Note: This is a general outline of the timeline a case may typically have. Some cases are resolved in a much shorter time frame if it is either very clear that it is safe for the child to return home or very clear that it is not. This general timeline applies to the state of Texas as of the date of this post and may differ in other states.
Removal from home
After appropriate investigation has been made into a potential CPS case and it is determined that it is unsafe for the child to remain in the home, a CPS social worker will remove the child from the home. Some removals are immediate upon discovery of active domestic violence or drug abuse, i.e. police are called by neighbors and CPS, or the police themselves, conduct an emergency removal of the child from the active situation. Children are almost always taken to a licensed foster home upon removal, though in some cases they only remain there for a few weeks, long enough for an appropriate relative to get a home study approved by CPS and begin taking care of the child as a kinship placement. If a kinship placement is not available or appropriate, children will remain in a licensed foster family home.
Within 14 days after removal, caseworkers and attorneys have been assembled/assigned and a team meeting is held to discuss the known facts of the case so far. A period of further investigation begins, to gather more information about the case.
At approximately six weeks after removal, a court hearing is held in which the birth parent(s) are presented with their service plan that they must follow through on in order to have their child returned to their care. The plan outlines requirements specific to their case, such as drug or alcohol rehab, parenting classes, job training, obtaining adequate housing and childcare, or disassociating themselves with any individuals deemed unsafe for the child to be around. Birth parents are then given a specified amount of time to work their plan and are not at all left hanging to figure it all out themselves. CPS social workers and other state agencies are in place to guide them. The service plan specifies a time frame in which they must work their plan.
At about six months into the case, another team meeting (of attorneys, social workers, often the birth parent(s) themselves and sometimes the foster parents) is held to evaluate progress. The team considers the birth parent's efforts to work their plan, how the child is doing in foster care, how the child handles visits with the birth parent (are the visits positive or traumatic for the child?), etc. At this point, the team really decides which way this case will go in actuality and begins to move in that direction. If things are going awesome, the team prepares to move for reunification. If not, the team will prepare to move for termination of rights. Things can get really messy at this point.
At about ten months into the case, if it has not been done already, a hearing is held in which the judge decides on a permanency plan. Attorneys present their arguments for either reunification or termination of rights and a decision is made. If the child is indeed able to return home, a plan is set for a gradual return with increased visits, unsupervised visits, overnight stays and then finally a permanent return. If, however, the judge makes the final decision that the birth parent's rights are to be terminated and the child cannot return home, a plan is set for seeking an adoptive or other permanent situation, such as an aunt or grandparent becoming guardian.
One year from the time of removal is the normal maximum of time that a CPS case can be open, with a few exceptions, described below. Standards were revised a few years ago to create this maximum in the interest of finding permanency for these children quickly, whether that be with their biological parents or with another family. This is a good change and one I was so glad to learn about. Many children of course remain in foster care for longer than this year but that is because of time needed to find an adoptive home, which can take a while or sometimes sadly not work out at all, in which case children "age out" of foster care at age 18. But at least children in foster care are not stuck there because of the case dragging on forever. The case is normally closed within a year, it's the adoptive placement that can then take a while.
One and a half years
In some cases, an extension of the case is allowed for another six months past the normal one year maximum that a case may be open. This normally happens if a birth parent is doing really well working their plan and has consistently showed effort, but either the parent needs a bit more time to get some things worked out or the court wants a bit more time to see if the parent will remain consistent. Some parents blow off their plan completely and then in the last month ask for more time to complete it. CPS sees right through that and this extension of time is not given in cases like that. So, the absolute max that a child may be in foster care because of the case remaining open, is 1.5 years. Remember, it could be longer and for some, the remainder of their adolescent life because, frankly, nobody will adopt them...