I try to take at least 24 hours to calm down over a topic before I write a post about it. This time I took about 96 hours. I recently had a conversation with Cabinet worker’s in Fayette County. The topic was reunification services to a parent whose child was removed by the Cabinet a few months back and where the child was placed in the temporary custody of the other parent. Even though the removing worker had been giving this parent hope of reunification, it turns out that the Cabinet’s official position is that they have nothing more to do; they have achieved “permanency” for the child by recommending custody be given to the other parent. I could tell the removing worker was struggling with what the right thing to do and I respect her for being willing to struggle with it. The other worker just summary stated, without knowing the family, circumstances or issues (and frankly without even being invited into the conversation) that should such a case be “transferred to [her], she would give it 30 days and then give permanent custody to the [other parent].” She stated quite righteously that her job would be done because she would have achieved permanency for the child.
Interestingly, the Cabinet, as an executive branch agency, has achieved something quite miraculous. They have changed the law. The standard for removal and placement given in KRS 620 is whatever is in the “best interest” of the child. The Cabinet, however, has decided the only thing that really matters is permanency. It gets even more interesting. Permanency is achieved by the Cabinet not when the child has a permanent place to live (I’ve seen enough disrupted adoptions to know this isn’t really possible), but when there is a goal in place that looks like it may lead to permanency. So, what is worker number 2’s rush to give permanent custody to the other parent really all about?
I hope you noticed that she said nothing about trying to figure out the best home for the child for the long-haul. She said nothing about why the child was originally with parent 1 to being with (which might have been an indicator that something about that parent was “best” for the child at some point – and may be again). No wrestling or struggling. That is why I was angry. This worker, with the blessing of the Cabinet, had changed “best interest of the child” to “best interest of the worker’s caseload”. You see, as soon as parent 2 gets permanent custody, the worker gets to close her involvement out. Since most teams go on a strict rotation basis for assigning new cases, she gets to have a lower caseload as a result.
You may be mentally telling me that it is obvious that if the child got hurt with parent 1, then of course it is in the best interest to be with parent 2 permanently. All I can say is that is an oversimplification. You may be right often enough to justify being simple minded about it. Certainly worker 2 felt very justified in staying simple minded. This is a life-altering decision that is multi-faceted. Parent 1 may have encountered a pure accident or something else beyond their control – a one time fluke – and otherwise be a good parent. Parent 2 may have some problems that were not discovered on the Cabinet’s very cursory home evaluation. There are many factors in both KRS 620 and KRS 403 that make it clear even the legislature knows it isn’t a simple matter. Besides, occasionally the Cabinet flat gets things wrong. How can this worker take it so lighlty?
On to rant number 2 which I touched on in a previous ponderment. Worker 1 had children (and even grandchildren). Worker 2 had none and was quite young (with the air of being used to getting what she wanted – perhaps thats why she felt okay about intruding in the conversation). I won’t now be simple minded myself and say that having children equals good worker or not having children equals bad worker. What I will say is that workers without sufficient life experiences to create a level of understanding and empathy towards their clients tend to be very hard in their approach. Having children tends to promote these experiences, but it is not the only path. Worker 1 had the experience and so she struggled. Worker 2 had not and so she had more empathy for her caseload than for a parent and child relationship that is to be forever altered.
Best interest is not exactly a fool proof or specific standard, but it is sure a sight better than “permanency”. Permanency should be left where it belongs – a factor to consider in determining best interest.