An overview of the process from investigation to termination of parental rights
The Arkansas Department of Human Services is tasked by the Arkansas Legislature with the investigation and protection of minors and endangered adults. This task is carried out by the Division of Children and Family Services (DCFS). DCFS is made up of social workers, investigators, and attorneys that investigate and litigate allegations of child and adult maltreatment. DCFS also provides services to families that have been identified as needing services. These services can include counseling, day care vouchers, parenting classes, or other services that the family either requests or that DCFS identifies as a need.
Hotline Call and Investigation
Children can enter foster care for many reasons. The most common is an alleged act of abuse or neglect by their parents. When someone suspects abuse or neglect make DHS aware by calling the Arkansas Child Abuse Hotline.
Once a hotline call is made, DCFS is notified of the allegations and tasked with investigating. If the allegations are serious DCFS may call for a child-welfare check. During a child-welfare check, the police or a social worker will attempt to contact the family to determine whether the child or children are in imminent risk of serious harm.
If the officer or social worker decides that the child is in imminent danger, they may "take a hold". This means that DHS will take custody of the child for 72 hours. During that time, DHS may return the children home if the social workers and supervisors determine that it can be done safely. However, once DHS has taken a hold, usually they will file an emergency petition for custody with the Circuit Court in your county. When DHS files an emergency petition, an affidavit alleging the facts that lead to the emergency hold will be attached.
Filing a Petition and First Steps
Once a petition has been filed, a hearing is required be held within 5 business days of the filing of the Emergency Order. This is called a probable cause hearing. At the probable cause hearing the court is required to determine:
Whether a reasonable person who reads the affidavit would believe:
a. That an emergency existed which put the child in imminent danger of serious harm; and
b. Whether that emergency still exists such that the children cannot be returned home.
The Court will also determine whether you can afford to hire an attorney or whether one will be
provided to you at state expense. The child will also be appointed an attorney, known as an Attorney Ad Litem.
If the Court determines that an emergency still exists an adjudication hearing will be set within 30 to 60 days. Arkansas law requires that DHS hold a meeting with the parents of the children who are in foster care. These meetings, typically called "staffings", are required to be held prior to the adjudication, and at least once every several months.
At the Adjudication Hearing, the Court determines whether the facts in the affidavit are true and correct, and if true, whether the child has been subjected to abuse or neglect by a parent or caregiver. The Court should also determine whether the child can be returned home or should remain in foster care. At this hearing, the Court sets the goal for the case. At this hearing, DHS should submit a case plan that was developed at the staffing.
If the Court determines that the children have been subjected to abuse or neglect, this is called a finding of dependency-neglect. If the Court finds that the children have been dependent-neglected, and determines that they cannot go home, the Court will set the goal. Typically, the goal will be set as reunification.
Reunification is the default goal at the beginning of the case. However, DHS or the child's Attorney Ad Litem can petition at any point to stop reunification services, terminate parental rights, or to have the Court set a goal other than reunification.
Once the Court has made a determination of dependency-neglect, parents of children in foster care have 12 months to correct the conditions which caused removal. Arkansas statutes require that after the adjudication hearing, a review hearing be held within 6 months, and a permanency planning hearing be held within 12 months.
Review hearings are required to be held at least once every 6 months, but can, and often are held more often, usually every 3 months. At review hearings, the Court is required to determine whether the case is proceeding, how it is proceeding, whether the parents are following the case plan, and whether any corrections or modifications need to be made to the case plan or services.
Permanency Planning and Termination
Permanency Planning Hearings are required to be held at least once every 12 months that a child is in foster care, but can be held earlier if requested by a party. At the permanency planning hearing, the Court is required to determine whether the child can go home, and if not, whether to authorize a plan for continued reunification, or to set another case goal.
If the child cannot be returned home, the parents or caregivers from whom custody was removed must show that they have made substantial and measurable progress on the case plan such that they are genuinely and sustainably invested in correcting the conditions which caused removal. If the Court finds that the parents or caregivers have made substantial and measurable progress, the Court can authorize services to continue beyond 12 months.
If the Court finds that the parents or caregivers have not made substantial and measurable progress the Court can set one of several alternative permanency goals such as: custody with a relative, custody with another fit parent, adoption with termination of parental rights, guardianship, or another planned permanency option. If the Court choses custody, guardianship, or another option, the parent's rights will likely remain intact. If the Court chooses adoption with termination of parental rights, a termination of parental rights hearing will be set and either DHS or the Attorney Ad Litem will file a Petition to Terminate Parental Rights.
Once a goal of Adoption with Termination of Parental Rights has been set, a termination of parental rights hearing will be set within 90 days. Parents are still entitled to services during this time and they shouldn't give up. Within 30 days of the termination of parental rights hearing, a Petition to Terminate Parental rights will be filed by DHS or that Attorney Ad Litem.
The termination of parental rights hearing is often the final hearing from the parents' perspective. If your rights are terminated, you have an absolute right to appeal. That process will be discussed in a subsequent guide.
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