Child protection, from a national and state perspective, is a self-perpetuating loop. Legislators accept public responsibility for abused and neglected children. Laws are enacted. Administrative rule-makers, in turn, publish detailed instructions cataloging the dos and donts for workers in the child protection system. Local administrators then manage the resulting programs and services, emphasizing compliance with the rules.
As we work with and make decisions about children, “Best Interest” is a central value. It is, however, important to understand that Best Interest is both a legal and a practice construct. From a practice perspective, best interest is based on a complex set of judgments that includes consideration of the environmental, physical, emotional, and social well-being of the child on both a short-term and long-term basis.
From a legal perspective, Best Interest is based on a similarly complex set of judgments that includes the practice perspective. That perspective is, however, combined with other considerations. Primary here are the rights and interests of parents, relatives, and “interested third-parties.” As a function of public policy, those rights and interests hold higher precedence than practice considerations. The balance is in favor of parents first, then other relatives, and then interested third-parties.
In order to demonstrate that agency custody (of any type) is in the Best Interest of a child, it is, then, not enough to simply argue that, from a practice perspective, the child is “better off” in agency custody than in the custody of parents, other relatives, or interested third-parties. We must be able to document that there are no parents, other relatives, or interested third-parties who can and will accept custody of the child and with whom the child will be safe and receive “adequate” care and guidance. We must be able to document that we have conscientiously explored all known alternatives to agency custody and that there are no parents, other relatives, or interested third-parties who can and will safely and adequately care for the child.
¬When considering custody or requesting a foster placement, then, it is necessary to demonstrate that parents, all known relatives, and all potentially interested third-parties have been directly contacted and excluded based on a documented unwillingness or inability to care for the child “safely and adequately.” In addition, the child may only remain in placement so long as there are no parents, other relatives, or interested third-parties who can and will safely and adequately accept custody of and care for the child. “Adequately” as used here means that the child’s needs are being met at a level that is consistent with safety and normal development. Relatives may not be held to a higher standard than would be used if returning the child to his/her parents.
It is the agency’s responsibility to continuously seek out and work with parents, other relatives, and interested third-parties so long as the child is in agency custody. If the agency has permanent custody of the child, foster parents and other potential adoptive parents become “interested third-parties.”
The central purpose of the agency is to identify children in the community who are not receiving safe and adequate care and to assure (as quickly as and to the extent possible) that their circumstances change so that they are receiving safe and adequate care, with a reasonable likelihood that this level of care will be permanent. This must be done within the context of both the legal and practice perspectives. Further, this must be done with a high and continuous sense of urgency. The developmental and long-term risk to the child exists at the point the agency initiates intervention and continues until the situation is fully resolved and the agency concludes its intervention. Only then are safety, permanence, and long-term well-being reasonably assured for the child; only then are the Best Interest criteria fully met.