In a June 23, 2020 letter from Children’s Bureau, Associate Commissioner Jerry Milner addressed state leaders offering guidance on addressing the termination of a parent’s rights (TPR) and on how to reach out to adoptive families during this COVID-19 pandemic.

The Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) requires termination of parental rights if a child has been in care for 15 out of 22 months but has always provided states with some flexibility. Commissioner Milner points out, “These statutory exceptions exist to ensure that an agency only files a petition to terminate parental rights when a parent has had access to the necessary services that can lead to a meaningful opportunity to reunify with his or her children. The exceptions also allow the agency the flexibility to make life-changing TPR decisions on a case by case basis that consider the totality of circumstances for each family, including whether the parent has not been able to access services as a result of the pandemic.” Agencies are not required to terminate rights if:

  • the agency is required to make reasonable efforts to reunify the family, but has not provided the family the services necessary for the safe return of the child; or
  • the agency has documented a compelling reason that filing a TPR petition is not in the child’s best interests.

Commissioner Milner expresses concern that some agencies may be ignoring this flexibility despite the current barriers that exist for families “I cannot emphasize how strongly I urge agencies to carefully consider whether it is appropriate to terminate a parent’s rights…Additional consideration is particularly important when a parent’s access to services that are necessary to work toward reunification (such as drug rehabilitation or ability to have parent-child family time) have been compromised as a result of the pandemic.

He encourages states to look to alternate ways to provide services under the circumstances. “Many services, including family visiting time and rehabilitation services, have been interrupted or disrupted as a result of the pandemic. As such, we strongly encourage title IV-E agencies to seek alternate service delivery modalities, including non-traditional electronic methods, when in-person service delivery is not possible as a result of the pandemic. Additional resources and guidance are available on the Children’s Bureau website.

The letter also encourages states to consider offering support to adoptive families, “We encourage agencies to consider offering support to your adoptive families, some of whom may be newly facing stressors…Such an offer might be helpful, particularly to those adoptive families whose change in circumstance might require additional financial support or intervention from the child welfare agency if the family’s stressors now render them at risk of their child re-entering foster care …

 Of course, we caution that an agency may offer support as described above to adoptive families however, the agency must avoid requiring families to respond to such a communication.”  Additional guidance is here and here.

CWLA and the Association of Administrators of the Interstate Compact on Adoption and Medical Assistance (AAICAMA) have been having ongoing discussions with HHS on how these families may be helped during the pandemic.

About the Author:

John Sciamanna is CWLA's Vice President of Public Policy.

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