Academic journal article Child Welfare

When the Rehabilitation Ideal Fails: A Study of Parental Rights Termination

Academic journal article Child Welfare

When the Rehabilitation Ideal Fails: A Study of Parental Rights Termination

Article excerpt

This study explored the circumstances of parents whose extreme neglect and abuse of their young children justified the drastic state action of termination of their parental rights. Records of 97 children age 6 and under whose parental rights were terminated between 1991 and 1997 in Minnesota were reviewed. Profiles of parents and children were drawn from these data, and a "risk pool" of parents whose children became wards of the state was identified. Guidelines are drawn from this "risk pool" that may help alert practitioners to those parents who are unlikely to safely maintain their children. Questions and implications for policy and practice are highlighted.

Termination of parental rights (TPR) is an extreme action initiated by the state to irrevocably sever the legal bond between parent and child (Mnookin, 1975; Hewett, 1983; Katz, 1971; Rose, 1980; Garrison, 1983). The decision to legally sever the relationship between a child and parent requires a high standard of proof: "clear and convincing" evidence1 (Minn. Stat. sec 260.241, 1998). Because of the serious consequence of TPR, it has been described as equivalent to the death penalty in its finality and gravity (Hewett, 1983). In delivering the U.S. Supreme Court's opinion in a case involving TPR, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg called the "destruction of family bonds" a "devastatingly adverse action (M.L.P v. S.L.J., 1996, p. 18).

Historically, TPR has been invoked hesitantly and sparingly. The child welfare system has instead focused its efforts on the rehabilitation of families, with the goal of reunifying maltreated children with their birthparents following out-of-home placement. This so-called "rehabilitation ideal" has shaped practice and policy since passage of the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act (AACWA) of 1980. AACWA emphasized "reasonable efforts" toward reunifying families as a guiding principle (Seaberg, 1986).

When an abused or neglected child is removed from the home after a finding of maltreatment, the child welfare agency provides family reunification services: working with maltreating parents to make the home safe for the child's return. Family preservation has been recognized as the primary goal of child welfare services, with intensive home-based services serving as the vehicle for the delivery of reunification services (Fraser, Pecora, & Haapala, 1991; Nelson, Emlen, Landsman, & Hutchinson, 1988).

In the proliferation of studies evaluating family-based services that has emerged since AACWA's passage, a subtext has developed among a few studies: circumstances have been identified in which rehabilitation efforts are not likely to be successful (e.g., Nelson et al., 1988; Maluccio, Fein, & Davis, 1994; Barth & Berry, 1987; Frankel, 1988; Pelton, 1994; Rzepnicki, 1994; Littell, 1997). As data emerged in the 1990s documenting the rise of placements and long stays in out-of-home care without a permanency plan, more serious questions have been raised about the value of prolonged attempts at rehabilitation (Earth, Berrick, & Gilbert, 1994).

In 1997, substantial shifts in the historic hesitancy to invoke TPR occurred with the passage of the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) (P.L. 105-89). ASFA encourages decisions on permanency within an expedited timeframe. It stresses the health and safety of the child as a "paramount concern," and to this end, provides both mandatory and optional directives to the states for expediting TPR. Several aspects of ASFA are designed to curtail the length of time a child can "drift" in out-of-home care without a plan for a permanent home (Hardin, 1999). First, ASFA allows states to bypass "reasonable efforts" to preserve and reunify the families if: parents subject children to "aggravated circumstance"2 or commit certain violent crimes against children (e.g., murder, assault); or if the parental rights to a sibling of the child have previously been terminated involuntarily. …

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