As I've said before, S's case is a different county than we've ever worked with before.
One of the things I'm learning is that every county is different. Sometimes very different. So, each new county feels like I'm a first time foster parent all over again.
Anyway, in S's county, they have these things called a "review panel." Instead of going before the judge every 3 months (as they did in L & O's county), they alternate between court with a judge and a meeting in a conference room with "members of the community" and the parties involved in the case. No judges, no attorneys. (Well, there weren't any attorneys there this time--I don't know if they aren't allowed or if they just didn't come.) The child is supposed to attend as well, but is sent out of the room to a play room before the detailed talk about the case starts. (Boy was I glad that Mr D and I both went! One of us went out of the room with S, the other stayed for the whole meeting.)
The review panel goes over the case, talks about the case plans, hears from the parents and the caseworkers about how much progress is being made, then makes recommendation to the judge on whether the current placement is OK or if something needs to change.
S had her first review panel today, and I am really liking this system.
The meeting is held in a conference room around a table and is more of a discussion than a hearing. When the parents have concerns about how something is working, the group talks together and brainstorms ideas to improve it within the already established rules. In S's case, her mother said she felt like 4 hours at one McDonald's wasn't the best arrangement for S's visits with both parents (2 hours with each, but scheduled back-to-back at the same location); she said -- and I agree with her -- that she felt like that was a long time for S to have to spend in one small play area. The caseworkers laid out the limits--has to be in public, should involve interaction (not going to a movie, for example), must be within 15 miles of the town in which I live (to minimize the travel time for S). They talked about parks or a nearby mall and the possibility of having the visit location change between parents. (For example, maybe Mom could see her at the park from 9-11 and then Dad could meet her at a nearby McDonald's for lunch from 11:30-1:30; the next time, they would switch the order, so that they each got a turn at the park and at lunch.) I hope that plan actually happens, by the way -- I think the visits would be a much better bonding experience if they were a little more varied, and I've mentioned before that I worry about the financial impact of asking the bioparents to buy a fast-food meal every time they see their child. (This alternating system would spread that responsibility out and ensure that the cost doesn't always fall on one or the other parent.) We'll see whether any actual changes come out of that.
Ultimately, though, I liked the cooperative feel. It really felt like we were a team working together to do what was best for S and to help her family succeed in reunifying. (Selfishly, I also feel much more informed about exactly what the case plan is and the progress that's being made on it, than I ever was with just the court hearings.)
There were other things I didn't like so much, like having to watch S's father entice her into playing in ways that encouraged her to do things her mother had just told her not to do. I don't know if he was deliberately undermining S's mother or if he was just too focused on "having fun" with her to realize the discipline problem he's establishing. I could see S looking at her mother as she disobeyed her, testing to see how her mother would respond. Which she didn't, other than one attempt to ask S's father to "not let her" do that, which he ignored. I was glad that one of the caseworkers was out there at that time, so they could see it too. These two need some help co-parenting and supporting each other. They were polite and friendly to each other, but clearly not "on the same team". (And, personally I thought the mother had established reasonable rules, which the father was ignoring. And I thought the mother wasn't sure how to enforce those rules without possibly causing a public fight with the father, so I don't think she didn't care that S was disobeying her -- she just didn't know how to handle the fact that the father wouldn't back her up, so she let it go. So, mostly, I think the father needs some help learning how to parent, in general, and specifically how to co-parent.)
It was also a little awkward when S called me "Mom" in front of her mother, who she is still calling "Mommy."
But that would have happened with the other county's system of hearings before the judge every 3 months as well.
Anyway, I like this county's attempts to make the whole experience less adversarial. I wonder what the statistics say about whether one approach works better than the other. It certainly feels better to me.