The Juvenile Dependency Court is a branch of the Superior Court which hears cases involving neglected and/or abused children under eighteen years of age. The first goal of the dependency court is to preserve families by identifying the problems that have caused the removal of the children and to offer the parents the education or counseling necessary to get the children back in their home. If it is not possible to return the children to the parents, the court seeks out permanent home for the children through adoption, guardianship or long term foster care. The children can be placed with relatives or people qualified to accept children into their homes (also know as professional foster care parents). For the most part, the California Law that applies to these hearings are found in Welfare and Institutions Code Section 300, et. seq.
What happens after law enforcement or the social worker places a child in protective custody?
A Juvenile Court Dependency proceeding may begin with children being removed from their parents and placed in protective custody. If the children are not in immediate danger of neglect or abuse, and are living with a parent, relative, or friend, they may be allowed to remain there pending the court proceedings. The law allows law enforcement to detain children up to 72 hours, for their protection, if the officer or social worker believe that there is a substantial risk of neglect or abuse if the children are not removed. In San Joaquin County, the children are normally taken to the local Children's Shelter (Walter Britten Children's Center) for processing. If the children are very young, they will be immediately placed in a pre-approved emergency foster home. When children are taken into protective custody, the officer or social worker will normally immediately attempt to notify the parents or guardian.
The first investigation
The first investigation is made by the social worker in the Intake Unit of the Department of Social Services. In San Joaquin County, the Human Services Agency - Child Protective intake unit has been delegated this responsibility by the California State Department of Health and Human Services.
No immediate Risk
-If the social worker decides that the children are not significantly at immediate risk for further abuse or neglect, the children can be released to the parent. The social worker decides whether to take court action. If the social worker chooses not to take the matter to court, the social worker may request the parent sign a Family Maintenance Agreement, which requires the parents to sign and agree certain conditions, classes or programs in order to keep the children in the home and without having to go to court. If the parent abides by the Agreement for a period of time, normally six months, no further action will be taken. If there is another report of neglect or abuse of the children, or the parent fail to abide by the Agreement, the children can be removed from the home and a Petition may be filed with the Juvenile Court.
-On the other hand, if the social worker decides the children are at immediate risk for further abuse or neglect, the children will remain out of the home pending the court hearing. The Department of Health and Human Services must file a Petition with the Juvenile Court within 48 hours. The Petition includes necessary legal information and a statement telling the parents why a Dependency proceeding is considered necessary for the safety of the children. In response to the Petition, a Detention Hearing is held before a Judge or Referee the next court day after the Petition is filed. The social worker will meet with the parents, investigate the facts of the case, and prepare a report for the court hearing.
The first hearing (Intial or detention hearing)
In the event the children were removed from the home, the first hearing will be a Detention Hearing. If the children were not removed, the first hearing is called an Arraignment or Initial Hearing. Both hearings advise parties of the allegations, appoint counsel, and set a future hearing date. However, the detention hearing addresses the additional element regarding the custody status of the children pending the next hearing which is called the jurisdiction hearing. At the first hearing, a social worker will meet with the parents, normally before the case is called. They will provide the parents (and the parents' attorney; if a private attorney has been retained) with a copy of the Petition ( a written report containing the allegations of neglect or abuse) filed by the Human Services Agency.
Social Workers, Attornies and the Court
The social worker will tell the parents what the Human Services Agency will be recommending to the Court with regard to whether the children should or should not be temporarily detained from the parents. If the parents do not have an attorney, the Judge or Referee will ask if they want an attorney to represent them. If the parents answer yes, either an attorney from the public defenders office, or from a panel of private attorneys will be appointed by the Court. Usually a separate attorney is appointed for each parent because sometimes only one of the parents has caused the abuse to the children. If the children are not released to the parents, they will remain detained in their current placement. The report written for the hearing by the social worker will include an evaluation of the case, a preliminary reunification/service plan, and recommendations to the Court regarding placement of the children.
