The important role foster parents have in a child’s life expands significantly when they go to court. To make decisions in a child’s best interest, judges need good information, and foster parents ideally can provide that. Thus, foster parents having a complete understanding of how to participate in court goes a long way toward ensuring a safe, loving home for the child. Here is a priority list foster parents should know in advance of a court appearance.
- Be prepared. Foster parents are the voice for the child and must do everything they can to ensure that the child is heard in court. Do not come to court unprepared. The more information you bring, the better.
The judge largely depends on the foster parents’ testimony to decide what’s in the child’s best interest. The idea is to have enough information so you can answer the judge’s questions in a clear and beneficial way. To prevent being overwhelmed with documents days before court or scrambling for information, the best way to prepare is to begin keeping a journal well in advance. Taking notes about what happens in your foster child’s life creates an organized record, showing progress, behavior patterns and how they express themselves in different situations. Include school records and doctor’s appointments as well as notes about interactions between the child and their birth parents. Include highpoints, lowpoints, and milestones in the child’s development while in your care.
- Know your rights as a foster parent. Foster parents should receive notices of all hearings. If you are not getting them, contact your social worker and/or a juvenile department clerk.
Foster parents also have a legal right to attend review hearings, usually held every six months, until the foster child receives permanency or the case is closed. They also have a right to attend permanency hearings and post-termination of parental rights (TPR) hearings. Permanency hearings have to be held before a child reaches one year in foster care, then every six months. Post-TPR hearings are held every six months until the child is in a permanent home.
- Should you bring the child to court? This decision is often left up to the social worker. What’s most important is what’s in the best interest of the child. If the child is uncomfortable going to court, it’s worth considering having he or she write a letter to the judge.
- Educate yourself on common questions. There’s a list of questions judges commonly ask of foster parents; some of those questions can be found on websites under “foster care hearings.” Examples: How long have you been a foster parent? How long have you known this child? What changes have you noticed in the child’s behavior or emotional state since being in your home? How is the child doing in school? Let your social worker or attorney guide you and ask them any questions you may have, including what the objective is of the specific hearing you’re attending.
- Speak respectfully and concisely. Don’t get emotional in your discourse with the judge, and don’t throw the birth parents under the bus. The court listens best to foster parents who have tried to work well with birth families and who aren’t on their own agenda, such as getting the child to stay permanently in their home. Speak up and speak clearly, and refer to the judge as “Your honor.” Be as clear and complete as possible so the judge will have sufficient information to make a decision.
One of the most important duties for a foster parent is to act as an advocate for the child in their care. That requires the foster parent to be able to tell the court all they know to help the court decide the child’s future. Jennifer Lynch, author of the children’s book Livi and Grace (www.jenniferlynchbooks.com), is an educator and child advocate who serves as a guardian ad litem, a person appointed to represent a child’s interests in a court case. She has worked as a special education teacher for an elementary school and as a preschool teacher.