Taking children from dangerous home situations and putting them into foster care is a complicated process with a lot at stake.
Especially for the children — like the 181 in south-central Idaho who entered foster care in 2016.
Law enforcement and social workers from the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare typically share the job of determining when a child is endangered. But the responsibility to declare a child in imminent danger — the standard for removing a child — ultimately rests with police officers and sheriff’s deputies.
How do officers and social workers come into contact with these cases?
Sometimes police responding to a call — a welfare check, reports of drug use, domestic violence — happen upon a child in need of help. Other times, Health and Welfare receives a report about possible child endangerment and asks an officer to assist.
Two less common ways children can be taken from family and placed in state custody: A judge can sign an order upon Health and Welfare's request, or a juvenile corrections case can be expanded to include child-protection proceedings when a juvenile can no longer be kept in detention but can’t be sent back to a problematic home environment.
Calls about possible child welfare issues go to Health and Welfare’s Boise office, said Marjean Hazen, child welfare supervisor for the agency’s Twin Falls office. Some referrals come from community members who notice something suspicious.
Cases are prioritized from one to three. For instance, if a person who has committed sexual abuse has access to the child victim, Hazen said, that’s a priority-one case, the highest.
In January, 83 calls for the Burley and Twin Falls offices became child-protection cases, Hazen said. But many more phone calls came in that didn’t meet the guidelines to investigate.
Summers tend to be the slowest for child-protection phone calls, she said, because “schools are a big reporter.”
State law requires mandatory reporting within 24 hours by any person who “has reason to believe a child … has been abused, abandoned or neglected.” But the statute specifically lists physicians, nurses, coroners, schoolteachers, day care personnel and social workers as mandatory reporters.
Bill Brulotte, federal programs director for the Twin Falls School District, said he interprets the law to say teachers have “the same responsibility as every other citizen” to report suspected child-protection issues.
“In my opinion," he said, "it’s our civic duty to report it.”
In the school district, teachers must report within 24 hours to a school administrator or counselor. Two adults at the school talk with the child, Brulotte said, then a call is made to Health and Welfare.
School officials talk with employees at the start of the school year about reporting suspected issues, school district spokeswoman Eva Craner said, and the topic is often revisited in spring.
Teachers are the first line of defense, Craner said, because they build relationships with their students and can notice if something changes.
Sometimes a physical indication — such as bruises — raises suspicions.
The school district, through federal Title I funding, helps make sure foster children can stay at their home schools by busing those who move outside the school’s attendance area.
“We try not to interrupt their school of origin,” Brulotte said.
David Coach and his wife have been foster parents and adopted 10 children. Now they’re child welfare social workers for the Health and Welfare’s Twin Falls office.
“It’s difficult and rewarding,” said Coach, who has been on the job for about six months. “Sometimes more difficult than rewarding, probably.”
A safety assessor, he goes into homes when a child-protection call comes in.
“I go out to a family’s home to determine if they’re safe,” he said.
During his six months on the job, Coach has been on only a couple of calls where children were removed from homes. Watching that happen is the toughest part of the job, he said.
But neither schools nor social workers can declare a child in imminent danger. By statute, if it doesn’t come from a judge’s order, law enforcement must ultimately declare a child in imminent danger when that child is neglected, abused, abandoned, homeless or living with a parent or guardian who “fails to provide a stable home environment.”
Reasons for declaring
That clause — “fails to provide a stable home environment” — gives law enforcement wide leeway to make decisions based on common sense, Twin Falls County Sheriff's spokeswoman Lori Stewart said.
“The presence of drugs, no food, disgusting and unsanitary conditions — those are the things we really look for,” Twin Falls County Sheriff’s Sgt. Dan Thom said. “If there’s meth or heroine involved, that child gets taken out of the house.”
Rosemary Emory, a Twin Falls County deputy prosecutor who handles child-protection cases, said children aren’t taken from homes that are simply messy.
“We’re talking rundown, filthy, animal feces everywhere,” Emory said. “This is not for a cluttered house, this is for houses that are a health hazard.”
