Guide to Dependency Court

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


Juvenile court is part of the superior court. It deals with 3 kinds of cases:

  • Juvenile Dependency (Abuse and Neglect): Cases where there may be abuse or neglect in the home. The juvenile court’s job is to protect the children in the family.
  • Juvenile Delinquency: Cases involving children that do things that would be crimes if they were done by adults.
  • Juvenile Status Offenses: Cases involving children that do things that are only against the law because they are done by children. For example, cutting school or running away from home.

The juvenile court can make orders in dependency cases. For example, these orders can:

  • Take children from their homes;
  • Send children to live with relatives or in foster care or group homes;
  • Cancel a parent’s rights;
  • Create new parental rights; or
  • Work with other agencies to get the services the child needs.

If the court takes a child from his or her home, a government agency is responsible for the child. The agency is in charge of the child’s health, education, and care. The court can also order the agency to assist the parents in making their home safe for the child.

If your child is taken out of your home because of abuse or neglect, you have the right to have a lawyer represent you in court. If you need time to hire one, you can postpone the first court hearing for 1 day so you can get a lawyer. If you do not have enough money to hire a lawyer, you can ask the court to assign a lawyer to your case. (You may have to pay part or all of the costs for your lawyer if you earn enough money.)

A child in a juvenile dependency case is given a lawyer unless the court says it would not be beneficial. The court can also appoint a Court Appointed Special Advocate (called “CASA”) to help the child. Click for help finding a lawyer.

NOTE: If you are a ward or dependent of the juvenile court and are turning 18 on or after January 1, 2012 (or if you are between 18 and 20 and have previously been placed in a foster home), you may be entitled to extended foster care benefits beyond your 18th birthday. These benefits may include money for clothing and housing assistance, medical coverage, job placement services, school tuition and others. To find out if you are eligible, contact your current or former probation officer, social worker or lawyer. You can get more information at: www.fosteringconnections.org/california.

What happens in juvenile dependency court

If you and your child are involved in a juvenile dependency case, you must follow certain steps until your case is resolved.

The court will explain what you must do and the deadlines you must meet. The court will try to resolve your case as quickly as possible.

If your child becomes a “dependent of the court,” the court will make orders for you, your child, and the social worker. The court makes these orders to protect your child.

The court can order that:

  • Your child live in your home under court supervision; or
  • Your child live in a different home also under court supervision.

If your child becomes a “dependent of the court” and the court does not order reunification services to help you get back together with your child, or reunification efforts fail, you can lose your child.

Throughout the court process, remember that the social worker can explain how the process works. But the social worker cannot give you legal advice. If you have questions, ask your lawyer or the judge. Also, you must tell the court and the social worker where to mail you documents about your child. If you change your mailing address, you must tell your social worker immediately.

The court process

The court has removed your child from the home for the reasons specified in the petition and other court papers you may have received. Read the petition carefully.

  • At the first hearing after your child was taken away from you, the judge will decide if your child will be returned to you until the next court hearing.
  • If the judge decides not to return the child to you until the next hearing:

    • Tell the social worker or your lawyer about any relatives the child can stay with until the next hearing (or longer). If the judge does not allow your child to be returned to you, it is usually better for the child to stay with relatives.
    • In most cases, you can visit your child if the child is not returned to you.

There are a few key stages in the court process you need to understand:

  1. The right to a trial

    • You have the right to a trial. At your trial, the judge will decide if the statements in the petition are true.
    • If you are going to have a trial, the judge will tell you the trial date at your first hearing.
    • If you admit to the court that all or some of the statements in the petition are true, or if you let the judge make a decision based on the report given to the court, you will not have a trial.

  2. The social worker’s report on your case

    • The social worker will make a report and give it to the court. The report will be based on the social worker’s review of your case and conversations with you and other people.
    • The report will recommend where your child should live for the next 6 months (until the next court hearing) and what you and others can do to help solve the problems that brought you and your child to court.
    • If the judge decides that the statements in the petition are true, the judge will probably make your child a “dependent child of the court.” That means you will have only limited control over your child and your child may be taken from you.

  3. The case plan

    • You and the social worker will make a case plan and present it to the court. The court will probably order that all or part of the case plan be carried out.

    • If your child is taken away from you and a case plan is ordered, the social worker MUST include in the case plan:

      • Services to help you get back together with your child, or
      • If you cannot get back together with your child, services that let your child be adopted or have a guardian.
    • The services to help you get back together with your child may include:

      • Parenting classes
      • Individual counseling
      • Family counseling
      • Alcohol or drug abuse treatment
      • Special programs and classes
      • Visits with your child

    • If your child is taken from you and you decide you do not want to get back together (“reunify”) with the child, talk to your social worker.

    • Also talk to your lawyer about your right to:

      • Say you do not want services that will help you to get back together;
      • Give up your parental rights; and
      • Help develop a permanent plan for your child.

    • After the case plan

      • Start on your case plan as soon as possible. You must follow the case plan and meet your deadlines if you want to get back together with your child.
      • The social worker and others must help you get the services listed in your case plan.
      • The court will review your case at least once every 6 months. At your first review hearing, the judge may decide if your child can return to your home.
      • If your child was under 3 years old when he or she was taken from you and you have not participated regularly in the treatment ordered in your case plan, or if you have not talked with, written to, or visited your child during the 6 months, the court can end services that help you get back together with that child.
      • If your child was over 3 years old and is not returned to you after 6 months, the court can order services for 6 more months.
      • Services to “reunify” you with your child will end in 12 months unless the court decides your child can probably get back together with you within 18 months from the time the police officer or social worker took your child away.
      • If the court ends services to “reunify” you with your child, there will be a hearing to make a “permanent plan” for the child to live with someone else.

      ALERT! If you want the court to let your child return to your care, you must follow court orders and meet deadlines. If the court orders a hearing for a “permanent plan,” you will not get your child back. The court will consider adoption or a guardian for your child.

    • Making a permanent plan for your child

      • If the court decides that your child will not be returned to you, there will be a hearing within 4 months about what should happen to your child — a “permanent plan.”

      • At that hearing, the court has only 3 choices, listed in the order that the court considers them:
        • End your parental rights and order the child placed for adoption (this means that legally you are no longer the child’s parent);
        • Appoint a legal guardian for your child; or
        • Place your child in long-term foster care.

      • If the plan is for adoption, you, the adoptive parents, and the child can agree that you may have contact with your child after the adoption. If that possibility interests you, ask your lawyer to explain the “post-adoption contract.”

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