From the Imprint–Before getting her three children back from New Jersey’s foster care system in 2017, Iesha Hammons spent years hustling to make court-ordered classes and programs for parents, therapy and regular court dates.
She’s seen firsthand when those efforts fall short – her mother had her parental rights terminated when Hammons was around 10 years old, her first view of government authorities saying “you’re a bad parent” and removing your child.
Now, helping other impoverished parents accused of child abuse and neglect in and around Newark, Hammons said the current global public health crisis and related social strife have made strict legal timelines to reunify with children in foster care almost impossible to meet.
“Everything was hard before the pandemic, so how can it be any easier now with COVID?” said Hammons, who works as a parent ally with Legal Services of New Jersey. “It’s unrealistic what they are asking for, and the timelines they are asking for.”
Weighing such concerns, a bill now before Congress would suspend deadlines for child welfare agencies across the country to seek the most extreme consequences in America’s civil legal system: termination of parental rights.
Current federal law says that if children have been in foster care for 15 of the past 22 months while parents meet requirements to reunify, agencies should move to permanently sever their custody rights. Parents who cannot convince the court that they are making enough progress on things like drug testing, counseling, or attending domestic violence classes, stand to lose their children to adoption or relatives.
Yet during the pandemic, many court-ordered services have been severely limited, restricting parents’ ability to address issues that have landed them in family or dependency court.
“COVID-19 has created great uncertainty for many, causing millions to face housing, health, food and job insecurity,” Wisconsin Rep. Gwen Moore (D) announced Monday, introducing the Protecting Families in the Time of COVID-19 Act. “This unprecedented crisis should not lead to permanent damage to families because of a federal timeline created before this pandemic.”
In June, citing “the significant stress that the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting national public health emergency” has placed on the child welfare system, the U.S. Administration for Children and Families issued strongly worded guidance recommending that social services agencies take a more cautious approach to federal timelines.