In this case the Appellate Division considered whether the lower court properly concluded that the permanency goal in a child protective proceeding was to be placement for adoption instead of reunification with the mother.
When a child is removed from the care of his (or her) parents due to findings of neglect, the goal is for the agency to find a permanent solution for the child so that the child can move forward in a stable, healthy environment. Ideally that would mean that the child is reunified with one or both of his parents. The agency would create a service plan for the parent that would offer resources to help the parent address issues that led to the finding of neglect and removal of the child. For example, if, as in Nevaeh, the parent was addicted to alcohol or drugs, the agency would offer the parent resources such as treatment options and counseling. The plan would also provide programs that would help the parent with parenting skills. Typically, the agency would also work with the parent to set up a visitation schedule so that the parent had regular contact with the child.
The progress that the parent makes with the service plan would determine what the agency recommends as the permanency goal for the child. A parent who does not actively participate in the program or who does not show progress is less likely to be reunified with his child. Instead, the agency may conclude that working toward reunification with the parent is not in the best interests of the child. The agency would then consider another permanency goal such as placement with a relative or adoption. While the parent is given a significant amount of time to work on making improvements in order to regain custody of the child, at some point the agency must make a final decision as to whether reunification is possible.
In Nevaeh, the agency involved, the Niagara County Department of Social Services, initiated the neglect proceeding against the mother based on a finding that the mother had gotten so drunk in the presence of her three children, that she locked one out of the house and passed out with the other 2 in the house. This left the children unsupervised. At the time 2 of the children where under the age of 10, and one was 14. There was at least one other occasion in which she passed out with the children in house. These incidents mention in the petition are only the most recent instances in which the mother’s alcohol abuse led to her neglecting the children. The children were previously removed from her care and placed with their grandmother and step grandfather. When the two cited incidents occurred, the children had only recently been returned to the mother’s custody.
The mother challenged the Family Court’s finding of neglect. However, the Appellate Division disagreed with the mother. While the children were not physically harmed during the instances in which the other was drunk and passed out, the children were left unsupervised and expressed that they were afraid of their mother when she was drunk. The agency produced substantial evidence that the mother had a pattern of getting sober and relapsing. When she did relapse and was drunk, her behavior put her children at risk of emotional harm. After all, the mother drank and became drunk in the presence of her children at times when they needed her care and supervision. Based on the evidence presented, the Appellate Division supported the court’s conclusion that the mother neglected her three children and that they should not be returned to her custody.
The Appellate Division also agreed with the court that there was ample evidence in the record to support the conclusion that it was in the best interests of the children to change the permanency goal to placement for adoption.