How Long Do We Keep Working to Reunify a Dysfunctional Family?

The Alabama Department of Human Resources comes under plenty of criticism for letting child abuse continue after knowing about it, and plenty of other criticism for intervening too much in people’s private lives. Today’s case is one of those where DHR seems to be muddling through the best way it knows. Can’t say I would do it any differently.

This is the case of R.T.B. v. Calhoun County Department of Human Resources, Case No. 2070919 (Ala. Civ. App. March 6, 2009). I had to copy the case and change the initials to designations I could understand so I could keep up with all the characters.

For these purposes, know that Mom has five different children by three different fathers (one of whom was the mother’s uncle). Father #1 (the uncle) and Father #2 are out of the picture, and Father #3 has been arrested for beating up Mom but continued to live with her after the arrest and is still married to her, although no longer living with her. Mom has post-traumatic stress disorder and bipolar disorder but often decides on her own to stop taking medication for them; her tendency to explode at the home health workers assigned to her case resulted in the termination of their services. Some of the younger children have accused the oldest child of sexually molesting them, as have other children not in the family.

Get a sense of what life is like in this family? Nothing quite works, and it’s hard to see things changing dramatically anytime soon. This case is on appeal from four final judgments from the Calhoun County juvenile court allowing Mom to retain custody of the oldest child but transferring custody of children #2 and #3 to their paternal grandparents and custody of children #4 and #5 to their maternal aunt. Mom’s argument is that the juvenile court should have allowed her to retain custody because DHR’s investigation of the sexual abuse allegations against Child #1 resulted in a finding of “not indicated.”

The appeals court affirmed the juvenile court. In doing so, the appeals court rejected the mother’s contention that the sexual abuse allegations against Child #1 were the only reason for separating family members. The appeals court said that, even in the absence of a finding that sexual abuse occurred, there were “ample other grounds” for the juvenile court’s decision. In addition, the appeals court stated that a finding of “not indicated” with reference to a sexual abuse allegation does not equate with a determination that the allegation is false, only that the available evidence is insufficient.

The standard required of DHR, according to the appeals court, is to use “reasonable efforts” to reunify the family. The appeals court cited testimony that DHR usually works to reunify families for up to 15 months and noted that, in this case, the effort had continued for more than twice that long. “At some point the child’s need for permanency and stability overcomes the parent’s right to continued rehabilitation. M.W. v. Houston County Dep’t of Human Res., 773 So. 2d 484, 487 (Ala. Civ. App. 2000). Evidence in the record indicates that, at the time of the trial, that point had been reached. Thus, we cannot conclude that the juvenile court would have committed reversible error by ordering DHR to cease further efforts at reunification.” R.T.B. at 23.

The mother also argued that it is not in the best interests of children to separate brothers and sisters from each other. The appeals court stated that, although Alabama law generally disfavors separating siblings, the general disfavor does not extend to separating half-siblings. In this case, the appeals court noted, the juvenile court actually kept all full siblings with each other and only separated half-siblings.

2 thoughts on “How Long Do We Keep Working to Reunify a Dysfunctional Family?”

  1. What DHR finds at an Administrative Appeals Hearing is in no way, shape or form what a Juvenile Court Judge may find. I’ve been retained in scores of these cases over the years as a Consultant where CPS and the Courts were not on the same page. The standard of law to prove a Dependency Petition in Juvenile Court is a preponderance of evidence or 51%. That allows the Juvenile Court alot of leeway in considering the totality of the allegations against the accused and to possibly err on the side of caution on the side of the child’s dependency. Attorneys who are fighting these cases for their clients should not only litigate same at DHR Administrative Appeals Hearings but litigate with vehemence and a vengeance at contested Adjudicatory/Evidentiary Hearings or Trials in Juvenile Court.

    Dean Tong, MSc.

  2. Sounds like DHR has done what they can with this family. What I don’t understand is why they think it’s ok to separate half siblings. What would they do in the case of children that are adopted and aren’t biologically related to each other? Would it be ok to separate them as well? The children don’t care what blood runs through their veins it’s their love for one another that binds them.

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