Guide to Dependency Court – For Parents

Juvenile Dependency Court Orientation - a video about the court process for parents whose children were taken from their care.

If you are a parent and your child was removed from the home because of child abuse or neglect, this page is for you.  Keep in mind that juvenile dependency cases are very serious. They can change your life and your child’s life. Click on the links below for more information about how dependency court works. And talk to a lawyer for more help understanding your rights and the courts. Click for help finding a lawyer .

If you are the father of the child, a non-biological parent, the partner of the child’s biological parent, or in some other way believe you have or should have parental rights as to the child in the case, click for information on Rights of Fathers and Other Parents.

For more information, read Juvenile Dependency Court and You: A Guide for Parents. This guide explains the dependency court process in California. It includes the story of one parent who went through the dependency system and her advice to you on how to get your children back home. Also available in Spanish.

How does a case start?

A child abuse and neglect case starts when someone reports a concern that:

  • You are abusing your child or not taking care of your child properly,
  • Someone else is abusing your child or not taking care of him or her properly and you are not protecting your child from that, or
  • Your child is in danger of being abused or not taken care of properly by you or someone else.

Reports that a child is being abused or neglected are usually made to the police or to social workers. When a child abuse and neglect report is made, the social worker or police officer is required to investigate. If a police officer gets notified first, he or she will usually turn it over to the social worker for investigation.

A social worker investigates by talking to you, your child, people who know you and your family, and by looking at where you live. The social worker can talk to your child at school without you being present. The social worker does not need a court order to talk to your child at school, as long as there is not a police officer present when the social worker talks to your child. After the social worker talks to your child at school, he or she has to tell you that s/he interviewed your child at school.

After investigating the social worker will do one of the following:

  • Not take any action. The social worker will do this if he does not find evidence of abuse or neglect that requires court involvement.
  • Offer you what are called voluntary services. These are free services that the social worker will help you connect to that are designed to help you learn how to parent your child more safely.
  • Leave your child in your care and file a petition with the court that asks to the court to open a case to protect your child.
  • Take your child from your care and file a paper with the court, called a petition, that asks the court to open a case to protect your child. The social worker must file the petition within two court days of removing your child. The social worker will take your child from you if he thinks the child is in immediate danger in your care. If the social worker takes your child from your care he can place the child with the other parent (if you are separated), with a relative, or in a foster home.

What to do if your child is removed

One of the most important things to do when your child is removed is to give the social worker information on your family members. The placement options for your child will be:

  1. the other parent if you and your child’s other parent are not together,
  2. a relative, or
  3. a foster home or shelter.

To prevent your child from being placed with strangers, give your relatives’ information to the social worker. Click for a Guide to Dependency Court: For Relatives and/or Caregivers.

When your child is removed, you can also ask the social worker to set up frequent visits with your child. If it is appropriate to do so, you will be able see your child while you wait for your court date.

Attend the first court hearing. In most courts, this is called the detention hearing. If your child has been removed, this hearing must be held by the end of the day after the petition is filed. The social worker will tell you when and where the detention hearing is going to take place.

Keep in mind that even though your child is removed you still have the right to make educational decisions on behalf of your child. So, you should continue to participate in your child’s education and decisions regarding his education. The court can limit your right to make educational decisions based on your failure to respond to and participate in school meetings. You also retain your right to make health care decisions for your child and you have the right to attend doctors appointments.

The first court hearing

If your child has been removed, the first hearing must happen the day after the petition was filed. If your child was not removed, the first hearing must be held no later than 15 days after the petition is filed.

At the first hearing a few different things will happen. First, if you cannot afford a lawyer, the judge will appoint one for you. The judge will also appoint a lawyer for the other parent of your child if he or she shows up for the first court hearing. Most counties will also appoint an attorney for your child. 

Important: The attorney client relationship is a special one. First, your communications with your attorney are confidential, which means that the attorney cannot tell anyone else what you talk about unless you say it is okay. Your attorney talks to you about the law and how it applies to the facts of your case. And your attorney is your voice in court and presents your position to the judge. If there has been a break down in your relationship with your attorney and you do not feel like he or she is representing your interests, you can ask the judge to appoint a new attorney for you.

The social worker will be at the first hearing. He or she also has an attorney, often called the county counsel or agency attorney. Before the court hearing the social worker will provide all the attorneys and the judge with the petition and the written report that talks about the reasons the petition was filed. The petition has a list of things that are numbered, like A-1 or B-1. These are called allegations, and they summarize what the social worker thinks is going on with your and your children.

If your child has been removed, the first hearing is called the detention hearing and the judge will decide whether your child can go home right away. This is the first time the judge will be asked to make sure that your child is safe. If your child can’t go home right away, the judge will make orders about when and where you can visit your child.

The judge may also ask you some questions about whether your child may be a member of a Native American tribe. The questions about connections to a tribe are important because of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA). If you have Indian ancestry or think you are a member of a tribe, please click here for more information on ICWA.

