Navigating the Juvenile Court System in St. Louis County
For those unfamiliar with the Juvenile Court system, this is a quick guide as to how the process works and what types of hearings are involved when a child is removed from his or her parents for allegations of abuse or neglect.
The Child is removed and taken into "protective custody."When a report or investigation by the Missouri Children's Division reveals a situation where it is believed a child has been subject to abuse or neglect, referrals are made the the Deputy Juvenile Office at the Juvenile Courts. Much like a prosecutor requesting a warrant, the Juvenile Office, through its attorneys, will file a petition and then, in most cases, request that the the Court issue an order to take the child into "protective custody." Obviously if the child is potentially in danger, there is the immediate need to remove the child from said danger. If the Court issues the protective custody order, the Children's Division can take it and physically remove the child from the custodians. The parents or custodians are given notice of their right to a hearing solely on the issue of whether the child should stay in protective custody while the petition goes forward. Said hearing must take place within 72 hours (not counting holidays, weekends, etc). At the hearing, the parents are entitled to representation. The hearings are short in length and generally limited to the information that is available at that time. The underlying issues of alleged abuse or neglect are not the focus, but rather, whether or not it is appropriate for the child to be kept in protective custody while the underlying allegations are further looked into. Unfortunately for most custodians, given the short time from when the children were removed, there is little new information that would change the mind of the Court to release the child(ren) from protective custody. Usually the most significant use of these first hearings is to bring everyone together and explore potential placement of the child(ren) with relatives or family friends. Of course, background checks need to be made and inquiries as to whether the potential placements have appropriate housing and resources to be a placement provider.
The Initial SettingWhen a petition is filed and summons are issued, the custodians are given notice of the initial court date. Parents and Custodians of a child are all given the right and opportunity to participate in said proceedings concerning their children, even if the allegations are not specifically made against a particular parent. For example, if the parents are not living together and it is alleged the child was abused or neglected by the mother, both mother and father will be given a summons and notice so that they can participate in the hearings involving their child.
At the initial hearing, the parents will need to decide how they will address the allegations in the petition. They essentially have three options:
1) They can admit the allegations; in which case the Court will find the petition to be true and proceed to the disposition phase;
2) They can deny the allegations; in which case the matter will be set for trial; or
3) They can submit the matter on reports (similar to pleading no-contest in a criminal matter. In this situation, the parties will agree to what reports to be submitted to the Judge, usually a police report or medical records, and they agree the Judge will decide whether the petition is proven or not based solely on the reports. This option is frequently used in cases where there are potential criminal charges that may be filed in the criminal courts stemming from the same situation. This avoids the risk of self incrimination by a parent offering evidence/testimony in the juvenile case that could be used against them in the criminal case.
Whichever option the parents choose, if the Court finds the allegations to not be proven, the case is closed and the child is returned immediately. If the Court finds the allegations to be in fact proven, the case then moves on to the disposition phase, discussed in the next section.
Disposition after AdjudicationAs stated earlier, if the court finds that the allegations of abuse or neglect are proven to be true, the Court then moves to the Disposition phase. In this phase, the court receives recommendations from the Children's Division, the Deputy Juvenile Officer, and Guardian Ad Litem appointed for the Child as to what types of services should be put in place to assist the family. Depending upon the nature of the allegations, this could include substance abuse evaluations, psychiatric evaluations, counseling, parenting classes and random drug screens. Recommendations are also received regarding the placement of the child and what the custody/visitation arrangements should be while the case is open. It is important to note that the Juvenile Court is a court of limited jurisdiction in that the orders it puts in place are only valid while there is an open case. When the case is closed, all orders regarding custody, visitation and services end. The recommendations are prepared in advance of the disposition hearing and the parents and their attorneys can review them. At the hearing, the parents are given the opportunity to respond to the recommendations. At the conclusion of the hearing, the Court will enter an order taking jurisdiction over the child and putting in place the orders it feels will best address the family and the best interests of the children. The matter is then set for a review hearing, typically within a couple months, for all parties to come back and present evidence as to progress of the parties in the ordered services as well as the visitations.
Post Disposition and Review HearingsUnfortunately for parents in juvenile cases, there is no magic date that can be set as to when a child will return to them. This is a case by case situation. Typically, the sooner the parents participate and complete their court ordered services and demonstrate that have the ability and resources to properly parent and provide for their child, the sooner the child can be returned home. However, it is sometimes not entirely within the control of the parents. Children are usually ordered to participate in therapy/counseling to address the issues they may be having in dealing with the abuse or neglect. Reunification of children with their parents typically happens in steps, as the parents progress through their services. This usually moves from supervised visitation, to supervised visitation with a designee (usually an approved relative or foster parent, which allows for longer periods of time), to periods of unsupervised visitation, to overnights and weekends, to ultimately home full time.
Conclusion of a Juvenile Case; Good vs. BadAs the case proceeds, at some point the Court may find itself at a fork in the road. If the parents are proceeding in their services and the children are in a position that they can be safely returned to their parents, then the goal/plan of reunification can proceed. If, however, the parents are not completing their services (i.e. missing drug screens/testing positive for illegal substances, not completing counseling, etc) the Court can make the permanency plan something other than reunification. This could be guardianship or termination of parental rights/adoption. With older children another option could be making arrangements for how the child will live on their own after they age out of the system. In either case, at some point the Court will close its case and terminate jurisdiction over the child(ren).