The most extreme measure the Division of Child Protection and Permanency can suggest in permanency hearings is the full termination on one’s parental rights. This means the parent may no longer make decisions about the care and raising of their child nor can they have any contact with them, even in the form of receiving updated information about their whereabouts.
For this option to be on the table, DCPP has to identify a serious pattern or instance of harm to the child which could justify severing all ties between the child and their biological parent or parents. However, mediation outside of court is a way for this extreme outcome to be discussed and explored before a trial is initiated.
Because such court cases involve a lot of attention from the department and tend to be lengthy, DCPP can be as amenable to exploring mediation over litigation as the parent and their counsel may be. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the available options are substantially different – the DCPP’s interest in seeking the termination of parental rights in the first place implies that they have found a serious problem which may necessitate it – but it can allow a parent to work with the state in finding the best solution for their child without taking it into court.
Mediation, though, has many benefits. On one level, this is about having discussions about the long-term care of a child in a more conversational and constructive environment. Taking this to the courtroom not only requires a lot of time and energy on part of the defendant and their counsel, but also creates a prolonged, stressful situation where every action, past and present, is put under a microscope. That stress can easily degrade a parent’s ability to improve the quality of their care and their household in order to demonstrate an ability to maintain their guardianship.
Beyond that, more measured options can be explored in dialogue with DCPP. Placement options that avoid putting the child into generic foster care – such as having the child live with relatives or a close family friend – can be discussed. Whether this placement is used as a temporary measure to allow a parent more time to improve their situation (and avoid permanent loss of their parental rights) or as a means to kinship legal guardianship so that a relative can permanently assume care, either result is a better alternative to losing all contact with a child due to the termination of parental rights.
A key factor to remember, whether such mediation is initiated in lieu of a court case or because it is court-ordered, is that the presence of a trusted lawyer is highly recommended. While DCPP in a mediation setting isn’t a legal opponent, they will still be making cases for the termination of parental rights in these meetings. Williams Law Group can help counsel a parent on the decisions to make based on how these discussions are proceeding and what options are available to them.
When entering mediation about the termination of parental rights, it’s important for a parent to be prepared for what it is meant to accomplish and what their rights are within the setting of mediation. The neutral mediator is there to encourage all parties to voice their concerns about the current situation, what they see as the ideal outcome, and what realistic steps can be agreed upon to find a result that provides the most benefit to the child or children involved. Sessions can be open-ended as far as time or subject matter and nearly everything discusses therein is kept confidential.
After any number of productive mediation sessions, the ultimate goal is for both the DCPP and the parent or parents to reach a binding, written agreement for the long-term care and welfare of the child or children. The mediator will not make any suggestions to that end; their only role is to keep discussion civil and focused on the child’s well-being. Whatever the result, it tends to hold the multiple benefits of being agreed-upon by all parties, providing a solution for improved care of the child, and avoiding the long and messy process of determining the solution in the courtroom. However, a parent in Short Hills going through mediation during the termination of their parental rights should always have a family law practitioner like Williams Law Group to ensure that they come out of mediation positively and without feeling like the DCPP strong-armed them into an outcome with which they are not satisfied.