The judge will ask you about the child’s other parent, if that parent is not at the hearing. This means that the court will ask if there is a father or another person who qualifies as a parent to the child. The questions about the other parent are needed to find out who your child’s legal parents are. Click for information on Rights of Fathers and Other Parents to find out more about parentage and paternity in juvenile court.

If your child has been removed you have the right to argue against the removal (detention) of your child. The hearing where you argue against your child being removed will take place a few days after the first hearing. It is called the jurisdiction.

The jurisdiction / disposition hearing

The jurisdiction hearing is the hearing that comes after the initial hearing, if your children were not removed, or after the detention hearing if your kids were removed. At the jurisdiction hearing the judge will decide whether the allegations in the petition are true. If the judge decides the allegations are true, the court will take authority over your child. This is called jurisdiction in the law; that is why the hearing is called the jurisdiction hearing.

At the jurisdiction hearing:

  • If the judge decides that any of the allegations are true and your child isn’t safe, then your child will become a dependent of the court - whether your child is living with you or not. That means your child is in the system. Being in the system does not necessarily mean that your child will live with someone else. It only means that the judge is allowed to make orders about your child’s care.
  • If the judge decides that none of the allegations are true, then the case will be dismissed and you’ll be finished with the system.

If your case is not dismissed, there is a disposition hearing after the jurisdiction hearing. Often the jurisdiction and disposition hearings are combined and handled at the same time.

Disposition is the part of the case where the judge will decide what you should do to make things better for your family and your child. This is called the reunification plan. It will include:

  • Decisions about where your child should live (this is called placement).
  • Should your child live with you or with someone else?
  • If your child does not live with you, whom should your child live with?
  • Decisions about when, where, and how you can visit with your child.
  • Decisions about what reunification services you need to make your child safe and able to live with you at home.
  • Decisions about what services your child needs to be safe and healthy.

If you disagree with the allegations in the petition, you have a right to a hearing to contest the allegations in the petition. That hearing will occur at a later date. If you do not dispute the allegations in the petition but you disagree with the reunification plan, you have a right to contest that.

Reunification services

With certain exceptions, the court must offer you services to help you reunify with your child (get your child returned to your care). The social worker assigned to your case will come up with the reunification services, with your input. The judge will order you to complete all the reunification services. You should immediately begin participating in those services because you have to complete all of the reunification services to get your child back and you have a limited amount of time to do it. 

Most of the time, you will have a year to complete your requirements if you keep making progress. But if your child is under three years old, you will have only six months to show that you are committed to finishing up everything.

After the court orders you to participate in reunification services, your next court hearing is not for 6 months. During this six months you should be participating in the reunification services offered to you. If you make progress, your child could be returned to you prior to the next court date. It is important to keep in touch with your attorney and social worker to keep them up to date on your progress toward your reunification goals. If you believe that it is safe for your child to be returned to your home, your attorney can file paperwork asking the court to return your child.

If you do not participate in the services set forth in your reunification plan, the court can terminate your services. If your services are terminated that means that the goal for your case has changed from getting you back together with your child to finding a permanent home (that is not with you) for your child.

Review hearings

During the time your child is in the system (whether your child is living with you or with someone else), the court will have a hearing every six months. These court hearings are dependency status review hearings, which in different courts can also be called status review hearings, periodic review hearings, or DSR hearings.

The purpose of each review hearing is pretty much the same: it is for the court to decide if you have been really working on your case plan and if it is safe for your child to be returned to your care or, when your child is living with you, if your case can be dismissed.

At six month review the court can:

  1. return your child to your care if he was removed from your care,

  2.  order that your child remain out of your care but give you another six months of services, or

  3. order that your child remain out of your care and stop offering you reunification services.

A permanent plan

Once the court terminates reunification services, your reunification time has ended and the court must make a permanent plan for your child. This is the plan that says whom your child will live with for the long term.

There are several things you should know if the court does not return your child and terminates your reunification.

  • First you can continue to visit with your child, unless the court finds that it is harming the child, even if your reunification services have been stopped.
  • Second, the court must select a permanent plan for your child. This plan can be adoption, legal guardianship, or continued placement in a foster care setting.
    • Adoption is always the first choice. This is when the court terminates your parental rights. That means you are no longer legally your child’s parent and have no legal rights or responsibilities to him or her.
    • Legal guardianship is the second choice: A legal guardian has all the legal rights and responsibilities that any parent would have taking care of a child. Your rights as a parent are not terminated but are on hold during the guardianship. Usually the court will dismiss 16 your case from the system, but in some cases the court may continue to monitor your child. It may also grant you the right to visit your child under certain rules; and
    • A long term planned permanent living arrangement is the third choice: Long-term planned permanent living arrangement means that your child will continue to live with foster parents, either related to her or him or unrelated. The case stays in the system and the court will have a review hearing every six months.

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