In Idaho, cases involving the suspected abuse, neglect, or abandonment of a child (anyone under 18 years of age) fall under the Child Protective (“CP”) Act. Frequently a CP case arises when the police (while investigating a citizen report or while otherwise conducting their duties) happen upon a child who appears to be in immediate risk of physical or emotional harm. Common sources of such harm include violent or abusive people in the home, the presence of illegal drugs, extremely unsanitary living conditions, or the inability of the parent to properly care of the child, as evidenced by failing to change diapers, failing to keep the child clean, failing to properly feed the child, or allowing a young child to roam the neighborhood unsupervised. When the police become aware of such a situation, they have the right to remove the child or children from the situation and shelter them for a period of 48 hours without judicial intervention.
Once the children are removed from a parent’s custody, the State (through the county prosecuting attorney) files a CP case to seek judicial involvement in the situation. The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare (“IDHW”) is tasked with investigating the situation and helping the parents reunite with their children if reunification is possible. Often, however, CP cases take a significant amount of time to be finally resolved, although the children often are returned to the home prior to the final resolution of the CP case. Parents are entitled to the assistance of an attorney in a CP case, meaning that if a parent cannot afford to hire an attorney, they have a right to be represented by the county public defender.
Once the CP case is filed, the court makes a determination whether there is reasonable belief that the child was in fact in danger. If not, the case will be dismissed and the children returned. If so, however, the court will give IDHW temporary custody of the children while the parties sort out what went wrong and what needs to be done to help the parents correct their prior mistakes. IDHW, with court approval, will create a case plan, which sets out the goals for the parent to accomplish in order to reunite with their children. Common goals include the following:
- Getting and maintaining adequate employment;
- Overcoming a substance abuse problem;
- Excluding certain people from contact with the children;
- Maintaining the home in a safe and sanitary condition;
- Attending parenting classes or otherwise making efforts to learn better parenting skills; and
- Submitting to psychiatric evaluations and treatment.
If the parent is reasonably successful in working his or her case plan, the court will ultimately return the children to the parent and will dismiss the case. However, if after one year the parent has not made significant strides in working the case plan, the court has the power to terminate the parent’s parental rights.
In my experience, many CP cases involve a situation where a parent knows and is capable of parenting to an acceptable standard, but has “fallen down” on the job for one reason or another. In those cases, IDHW creates a case plan to address the areas of deficit, the parent successfully completes the plan, and the court orders permanent reunification between the parent and children. However, sometimes the parent is too caught in the grips of addiction to be able to complete the plan. Other times, the parent is simply unable to complete the plan because of a developmental disability or other difficulty. In the former situation, the court will generally have little sympathy for the parent. In the latter situation, however, I have seen the courts and IDHW (well, at least the child protection case workers at IDHW) go out of their way to do everything they can to effect reunification, including extensive parenting support, helping the parent form better social supports, and other efforts.
When a parent is faced with a CP action, the parent is likely to face extreme fear, anxiety, and anger. The parents that are successful in reuniting with their children, however, overcome those emotions and use the CP process to focus on themselves and to help them become better parents. For a parent with substance abuse, mental health, or other long-term problems, the CP action provides that parent an opportunity to obtain the counseling and treatment he or she needs without having to worry about the day-to-day health and safety of his or her children.
In my experience with CP actions in Idaho, the process seems to play out in a way that protects the interests of the children involved and seeks to help parents correct their prior mistakes and reunite with their children. I have been impressed over the years with the efforts of the prosecutors, IDHW case workers, judges, and others involved in the process, and although the CP process is not one I would ever wish on any parent, I do feel confident that our system is a good one.