In most cases, parents are given between six months and a year to show significant progress toward complying with court orders regarding their behavior. These mandates most often call for parents to undergo drug treatment, get a job, obtain suitable housing or take parenting classes, says James Marsh, founder of the Children’s Law Center in Washington, D.C. Parents who fail to comply are stripped of their parental rights, and other permanency arrangements are sought for their children.
At least, the thinking goes, the children aren’t left in suspended circumstances for an indefinite time. But while the safe families act has helped to introduce more certainty to the child welfare system and is widely hailed by children’s lawyers as a step in the right direction, some say it can be a double-edged sword.
Sometimes, they suggest, it may be more productive in the long run to allow children to stay at home during efforts to help their parents improve their behavior. In some jurisdictions, for example, state agencies will require parents to submit to random drug testing to regain custody, even when drug use was not a factor in removing the children in the first place. But when a parent has a low-wage job and no car, says Haralambie, complying with the logistics of random drug tests can be next to impossible.
Marsh agrees that the good intentions driving the safe families act sometimes create a catch-22. The act requires states to provide support services to help parents comply with court mandates to improve their behavior, but underfunded state programs often have many more applicants than they can serve, he says. Drug treatment programs, for instance, may not have enough spaces to serve all the people who have been ordered by courts to undergo treatment if they want to retain custody of their children.