Friday, September 13, 2013

A Voice From the Courtroom: Do's and Don'ts of Being an Adoptive Placement

My name is Joe Hensley. I'm an attorney who emphasizes in foster/adoption cases. In my experience as the former attorney for the Jasper County Juvenile Office and in my guardian ad litem cases, I see hundreds of children each year who grow up without the safety and security offered by loving, caring parents.  As I tell my adoption clients at the end of their case, my hat is off to you.

I hope you will find the following information helpful:

What advice would you give to someone who is trying to decide between fostering and adopting privately? 
First, the real difference in being an adoptive placement for a foster child as opposed to adopting
privately or through an agency is that you have to at least appear to be “neutral” while the social
workers provide reunification efforts.  I am well aware this is much easier said than done.  You
want the child to be comfortable in your home and feel safe and loved.  Inevitably, you may grow
to love that child and have a vested interest in the outcome of their Juvenile court case.  That’s
normal and human.  But you can not “wear your emotions on your sleeve.”  The single biggest
mistake you can make as an adoptive placement is doing anything that can be perceived as
“sabotaging” the reunification efforts.

What has technology done to help and hurt those who are involved in foster care? 
We live in an age of incredible technological advances.  Much of that growth in the last few
years is in the area of social media.  Blogging, Google +, Reddit, MySpace, Twitter, texting and
Instagram are now household words, and over one billion people have Facebook accounts.  In
fact, like me, you probably learned about “Joy in the Journey” through Facebook.
When you become an adoptive placement, this technology is relevant to you because you are (or
soon will be) a party in a lawsuit and therefore your life could be under a magnifying glass.
While I do not want to make you paranoid, a little paranoia when you are in a contested case is
not necessarily a bad thing.  Understand that anything you post on Facebook or any other public
or semi-public website can be used against you in court.  For example, if you are a regular
Facebook or Instagram user you may love posting pictures of your adorable little boy or girl (who
doesn’t?).  I appreciate your enthusiasm.  However, I have seen this used against people time and
time again in Court, even if the person on the other side should not have been able to “see” your
post because they are not your “friend.”

What would you say are the most important do's and don'ts of adoptive placements?  
The following list applies mainly to contested cases where one or both biological parents have
not consented to the termination of their parental rights.  Contested cases are much easier for me
to manage if I can just focus on evidence for the “Attack” (for lack of a better term) and not have
to worry about “Defense.”  In other words, I do not want to have to deal or spend my time and
resources on defending you if you getting called to the stand and asked embarrassing questions.
Imagine a football team who only has to play offense.  The coach only has to worry about the
other team’s defense instead of their offense too.  The team still has to put points on the board,
but their chances of getting beat go down considerably if the other team doesn’t get to run any
plays on offense. 
So that my client’s know what behavior is appropriate, I ask them to read and follow this “Do
and Don’t” list beginning immediately and continuing to do so until the case is over:

1. DO - Immediately set your social media privacy settings to “High” or “Friends only.”
2. DON’T accept any friend requests while your case is pending unless you verify offline
they requested your friendship and you trust them.  Also, please review your online
contacts or friends.  If you do not recognize someone or cannot verify their existence
offline, then delete, block, or un-friend them now.
3. DON’T - Post any pictures of your child online on any website.  There will be plenty of
time for that when your case is over. 
4. DON’T - Customize anything (i.e. T-shirts or clothing, furniture, toys) with the child’s
picture and/or new name on it until the case is final. 
5. DON’T - Call the child by his/her new name you have chosen if your case is going to be
contested.  Caveat: Sometimes that “ship has already sailed.”  Don’t beat yourself up
about that and do not try to go back now (unless ordered to) because it will only confuse
the child.  Either way, please be careful to try not to use the new name in front of the
biological parents or other members of the Family Support Team.
6. DO - Be conscious of your public appearance and behavior.  Do not become intoxicated.
Do not go anywhere that you might be embarrassed about having to explain a photo of
you entering or leaving.  Example:  Having a drink at a bar with a friend is probably not a
big deal, but imagine being confronted and cross examined on multiple pictures of you
leaving a bar.  You may not have even had a drink, but if that is your defense, the follow
up question will be “Then why do you have to meet in a bar?” etc.  The damage is done.   
7. DON’T - “Share” or forward risque or racy photographs or any pictures that are in bad
taste, off color, endorse a racial stereotype, or that advertise or glorify alcohol or drugs.
Do not “Like” any pages that meet that description.  Regarding online debates and
comments, it is fine to have an opinion and participate in discussions, but keep in mind in
our politically correct world almost any comment could offend someone.
8. DON’T - Talk about your case or anyone involved in your case on the internet.  This
includes the biological parents, the child, the Juvenile Officer, the Guardian ad Litem,
anyone at Children’s Division, and any Judge on your case.  Example: The biological
parent’s attorney argues at a permanency hearing that he/she should have expanded
visitation, and the judge grants it.  In anger, you fire off a “friends only” Facebook post
about the arrogant attorney and the dimwit Judge who listened to them.  You just gave
that attorney a sharp knife to stab you with right in front of the Judge you insulted.   Not
9. DON’T - Show or discuss the letters your attorney sends you or his/her trial strategy with
anyone.  The Attorney-Client privilege is the most legally protected privilege our law
recognizes.  You could tell your attorney literally anything without fear that they will
repeat it.  However, if you tell just one other person then that privilege evaporates. 
10. DON’T - Write, type, text, e-mail, leave a voice mail or say anything to anyone involved
in the case (or otherwise) unless you would be comfortable reading it on the stand, under
oath, in front of a Judge and a room full of people (or if it is a recording, hearing it
replayed).  If that thought makes you squirm, re-word your message, or do not send or say
it at all.  Send it to your attorney if you have questions and you can discuss it. 

Joe Hensley is an attorney with offices in Joplin and Carthage, Missouri.  His practice includes civil trials and litigation, with an emphasis on adoptions.  He is the former Chief Legal Counsel for the Jasper County Juvenile Office and is a member of the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys.

1 comment:

  1. This is a great advice to help families who are trying to adopt. My friend has been a foster parent for many years, and she's been trying to adopt a child that's been in her care for the last two years. It's amazing how difficult it can be for good people who are caring and loving parents to adopt.

    Sara Welsh |