What IS a Guardianship?
Many parents (natural, foster, and adoptive) can become confused about what a “Guardianship” is in the Rhode Island Family Court.
When a child is placed into DCYF custody in The State of Rhode Island, the Family Court judge assigned to the case will have to approve a plan for permanency. Permanency is simply the term the Court uses for the long-term plan of the child or children. The permanency plan can be “reunify with parents”, but it can also be “adoption” or “guardianship”, among others.
A guardianship is a remedy in the Family Court for a child or children in DCYF custody when neither natural parent can safely reunify with the child after a year (or more) of DCYF involvement and case-planning.
Guardianship is very unique in its impact and differs critically from adoption.
Adoption is permanent. For a child to be adopted, first her natural parents parental rights must be terminated. Once the Biological Mother and Biological Father’s parental rights have been terminated, the adoptive parents are free to adopt the child forever. No one may disrupt an adoption after it is entered.
Guardianship, on the other hand, is not necessarily permanent. Guardianship can be temporary in the right circumstance (but it is intended to be a long-term plan, no natural parent should enter into a guardianship thinking they can return to Court swiftly thereafter). This is because in a guardianship, the rights of the natural parents are not terminated.
In a guardianship, the foster parents who have had the child while the DCYF case remained open to the Courts, agree to keep the child, care for her, raise her, and make decisions on her behalf almost as if they were natural parents.
The guardians also get to decide whether either natural parents may visit or even speak to the child! Too many parents agree to a guardianship in order to avoid the more draconian option (adoption) without fully comprehending this fact.
Once you allow another party to become the legal guardian of your child, that person alone makes all major and minor decisions for the child.
The benefit of a guardianship to the natural parents is that the process is not permanent; the natural parent can return to the Family Court if and when they feel they are again ready to safely care for their child (remember, in a guardianship, the child is still the natural parent’s).
The Family Court will then conduct an analysis to determine whether the children should remain with the guardians or return to the birth parent(s).
There is another major benefit to birth parents who agree to guardianship compared to adoption in the R.I. Family Court.
DCYF keeps track of which parents have their rights terminated, and the Department may become involved with any children born to that parent thereafter. Meaning, if you have a DCYF case and that cast lasts longer than one (1) year, and the Court is not convinced after the one-year anniversary of the case that the child can reunify, then a parent will have to decide between “giving the child up for” adoption or guardianship.
If the parent does agree to have his or her child adopted, then any children he or she has later may also be taken into state custody!
Please note that this discussion covers the meaning of “Guardianship” in Family Court, not Probate Court where it can have different consequences.