Thom said police also look for things like: Does the child have a safe, comfortable place to sleep? Is there healthy food in the house? Are the children being sexually or physically abused?
“I’ve seen houses where there are only cigarettes and booze,” Thom said, “but there’s no food for the child to eat.”
In homes where conditions are not quite bad enough for a child to be taken away — “borderline decisions,” in Thom's words — social workers can create a safety plan and follow up later to make sure parents are complying.
The drug problem
Usually, if a child is removed, it’s due to problems related to a parent’s substance abuse, Hazen said, or to physical or sexual abuse. Thom estimated 60 to 80 percent of the child welfare cases he’s seen stem from drugs.
It’s difficult for the sheriff’s sergeant, a father, to witness such things.
“Do I want to take some of these kids home?” he asked. “Hell, yeah.”
But he knows he can’t. He has a job to do on a child welfare call.
“I get angry, I want to punish these people who are so self-absorbed that they get high and stay stoned all the time and don’t take care of their kids,” Thom said. “I wrestle with my own moral judgement — sometimes I want to beat someone’s a—. But it’s not my job to judge. I have to do my duty and not put my moral judgement in front of that duty. But it’s hard on me when I find parents not doing their jobs.”
Shelter care hearing
Once a child is declared in imminent danger and placed in the care of a relative or foster parent, the clock starts ticking. Within 48 hours, except on weekends and holidays, there must be an initial court hearing, called a shelter care hearing. First, the law enforcement officer must fill out a petition, signed by a prosecutor, which details the facts that bring the child within the court's jurisdiction.
If the child is declared in imminent danger and taken from the home immediately, the Health and Welfare social worker must also provide a detailed affidavit.
The petition must make the finding that remaining in the home was contrary to the child’s welfare and reasonable efforts were made to keep the child in the home.
At the shelter care hearing, prosecutors must convince the court there was a “reasonable reason” for declaring the child in imminent danger, Magistrate Judge Roger Harris said.
The prosecutor’s role
County prosecutors or the state’s attorney general can handle child-protection cases. Some counties rely completely on the AG’s office, while others handle all child-protection matters themselves. In Twin Falls, county prosecutors handle initial hearings, but a lawyer from the AG’s office handles parental termination hearings.
“The main concern is the welfare of the child,” Emory said. Prosecutors typically are not adversarial in child-protection cases, “though sometimes there are competing goals.”
But the ultimate goal for prosecutors and all other parties in child welfare cases: reunification of families.
“The goal is not for the state to raise children, but to make sure they’re not in danger,” Twin Falls County Prosecutor Grant Loebs said.
Many parties to a case
A child-protection case has a lot more players than a criminal case or another type of civil case, Emory said.
Parents summoned to the initial shelter care hearing — often in custody or facing charges related to the child-protection case — get a public defender if they can’t afford an attorney, Emory said.
Children can be appointed a guardian ad litem, tasked with looking out for the child's best interest, Emory said. If children are appointed a guardian ad litem, that person is represented at the shelter care hearing and later hearings by court-appointed counsel. And children 12 and older can get their own attorney.
At the conclusion of a shelter care hearing, if the judge finds it was reasonable to remove a child from a home, the judge must sign an order placing the child in the temporary legal custody of Health and Welfare. The standard of proof in these hearings is “any evidence … which is of the type which reasonable people may rely upon.”
That’s a low bar for evidence, so parents often don’t argue their case at the shelter care hearing.
“For the most part, they stipulate,” Harris said. “They’ll say, for example, ‘We agree. They came out to our house, we didn’t have any running water, we both lost our jobs, we don’t have much food … It would have been a bad thing to leave them in the house, so it was OK to take them into foster care.’”
Typically, parents and their lawyers save any evidentiary arguments for later hearings.
The initial order after the shelter care hearing, while establishing legal custody of a child, also serves another important purpose. It’s through these orders that the state receives federal funding through the Social Security Act.
