expect, especially if it is your first time in court. Arrive early, dress professionally, come prepared with all of the documentation you have, and take a deep breath. Being prepared will help you feel less nervous as will knowing more about what to expect during the court process.
Ask your social worker and any attorneys involved with your child’s case to answer any questions you may have and explain the objective of that respective hearing. When you speak or the judge asks questions of you, speak slowly, professionally, and thoughtfully. Keep emotional responses out of your discourse with the judge. Refrain from speaking negatively about the birth parents/family or appearing hostile toward them. Refer to the judge as “your Honor” and if you are asked to give sworn testimony be sure you have a clear understanding of what that means. It is also beneficial to speak to a lawyer prior to doing so in those cases.
There are common questions judge’s usually ask of foster parents, so educate and prepare yourself on what they are prior to attending court. Many common questions can be found on your local and state websites under foster care hearings. You social worker and attorneys involved in the case can also go over questions the judge will likely ask. Keeping the best interests of your foster child in mind will get you through the process with less anxiety and stress. Focus on what is most important, ensuring your child has a safe, permanent and loving home and you will do just fine.