In 1980 Congress passed the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act in response to findings that child welfare agencies removed children from their parents without first attempting to preserve the family and then failed to provide parents with adequate services for reunification. The new law required states (child welfare agencies) to make “reasonable efforts” to help families stay together or to help reunite them. Congress required courts to make a finding as to whether or not the child welfare agency provided reasonable efforts. If the court made a “no reasonable efforts” finding, then the agency would receive no federal funding while the child was in foster care.
Although mandating reasonable efforts, Congress did not define the term. It so happened that family preservation services were being established nationwide during the same 1980’s decade when the federal government, states, and courts were focused on reasonable efforts. Intensive Family Preservation Services (IFPS) were therefore often equated with reasonable efforts during that time.
It’s optional for states to define reasonable efforts. Three-quarters of the states do have definitions in statute. Minnesota’s law is more definitive than other states. Courts must consider whether services were:
1) Relevant to the safety and protection of the child;
2) Adequate to meet the needs of the child and family;
3) Culturally appropriate;
4) Available and accessible;
5) Consistent and timely; and
6) Realistic under the circumstances
While the states define and provide services to achieve reasonable efforts, the courts make the findings that enforce compliance. In a revealing survey conducted in Michigan in 2005, 20% of judges reported they always found reasonable efforts had been made, 70% said they rarely concluded there were no reasonable efforts, and 40% admitted that they lied about reasonable efforts being made because the state would otherwise lose federal aid! A nationwide survey of over 1,200 juvenile court judges found that only 44 judges had ever made at least one no reasonable efforts finding.
Obviously, there have been problems with implementation of the reasonable efforts mandate over the past 35 years: no definition provided by Congress, states have no guidance in developing definitions and definitions vary widely; and courts are extremely hesitant to make findings of no reasonable efforts. Why not just throw in the towel and repeal reasonable efforts?
Because there is a champion for the cause of reasonable efforts! Judge Leonard Edwards (retired) has written a book, Reasonable Efforts: A Judicial Perspective, that is reviving this important standard. Judge Edwards points out in his book that the reasonable efforts finding most often arises at the hearing for termination of parental rights. This is far too late in the process. Judge Edwards recommends that courts address reasonable efforts early and frequently throughout the case by:
Appointing counsel for indigent parents and guardians ad litem for all children prior to the shelter care hearing
- Addressing reasonable efforts at the shelter care hearing
- Scheduling an adjudication hearing within 60 days
- Determining if the child welfare agency has provided timely, relevant, and effective services in order to achieve reunification
- Scheduling interim hearings to check on progress
- Engaging fathers and the fathers’ families
- Providing training to all who are responsible for ensuring reasonable efforts
How about handling the delicate issue of no reasonable efforts findings? Judge Edwards suggests that judges themselves raise the issue of reasonable efforts if attorneys do not and then suspend a “no reasonable efforts” finding for a week in order to allow time for the child welfare agency to comply.
How can this renewed focus on reasonable efforts be sustained? Judge Edwards has arranged for a copy of the book to be sent to every juvenile court judge. The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges is distributing the book and sponsoring Judge Edwards to train judges and attorneys nationwide.
All IFPS advocates and providers should unite behind this effort to revive reasonable efforts and we should also express the strong relationship between IFPS and reasonable efforts. A good starting place is to read Judge Edwards’ book. It’s a free download to Kindle or IPAD. Print copies are available for a shipping/handling charge. More information is available here:
Posted by Priscilla Martens, Executive Director, National Family Preservation Network