DAVID CRARY, AP National Writer
NEW YORK (AP) — For child-welfare agencies across the United States, it’s the ultimate sanction: terminating the rights of parents to raise their own children due to concerns about abuse and neglect.
All states resort to this step when deemed necessary for a child’s well-being, but there are wide state-to-state disparities in the rate of terminations and the extent of support services to avoid foster care placements. According to federal data, some states terminate parental rights at a rate 25 times higher than states at the low end of the scale.
Calling for reforms to help more families stay together are many child welfare officials and academics, and also some parents who’ve faced the threat of termination proceedings themselves.
Among them is Denise Moore of Des Moines, Iowa, a mother of seven who nearly lost her parental rights after her arrest in 2003 for conspiracy to deliver methamphetamine. Caseworkers allowed the children to remain in their home in the care of their grandmother, but ordered Moore to vacate the house and follow a regimen that would end her addiction to meth.
Over an 18-month span, Moore failed to accomplish this, but her caseworker gave her one last chance at a meeting where all seven of the children were present. Grateful for the reprieve, Moore overcame her addiction, enrolled in college and is now working with a state-backed program that assists families during their initial contacts with the child welfare system.
Moore says her children, ranging in age from 12 to 27, are all thriving; one son hopes to become a family-law attorney. But she says the support she and her family received was the exception, not the rule.
“I think we terminate too easily,” she said. “I always believe that families can change, and we just need to find the right intervention to help them get there.”
Each state has its own system for dealing with cases in which termination of parental rights is considered. Federal law spells out certain conditions and timelines, but states interpret and apply them differently.
An Associated Press analysis of data compiled by federal officials shows some striking variations. Maryland, for example, had a rate of 10.5 parental rights terminations for every 100,000 children in 2014; at the high end of the scale, the rate per 100,000 children was 283 in neighboring West Virginia and 252 in Oklahoma.
Even looking only at the children placed in foster care, there are pronounced differences. Children affected by a termination order accounted for about 30 percent of the 30,358 youths in the Texas foster care system; Maryland tallied only 142 children affected by termination orders — about 3.5 percent of its foster care population of 4,032.
Economic, cultural and political differences among states partly explain the variances.
In West Virginia and Oklahoma, the high termination rates are fueled to a large extent by severe drug abuse problems. West Virginia has the highest rate of drug overdose deaths, and Oklahoma has the highest rate of incarcerating women — many of them single mothers who are the sole caregivers for their children.
Both states have struggling economies, and advocacy groups say there is inadequate funding for services that might help fragile families stay together, such as quality child-care programs, mental health care and drug treatment programs.
“The money is just not there,” said Terry Smith, executive director of the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy. “Services get cut, and the result you get is abuse, neglect and termination.”
Across the country, the availability of effective support services is viewed as crucial in helping reduce the need for foster care placements and parental rights terminations, both of which are considered undesirable outcomes for most children.
Professor Martin Guggenheim, a child welfare expert at New York University School of Law, is among those contending that too many parents lose their rights and too many children go into foster care. Parents’ legal prospects vary widely from state to state when it comes to challenging termination, he says; many who are indigent are represented by court-appointed lawyers with heavy caseloads.
Too often, Guggenheim said, terminations produce “legal orphans” — young people who are separated from their parents, then do not receive a successful adoption placement, and eventually age out of the foster care system on their own.
“They’ve lost their family and gained nothing in return,” he said.
Nationwide, according to federal figures, the number of children affected by parental rights terminations declined from 85,525 to 64,398 between 2005 and 2014, mirroring a broader drop in the number of children placed in foster care. Arizona and Texas were among a handful of states bucking the trend, with more terminations and more children in care.
Figures from Arizona show how difficult it is for a parent to block a termination order once it’s requested by child-welfare officials. In a six-month period last year, 2,232 termination petitions were granted and seven were denied.
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