What Are Reasonable Efforts? When Do They Apply?

The term “Reasonable Efforts” is not defined by the federal statutes that created it nor by the State of California. So how do attorneys argue and judges rule on whether or not a social services agency has made reasonable efforts to reunify a family?

The Child Welfare Information Gateway Summary of State Laws (2019)1 refers to reasonable efforts as “accessible, available and culturally appropriate services that are designed to improve the capacity of families to provide safe and stable homes for their children.”[1]“>1 The Child Welfare Policy Manual at §8.3C.4 Title IV-E2[2]“>2states that determination of reasonable efforts be made on a case-by-case basis so that the individual circumstances of each child before the court are properly considered. As a result, judges retain a great deal of discretion in their reasonable efforts decisions.

A finding of whether reasonable efforts have been made must be made at each step in the dependency process, beginning at removal.
Barring exigency requiring removal, some of the efforts in Contra Costa County are referrals to Path II services and Intensive Family Services. Path II services offer home-based case management and clinical services to strengthen families to keep children in their homes. Intensive Family Services or “IFS” is an agreement between Children and Family Services (“CFS”) and a family to voluntarily engage in services to support and maintain the family, offering crisis intervention, individual and family therapy, and life skills education for families with minors under age 14 who are identified as at risk of placement outside the home.

The goals of these services are to prevent unnecessary out of home placement of children by equipping the family with the skills needed to prevent removal and more intensive intervention services. Removal or other more intensive intervention services include the filing of a petition and court oversight.

Reasonableness of Services

Sections 42 U.S.C. §§671(a6) and 675(B) require that a case plan be created for each child receiving foster care payments and that the plan include services to improve the conditions in the parents’ home and facilitate the safe return of the child to his own home. The case plan must include a description of the services offered and provided to prevent removal of the child from the home and to reunify the family.

CFS has the burden to show at each review hearing that reasonable efforts have been made, and services offered, to ameliorate the issues that brought the family before the juvenile court.

The court in In re Taylor J. (2014) 223 Cal.App.4th 1446 found that “family reunification services are not ‘reasonable’ if they consist of nothing more than handing the parent a list of counseling agencies when the list contained the name of only one domestic violence victim counseling agency in proximity to the mother’s home. Furthermore, although the mother was ordered to participate in individual counseling, the list did not contain the names of individual counseling agencies.”

In In re K.C. (2012) 212 Cal.App.4th 323, 329-330, the social services agency’s only attempt to secure a psychotropic medication evaluation was to send the father to a public mental health clinic. The clinic said the father did not meet its criteria for treatment, and the agency made no attempt to secure the evaluation elsewhere or to demonstrate that no other avenues were reasonably available for securing the medication evaluation. The court found that “[g]iven these facts, we fail to see how the Department’s provision of services could be found reasonable under any standard of proof.” The agency “delegated the burden of finding and obtaining suitable services to Father himself–despite the high likelihood that the very issues necessitating treatment would interfere with his ability to obtain it.”


Adequate visitation is a frequently appealed issue with parents complaining that they did not have an opportunity to maintain a connection with their children because CFS did not facilitate visits.

In In re S.H. (2003) 111 Cal.App.4th 310, 317-318, jurisdiction was based on physical and sexual abuse. The court ordered supervised visitation for the mother but did not specify frequency or length of visits. The court of appeal held that “visitation is a necessary and integral component of any reunification plan.” The power to decide whether visitation occurs lies with the court alone. That power cannot be delegated to social workers, therapists, or children. The court suggested that the way to solve the problem was to order a minimum number of visits or to order that if the child refuses a visit, a make-up visit must be scheduled.

The court, In re C.C. (2009) 172 Cal.App.4th 1481, 1491, granted the agency’s motion to terminate visitation with the mother on the ground that it would be emotionally harmful to the child. The mother appealed the disposition order that denied her any visitation. The Court of Appeal reversed the visitation order. Under Welfare and Institutions Code section 362.1, “visitation with the parent is a mandatory element of the reunification plan with the single exception that ‘[n]o visitation order shall jeopardize the safety of the child.’ (Welf. & Inst. Code § 362.1,subd. (a)(1)(B).) The Court of Appeal held, “[i]n other words, when reunification services have been ordered … some visitation is mandatory unless the court specifically finds any visitation with the parent would pose a threat to the child’s safety.” In re C.C., supra, 172 Cal.App.4th at p. 1491.)

Other services frequently ordered are age-appropriate parenting classes, individual counseling/mental health treatment, family therapy, substance abuse treatment and testing, and domestic violence treatment.

It is important to remember that parental participation in the provided services plays a critical part in this decision (such that a lack of participation may result in finding reasonable efforts when in a case with full parental cooperation) the services may be deemed inadequate. It is important for parents’ attorneys to ensure that all court-ordered services are provided in a timely manner and to encourage their client to engage in services as soon as possible so that they may have the maximum time allowable to comply with the case plan and make the necessary changes to reunify with their children.

[1]“>Available at: https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubPDFs/reunify.pdf
[2]“>Available at https://www.acf.hhs.gov/cwpm/public_html/programs/cb/laws_policies/laws/cwpm/policy_dsp.jsp?citID=59