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Recent changes to South Carolina “Child Protection and Permanency” statute make it harder for parents to obtain return of their children

On May 12, 2010, South Carolina enacted Senate bill 1172, which makes changes to the Child Protection and Permanency statute.  Among the highlights:

The revisions limits when the Department of Social Services (DSS) will be required by the family court to make “reasonable efforts to preserve or reunify a family.” S.C. Code § 63-7-1640.

It amends the grounds to terminate parental rights (TPR). S.C. Code § 63-7-2570(6 & 9). It require DSS to seek termination of parental rights when filing a removal action if grounds for TPR exist “unless there are compelling reasons for believing that termination of parental rights would be contrary to the best interests of the child.”  S.C. Code § 63-7-1660(B)(2).

The biggest revisions are to the provision regarding placement plans. It eliminates language that allows the court to return children home based on consideration of all evidence and whether the parent has substantially complied with the plan.  S.C. Code § 63-7-1700.  It makes numerous changes to the content of placement plans. S.C. Code § 63-7-1680. It provides that the first section of the plan shall set forth the changes that must occur prior to the child’s return; changes are to be reasonably related to the reasons for removal.  It provides that the second section of the plan will include specific actions to be taken by the parents, stipulating that completion of these actions alone may not be sufficient for return of the child.  The third section is to set forth rights and obligations of the parents, including support and visitation, and the fourth section will address placement, visitation (including visitation with non-relatives who are important to the child), and services provided to the child and foster parents.  The plan is to include several warnings to parents regarding the possibility of TPR, and the court is to include in its order and advise defendants on the record of the possibility of TPR if they do not remedy the conditions that caused removal within 6 months.

These revisions are analyzed in fuller detail on the South Carolina Children’s Law Center website. The basic gist is that more parents will not be given a chance (or second chance) to demonstrate that they can properly parent their children and more parents will become entangled in a abuse and neglect system that has no interest in reuniting them with their children.  Further what used to be, in most instances, an almost automatic return of the child upon a parent’s completion of the placement plan, will now become less automatic.  Finally parents will no longer be able to obtain return of their children upon substantial completion of the placement plan.

This act continues a trend in child protection proceedings that places greater emphasis on child protection and less emphasis on family preservation or reunification. For example, up until 2000, case law held that “statutes providing for the termination of parental rights are to be strictly construed in favor of the parent and the preservation of the relationship of parent and child.” Alley v. Boyd, 337 S.C. 60, 522 S.E.2d 146, 148 (Ct. App. 1999).  In 2000, the Supreme Court overruled such cases, instead ruling that then-recent changes to S.C. Code Ann. § 20-7-1578 [now S.C. Code Ann. § 63-7-2620] meant that “TPR statutes ‘must be liberally construed in order to ensure prompt judicial procedures for freeing minor children from the custody and control of their parents by terminating the parent child relationship.’” Joiner ex rel. Rivas v. Rivas, 342 S.C. 102, 536 S.E.2d 372, 375 (2000).  How one feels about this trend is greatly determined on how one balances a child’s right to be free from abuse with concerns over the state’s power to intervene in intimate relationships.

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