Visitation and Services pending the next hearing:
The social worker will also arrange visits, if Court approved, between the parents and the children and coordinate services for the parents and the children. Visitation for the parents is normally set for at least 1 hour 1 time per week. Initially the social worker must make referrals for services that the social believes might assist the parent in reunifying with the children. Initially these are not court ordered, but voluntary. At a later time (at the dispositional hearing) the court might order the parent to participate in services, but at this point it is voluntary. These services may include referrals to parenting classes, counseling, drug and/or alcohol testing, or whatever other services would be appropriate. It is important for the parents to cooperate with both their attorneys and the social worker. If the parents make a positive effort to participate in the services, the Court will take this into consideration in deciding whether and when to returrn the children.
Important things to do EARLY in the case:
At the first few hearings, the parents will be asked to identify all fathers, or possible fathers for all of the children effected by the proceeding. The parents will also be asked to identify all immediate relatives or non related persons with strong personal relationships with the children. These people can be evaluated for possible placement options for the children which would allow the children to stay with the other "non offending" parent, other family or friends rather than being in foster care. THIS IS ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT THING YOU CAN DO TO HELP CHILDREN INVOLVED IN THE DEPENDENCY COURT. A parent must know that the end result of the dependency proceeding (if they are unwilling or unable to fix the problems that caused the children to be removed) is that the court will eventually make a "Long term plan" for the kids. Which could mean that the kids are taken from the parent until the child becomes and adult.
Other important things to do at the early in the case
If the parents have ANY Native American Indian Blood, the children and parents may be subject to specialize treatment under the Indian Child Welfare Act. "ICWA". Even if it is only "a little bit" it is important to mention it as early in the proceedings as possible because if the child quality's under ICWA the court proceedings may take an entirely different procedural route that is normally very beneficial to both the parent and the child. Benefits and qualifications under ICWA are too numerous and voluminous to discuss here, so I won't mention it further, except to say, DISCLOSE INDIAN BLOOD as early in the proceedings as possible.
The Jurisdictional Hearing
The proceeding at which the Court determines whether allegations of abuse or neglect concerning a child are true or not is called a Jurisdictional Hearing. This hearing provides the basis for state intervention into a family. The parents are entitled to a trial to prove or disprove the allegations as stated by the social worker's petition. The standard for this hearing is very very low. Unlike a criminal court, where a person is found "guilty" "beyond a reasonable doubt", the dependency court finds the petition "true" or "false" by a "preponderance of the evidence". If the court finds the petition to be true, it does not mean that the parent goes to jail. Rather, it only means that the court is going to intervene on behalf of the children and protect them from further abuse by the parent.
Jurisdictional Hearing - Standard of Proof
Preponderance of the evidence is a much LOWER standard than reasonable doubt. Therefore the social worker does not have to have the same quality of evidence as the state would normally have to have for a criminal proceedings. For this reason, it is much easy to prove something is "true" in a dependency court than it is in a criminal court. Further, the social worker does not have to produce LIVE WITNESSES to take the stand (again very much unlike the criminal court). Rather the social worker is permitted to introduce notes from the social worker's investigation and police reports as evidence in the dependency proceedings. This makes it very easy for the social worker to produce enough "credible" evidence to have the court find the petition is true.
The Disposition Hearing
The disposition hearing addresses where the child will live and identifies the services to be offered to the child and the parent. Sometimes, the child is permitted to be returned home with the agreement from the parent that the parent will comply with the Reunification/Service Plan or Case Plan. Other times the child has to remain out of the care of the parents and wait for the parents to make progress in the Case Plan. If a child is out of the care of the parents, the child is living in foster care, a relative, or another parent that is not involved in the allegations that brought the child before the court.