Judges have to make certain their orders include certain findings — such as the absence of an alternative, safe family placement — to ensure the state receives federal funding to pay foster families for the children's care.
“If you don’t get that initial order right, you can’t fix it,” Magistrate Judge Calvin Campbell said. “Then the entire time that kid is in care, there’s no funding for that child.”
Within 30 days of the shelter care hearing, there must be an adjudicatory hearing. Before that, Health and Welfare must investigate and prepare a report that's later submitted into evidence.
Emory described the adjudicatory hearing “like a trial for child-protection cases.”
But there is no jury, only a judge, and the standard of proof is the “preponderance of the evidence,” a higher standard than the shelter care hearing but a lower standard than in criminal cases.
At this hearing, prosecutors present their evidence based on the Health and Welfare investigation, and parents present their evidence.
“At the adjudicatory hearing," Harris said, "the parents can come back and say, 'We disagree with everything that was done, and now that we’ve had a couple of weeks to prepare, we think we should get our kids back, and here’s why.'”
At the end of this hearing, a judge has several options, but the most common are dismissing the petition and sending the child back with parents, or placing the child in Health and Welfare custody until the parents can successfully complete their case plan.
A case plan is crafted by Health and Welfare social workers with input from the judge, the prosecutors, the parents and the guardian ad litem. A case plan hearing in which the plan is finalized, agreed upon and signed by the judge must be held within 30 days of the adjudicatory hearing, and foster parents are allowed at this hearing so they know the plan their foster child must follow.
“This is to fix whatever is causing the child to not be safe,” Emory said.
When the root problem is parents' drug use, the case plan always includes drug counseling. The other most common requirement for a parent is mental health counseling. Parents also can be ordered to take classes on parenting, anger management, nutrition, finances, basic homemaking and more.
The plan also identifies services to be provided to the child “to meet any educational, emotional, physical or developmental needs the child may have,” according to the state statute. For children 14 and older, the plan must also “identify the services needed to assist the youth in making the transition to successful adulthood.”
“If we know the parents are not involved — say the dad is in prison and the mom is in the drug culture — the case plan is a lot different than if the parents are working to regain custody,” Emory said. “In that case, it focuses on longer-term placement, independent living skills, things like how to balance a checkbook.”
The one thing required on all case plans: a goal of reunification, though it’s not always achievable.
“The reunification plan shall identify all issues that need to be addressed before the child can safely be returned home without department supervision,” the state statute says.
As parents work on their case plans in an attempt to regain custody, the court holds review hearings at least once every six months to evaluate the parents' progress and check on the child's welfare. If needed, the court can call status hearings, less formal review hearings that don’t require the same reports from a social workers or guardian ad litem.
Permanency hearings are held within a year of a child being taken from a home and continue once a year if a permanency plan has been established. Each permanency plan includes one of three goals: reunification, termination of parental rights and adoption, or — for children 16 or 17 — another planned living arrangement.
Termination of parental rights
Parental rights can be terminated quickly if there is an aggravating factor like physical or sexual abuse. Parental rights can also be terminated if parents fail to successfully complete case plans within about two years.
Idaho’s statute says there must be a petition to terminate parental rights if a child is in Health and Welfare custody for 15 of the most recent 22 months. But there is leeway to work with parents who are progressing more slowly than that.
When the system works as it's supposed to, children are taken out of foster care or other living situations decided by Health and Welfare and returned to their families.
“We’re always happy when parents do a good case plan,” Emory said. “We don’t expect parents to be perfect, but we expect them to be better.”
“It’s awesome, it’s incredible,” Campbell said of seeing a family reunited. “To see what they’ve struggled through, and to see the journey they’ve gone through … It’s important to be able to see those victories, because you also see the failures, too.”
The judge said it’s worth the struggle whether families are reunited or not, because these are important cases.
“The way I look at it, no matter what we do, we’re always trying to do what’s best for the kids,” Campbell said. “And hopefully, that’s to get back with their parents and be reunified and be a family again. That’s the gold standard.”