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July 01, 2011

Agency Made Reasonable Efforts Despite Limited Services Due to Funding Constraints

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

In re Shirley B., 2011 WL 1535246 (Md.).

Child welfare agency’s efforts to reunify mother with children were reasonable even though some services agency referred mother to were not available due to funding constraints. Agency made extensive efforts to support reunification and was not responsible for services that were withheld from mother due to financial reasons outside its control.

Four children were referred to child protective services following reports of neglect and sexual abuse. The mother, who was cognitively impaired, was not responsive to the agency’s help, allowed key benefits to lapse, and exposed the children to drug use and sexual activity in the home. The children were ultimately removed from the mother’s care after a violent altercation between the mother, father, and one of the children.

The children were placed in foster care and the mother was offered reunification services. In addition to parenting classes, housing, medical appointments, vocational training, and individual and family counseling, the agency tried to provide services tailored to the mother’s special needs.

However, economic funding restraints affected availability of these services. Nevertheless, the agency continued to search for other funding sources or funded services. It attempted to link the mother to services at three organizations providing services to people with special needs, successfully getting her on the waiting list at one organization and exploring alternate funding options at another.

After the children had been in foster care for 28 months, the funding for specialized services still had not materialized. The parents had also not made progress towards reunification. At the permanency hearing, the caseworker believed it was not in the children’s best interests to return to the mother and recommended changing the permanency plan. The juvenile court changed the permanency goal from reunification to adoption after finding the mother had not made progress towards reunification and the children could not be safe in her home.

The Maryland Court of Special Appeals affirmed and the mother appealed.

The Court of Appeals of Maryland affirmed. On appeal, the mother questioned whether the child welfare agency fulfills its statutory duty to make reasonable efforts to finalize a permanency plan of reunification when it refers a parent to services that the parent never received due to funding?

The court of appeals found the agency’s duties did not include making administrative decisions for other agencies. Financing services that are the responsibility of other agencies is not a duty of the child welfare agency. The court noted that the agency in this case had done more than usual to link the mother to services to address her special needs, but that it was at the mercy of available funding by agencies that provide these services.

Noting that the availability of services and any limitations are key factors when considering reasonableness, the court concluded the agency had made reasonable efforts to achieve reunification. The agency had referred the mother to services to address her special needs. It had identified three organizations with services to address the mother’s cognitive delays and worked with these agencies to secure a waiting list position and explored alternate funding. In this case, the available services were limited by a lack of financial resources. Despite these financial barriers, the agency still made great efforts to reunify the mother with her children and did not throw up its hands in the face of financial barriers.

Although the court sympathized with the mother’s situation, it emphasized that it had a statutory duty to balance the mother’s right to raise her children against the state’s duty to protect children from abuse and neglect. It concluded the agency’s efforts were diligent and made in good faith. Some services were not provided to the mother for reasons outside the agency’s control, but it was not for lack of trying.