Vol. 20, No. 2 • May 2016

How Resource Parents Influence Child and Family Outcomes in and out of Court
One Judge's Perspective

by J. Stanley Carmical

As a parent myself, I am well aware that parents' worst nightmares often involve the fear that something terrible will happen to your children. While presiding over sessions of abuse, neglect, and dependency court during the past 26 years I have frequently thought that for the mothers and fathers appearing before me in juvenile court, the nightmares have indeed come to pass.

Families & Children I See in Court
These parents, caught up in the confusing world of the court system, are confronted with the very real possibility that they may lose custody of their children. Perhaps forever. As frightening as this seems to the parents, they can at least take some steps to improve the chances that their children will return home.

Their children are not so fortunate.

Children are creatures of habit and routine. Removing them from the care of their parents and from the places they know as home is a shocking and traumatic event over which the children have no control.

Imagine how it must feel to a child for a stranger to appear in your home and spirit you away to a strange place populated by unfamiliar people. Everything these children have relied on as normal daily life is taken away.

They must feel that everyone in their lives they trusted to keep them safe from harm has forsaken them.

Resource Parents Have a Big Impact
Into the world of chaos and despair inhabited by these children step foster parents, adoptive parents, and kinship parents. These resource parents offer a shelter in the storm for children removed from the care of their families. In part the shelter consists of a safe place to stay while parents work on the issues that led to the removal of the children.

But the good done for these children includes so much more than merely providing a safe room in which to sleep and a place to eat. Resource parents offer a sense of normalcy and predictability, a sense that adults can be depended on and perhaps even trusted and loved.

The ways these parents make a difference in the lives of children are truly too numerous to count, but I'd like to name a few:

  • Many go out of their way week after week to accommodate birth parents' requests for visits with their children.
  • Many go to incredible lengths to see that siblings are not isolated from brothers and sisters if they are in different placements.
  • They frequently identify children's developmental delays that have gone unnoticed or unaddressed in the past.
  • They actively engage with teachers and school staff to make sure children's educational needs are properly addressed.

Sometimes when reviewing cases in court I feel that the foster parents and kinship parents are working harder to achieve the children's return home than the children's own mothers and fathers.

They Provide Judges Valuable Evidence and Insights
One of the unintended benefits of the dedication of these women and men, these compassionate people willing to open their homes and hearts to children in need, is that judges like myself are afforded another perspective, another window, into the lives of these children and their natural parents.

In many instances the evidence on which a judge bases crucial decisions affecting children's lives more closely resembles a photographic snapshot than a feature-length film. Judges base decisions on slivers of the evidence potentially available to the court.

I have learned that foster parents, kinship parents, and adoptive parents can help a decision maker bridge the gap from a "snapshot" to "video quality" evidence. Consider:

  • Who spends every day (and night) with the children whose cases come before my court?
  • Who knows what anxiety the children experience before and after visitation? Who can describe the grief and sense of loss when parents skip a scheduled visit?
  • Who can tell a judge about the possible conflict between family members that affects children in predictably negative ways?
  • Who is keeping tabs on educators and other service providers and holding their feet to the fire to meet their obligations to these children?
  • Who interacts with virtually every person and agency who has some interest in the outcome of the juvenile cases I am called to decide?

The answer to all these questions is: the foster parents. The kinship parents. The adoptive parents.

A judge willing to invest a little time and listen to resource parents can learn much about the children's experiences and the people who play significant roles in their young lives.

The evidence provided by resource parents is almost always motivated by a sincere desire to see that the court system meets the real needs of children instead of losing them in that same system. The work we do together concerns the lives of real people, not mere cases and court files. Our work is enhanced when it relies on more and higher quality evidence. Resource parents help fill in the gaps and have greatly impacted my decision making in hundreds of juvenile cases during my years as a judge.

Thank You for "Standing Tall"
Many people, including Abraham Lincoln, have been credited with saying, "A person never stands so tall as when he stoops to help a child." Our foster parents, kinship parents, and adoptive parents spend a great deal of their days and nights stooping to help the children entrusted to their care.

When I see them at the courthouse, they may be stooping to wipe away a tear or a runny nose, but in my mind's eye, they are standing tall.

J. Stanley Carmical is Chief District Court Judge in Robeson County, NC (District 16B).

You've Got a Right to Be Heard
All foster parents and pre-adoptive parents and relative caregivers in the U.S. have the right to be notified of any court proceedings with respect to the children in their care, and the right to be heard in those proceedings. Foster parents are not a "party" in court, nor do they have "standing" in court, but if they choose, they can attend and their voice and their important, vital knowledge of the child will be heard by the judge.

Nervous about Speaking in Court?
Check out this article from a past issue: http://www.fosteringperspectives.org/fpv13n2/court.htm


~ Family and Children's Resource Program, UNC-CH School of Social Work ~