The Dispositional Hearing - The Reunification Case Plan
The Reunification/Service Plan or Case Plan tells the parent what s/he needs to do to resolve the problems that brought the children's case before the Court. It is at this time that the court will be ordered to comply with this plan. Up until this point, the parent's participation in the plan has been voluntary. This plan may include parenting classes, counseling, visitation requirements, and drug/alcohol counseling, domestic violence counseling, psychological evaluations, and many other types of services. (On some rare and serious cases, the court might order that the parent be "bypassed" and that the social worker not give services to the parents. If this happens, the parent is not given the opportunity to have the child placed in their care ever again. This normally happens with severe intentional child abuse cases (torture) and sexual abuse cases, or the death of a child.
6 month Review Hearings 6 -12-18 months
The Court is required to review the status of each dependent child regularly. These Review Hearings are held every six months. Prior to each review, the supervising social worker will prepare a report and discuss the recommendation with the parent. This report describes the services offered so far in the case, and what additional services should be provided to the parent to correct the problems which resulted in the child becoming a dependent of the Juvenile Court. It also discusses the parents' progress and cooperation in these services. If the child is with the parents, the report contains information about the progress of the parents in the case plan and makes a recommendation as to whether there is a need for continuing supervision by the court. If the report indicates that the family problems are resolved, the Court may terminate dependency at this time.
Further, If the child has remained out of the home, the report will state what progress has been made by the parents in the case plan and whether the child can be returned to the parents. If the parent has not made good progress in the case plan, it is possible that the court might stop the services and order the social worker to develop of an alternative permanent plan for the child. If problems remain which require the help of the Department of Health and Human Services, dependency will continue. Such reviews occur as long as the child remains a dependent.
Termination of Reunification Services Hearing.
If the child was removed from the parent, placed in foster care, and the Court determines at a second (sometimes even a third) six-month review that reunification of child and parent is not likely, the Court will attempt to find a permanent home for the child. It is normally after this second or third review hearing in which the social worker will ask the court to "Terminate Reunification Services". This means that the services such as parenting class, domestic violence class, counseling, substance abuse program that are being offered to the parent, and paid for by social services are about to come to an end. This is normally requested when the parents have not made "sufficient progress" in their reunification plan. If services to the parent are terminated, a Permanency Planning hearing (Adoption, guardianship or Planned Permanent Living Arrangement [another name for Long Term Foster care]) will follow within 120 days.
Change of Circumstances, 388 motion.
After a Termination of Reunifications Services Hearing, the court is no longer really concerned about the parent's rights, or the progress made by the parent in the reunification process. At this state, the court is only concerned about the child and what is in the child's best interest. A parent might have one more shot if they file a "changed circumstances" motion also known as a "388" petition, however the parent will have to show that despite the fact that the reunification services were terminated, that they managed to become a suitable parent and it is in the child's best interest to be returned to the parent.
Termination Parental Rights Hearing. - Adoption
Termination Parental Rights Hearing. If the long term plan is to adopt the child, the court must proceed to terminate the parental rights of the parent. This normally means that visitation with the parent stops as well, because it is normally in the best interest of the child to move on, and to be adopted by the relative or the foster care provider that has been caring for the child. The parent looses the right to legal and physical custody of the child and normally loses his/her right to visit the child. If visitation is allowed, it would be in the sole discretion of the adopting parents.
Termination Parental Rights Hearing - Guardianship or Long Term Foster Care
If the long term plan is not adoption, but is a guardianship, then the parent will still loose legal and physical custody, but the court can order the guardians to allow visitation between the parents and the children. Further, under a guardianship, the court does not terminate parental rights. Lastly, if the court orders Planned Permanent Living Arrangement (a.k.a Long Term Foster Care), the court keeps legal custody of the child, gives the social worker the right to determine the physical custody of the child until 18 and will normally order continued visitation with the child with the parents, if visitation is in the best interest of the child.
Additional resources provided by the author
To find out the rights of children in foster care or for a detailed chart on the differences between Adoption, Guardianship, or Long Term Foster Care go to my website: The Law Office of Gabrielle Tetreault: www.gatlaw.net.