Using the word orphan to describe children who have been abused and neglected is, let’s be honest, not en vogue. But, and again let’s be honest, a child whose parents are more concerned about meth binges than feeding them might as well be an orphan. For those readers who consider themselves religious, classifying abused and neglected children as orphans has enormous consequences. After all, the sacred Christian text says that “pure religion” is comprised of caring for orphans. (James 1:27).
With this conviction in mind, the eyes of Alabama’s lawmakers have aft turned to visiting these orphans in their affliction. Lamentably, as John Steinbeck foreshadowed in the early 20th century, “the best laid schemes of mice and men go aft awry.”
In April of 2013, Governor Robert Bentley signed into law the heralded Best Interest of the Child Act. This new law, armored with the conviction that something should be done to make adoption and foster care better in Alabama, was a collaborative effort of the Speaker of the House, Mike Hubbard, the Commissioner of DHR, Nancy Buckner, the foster care and adoption community at large, and yours truly.
The Best Interest of the Child Act, with the combined mental powers of its crafters, was lauded as the silver bullet to resolve Alabama’s single most prolific problem in its child welfare system. Namely, some juvenile court judges’ failure to provide permanency to the abused and neglected children under their care. Our research indicated that children, to their rank detriment, often languished in foster care for years without permanency, for no justifiable reason.
This new law sought to legislatively “hand cuff” the juvenile court judges by requiring them to hear cases within 90 days of all parties receiving notice and requiring the juvenile court judges to make a decision about permanency within 30 days of the hearing. The conviction to see these practical orphans find permanency in loving families seemed tangibly closer.
Steinbeck would not be surprised by the stark reality that our plans went lamentably awry. The Alabama Court of Appeals has repeatedly held that the time limits prescribed by the Best Interest of the Child Act are, at best, advisory. On April 24, 2015, in the case entitled J.L. v. Morgan County Department of Human Resources, the Court of Appeals held that the Best Interest of the Child Act only had to be followed if “the failure to comply with the statute impaired [a biological parent’s] rights.” In the real world, such a finding will most likely never take place.
So, where does that leave us? The best minds in the State (excepting yours truly from that category) palpably failed to realize fruit from our conviction to visit these practical orphans in their affliction. We wasted our time and resources – we failed – we failed the abused and neglected children of our State.
Where does that leave us? With contentment. Not complacency – by no means, complacency. Just contentment. Contentment in the fact that we will fail, yet we will fight on. In the words of Theodore Roosevelt, “[t]he credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming.”
This legislative session, drowned out by the raucous noise of gambling, lottery, and tax increases are two bills driven on by the conviction of caring for practical orphans. The Ombudsman Act, which seeks to establish a third-party investigative agency to hold DHR accountable in their placement of vulnerable children, and The Permanency for At Risk Kids (PARK) Act, which seeks to address a broad array of weaknesses in the legal structure of caring for these practical orphans.
Most likely The Ombudsman Act and The PARK Act will be tabled for this legislative session; and with this we must be content. Perhaps the groundwork is being laid now for these bills to be passed in a later session. For now, we must be content that these bills are a symbol of the undying conviction of those who strive, by a strength outside of themselves, to visit orphans in their affliction.
Sam McLure is the Founder of The Adoption Law Firm.