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  • Jimmy Sandlin

Why a “Safety Plan” is Unsafe for Grandparents

Updated: Jul 21, 2020

I am routinely contacted by grandparents after the Department of Human Resources has placed a grandchild in their care under a Safety Plan. In most cases the grandparents know very little about Safety Plans other than what they have been told by their child and/or the DHR case worker. The legal definition of a Safety Plan is listed below:

“Safety plans are developed to protect children from safety threats when the parents’/primary caregivers’ protective capacities are insufficient…Out of Home (Non-Foster Care) Safety plans [are] designed to provide protection for children whose parents, legal custodians, or primary caregivers agree for them to live temporarily with others (e.g., relatives, neighbors, friends). The agreement is made between the parents, legal custodians or primary caregivers, the child welfare staff and the person responsible for providing protection. The home of the person providing protection does not have to be approved as a foster family home. As part of the safety plan approval process, child welfare staff shall make a visit to the home prior to the child being placed, except in emergency situations, in which case a home visit is made no later than the next calendar day or with supervisory approval the next working day.

The typical scenario from the grandparent’s perspective is that their child contacts them in a panic and relays the details of an event which culminated with DHR in the home. The DHR caseworker is usually present at the time the call is made and informs the grandparents that their grandchildren may be placed in the custody of the State of Alabama unless the grandparent is willing to allow the grandchildren to temporarily reside with them. The grandparents agree to the placement and the children are brought to the grandparents’ home. Paperwork is presented for them to sign and the caseworker departs, leaving the children in the grandparents’ care. In many cases the grandparents do not know how long this arrangement will last or what specific requirements DHR has of them. What the grandparents usually do not know is that DHR can end the Safety Plan without warning and place the grandchildren in foster care, even if the grandparents have done everything that was asked of them by DHR.

In other words, grandparents are placed in a very vulnerable situation when they agree to a Safety Plan. When I am advising grandparents in this situation, I always recommend that they immediately file for legal custody of the grandchildren. The reason for my recommendation is simple. If they gain legal custody, DHR will be out of the picture and out of their lives. Also, if they file immediately, the parents can consent to the change of custody and DHR’s consent is not required. The danger of continuing in a Safety Plan is that the arrangement is temporary. Under Alabama law a Safety Plan cannot extend beyond 90 days. If the parent has not adequately satisfied DHR that the concerns which initially caused their involvement have been addressed, the department must file for legal custody of the child. Once DHR has custody of the child(ren), they gain almost unlimited control over placement. Although the law requires that family members be given preference over a foster home, DHR may advocate for foster care if the caseworker has some concern about the grandparents’ home. These “concerns” can many times be trivial, or based upon hearsay, and the courts place a great weight on the caseworker’s recommendations. 

The best course of action in most cases is for the grandparents to obtain legal custody and then work with the parent to determine when the children should be returned. This is also advantageous to the parents due to the fact that they will usually be offered more contact with their children while in the care of a grandparent than they would receive if the children were in foster care. Also, the grandparents would be able to give more individualized attention to the parent’s progress as opposed to a DHR caseworker who may have dozens of other cases to attend to, and the court system which may not review the case for six months after the initial custody order. 

In my view, the grandparents are wise to gain control over the custody of their grandchildren and get DHR out of their lives. DO NOT WAIT UNTIL DHR HAS LEGAL CUSTODY. The road gets much tougher in those situations. 

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