Purpose of Juvenile Dependency Court

Juvenile Dependency Courts are Superior Courts, just like all other Superior Courts of the County in which they are seated, except they are specially designated “Juvenile Dependency Courts.” These courts’ purpose is to ensure the ongoing safety and welfare of children by hearing and deciding cases involving children who are alleged to have been physically or emotionally neglected and/or abused by their parents, legal guardians or other caretakers.

A “Child” is a “minor,” that is, a person 18 years of age or younger who has not been legally “emancipated” (“Emancipated” means a person under age 18 who has petitioned a court of law to declare him or her to be free of parental control andcustody, essentially an adult not within the custody or control of a parent, legal guardian or other adult caretaker).

What happens after a Child Protective Services agency (CPS), such as the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) or the police place a child in protective custody?

When a police agency intervenes into situations where a child has been allegedly abused or neglected, their chief concern, once the child’s safety is secured, is deciding whether there has been a crime such as child cruelty for which an arrest should be made. When the police “arrest” or detain a child who has been abused or neglected, they turn that child over to the county’s CPS as soon as they can.

The law allows the police or a CPS agency to detain children from their parents or guardians for up to 72 hours for their protection if the Emergency Response Children’s Social Worker (ER-CSW) who initially investigates allegations of abuse or neglect believes that the children are at risk in their homes. Once the CPS detains them, children are usually placed in relative’s homes or in licensed foster homes. In some counties, the CPS places children initially in a central receiving facility, which houses children temporarily, pending placement in foster or relative’s homes. When children are taken into protective custody, ostensibly at least, the CPS social worker will immediately attempt to notify the parent(s) or guardian(s).

A common complaint of parents to their defense attorneys in these proceedings is that they were not told where their kids were taken or anything else other than to be in a certain court on a certain date and time. It is often not until three days later that parents learn what the CPS has done with their children – an awful truth which the CPS invariably denies or explains away.

If the children are not in immediate danger of neglect or abuse at the time of the CPS’s investigation of the allegations, and are living with a parent, relative, or friend, they may be allowed to remain there pending the court proceedings. However, past abuse or neglect may be indicative of a risk of future abuse or neglect. If there is a history, such as were the child tells the ER-CSW of repeated instances past abuse or neglect, even though he might appear unharmed and safe at the time of the initial investigation by the CPS, the child will be detained and a dependency case initiated.

Referrals if Children to the CPS

“Referrals” are tips or complaints made by telephone or otherwise by normal citizens, neighbors, friends, relatives of a child, and so on, or by “mandated reporters.”

Mandated Reporters under the law include School Teachers, Therapists, police officers, social workers, medical personnel and other predictable sorts of professionals. Mandated reporters are required by law to report any sorts of child abuse or neglect.

When the children are placed in protective custody and taken from the home, there must be an investigation to decide whether the children can be safely returned to the home from which they were taken. The first investigation is made by the social worker in the Intake Unit of the Department of Social Services. If the social worker decides during her initial investigation that the children are not significantly at risk for abuse or neglect, the children should be allowed to remain with their parents or guardians.

There may or may not be court action taken, depending upon the level of risk which the social worker discerns during the initial investigation. She might recommend that a petition be filed to declare the child a dependent despite there being not enough risk to detain him, but the usual course is for the social worker in such a case to either take no action, in which she will close the case or follow up and then close it, or ask the parents or guardians to enter a “Voluntary Family Maintenance Agreement “(VFM).

VFM is a contract between the parents or caretaker and the CPS agency whereby the CPS agrees not to detain the child or file a petition in the juvenile court in exchange for the parents or guardians agreeing to attend parenting education and perhaps various other sorts of counseling programs. If the parent(s) abide by the Agreement for six months, or once they complete the programs required by the CPS agency, no further action will be taken. If there is another report of neglect or abuse of the children, or the parent(s) fail to abide by the Agreement, the children can be removed from the home again, and a Petition may be filed with the Juvenile Court.

Should a Parent Decline a VFM?

Sometimes the parents or guardians would be better off if they took their chances by declining a VFM and requiring the CPS to prove their case in the juvenile court. The reason is, in cases where the CPS is amenable to offering a VFM, excluding cases where the parents have been placing their children at risk by using drugs, the great likelihood is that they would not be able to meet their burden of proof for either removing the child (clear and convincing evidence at the Dispositional stage) or even sustaining a petition alleging that the parents or guardians have abused or neglected them (preponderance of the evidence).

If it happens to you, it should be obvious to you if you will only remain calm and objective and not allow yourself to be bullied into signing a VFM so that the government can supervise the manner in which you parent your children when you know you should not have to, that you have neither abused nor neglected your kids.

The great temptation here is to digress into an expose of various parents’ absurd experiences trying to get their kids back from the clutches of CPS agencies, which sometimes operate like steamrollers over families when juvenile courts put complete faith in them and doubt the parents’ and children’s reports of CPS’ bad conduct.

If the ER-CSW decides that the children she is investigating must be removed immediately from their home because they are at risk serious harm due to severe abuse or neglect, then those children will placed in “shelter care” (foster homes, group homes, a relative’s home) and they will remain out of their parents’ or guardians’ home pending the initial court hearing.

Within 72 hours of detaining the children, the CPS is required to file a “Petition” (statement of allegations, akin to a criminal complaint, which if found to be true, would provide the Juvenile Court a lawful basis under WIC section 300, to assert jurisdiction over the children) in the Juvenile Court, and the court is required to conduct an “Arraignment/Detention Hearing” in order to arraign the parents or guardians on the petition (allow them to enter an admission [almost never] or a denial) to the allegations after having the allegations read to them by the court (or waive having them read).

The Arraignment/Detention Hearing is the First Hearing

The Players

  • Generally, the CPS agency is represented by a county’s Office of the County Counsel. However, the District Attorney may likewise do the job. Not every county has a County Counsel, but all have DA’s. These are the prosecutors who try to convince the court that it is necessary to take jurisdiction over a child and his family by declaring the child a juvenile dependent of the court.
  • If there is more than one child, it is possible that each one will have a separate attorney appointed to represent them, depending upon whether there is or appears possibly to be or that there might develop a conflict of interest between the kids.
  • Each parent or guardian who does not hire her own attorney and bring that attorney in to court will be appointed an attorney to represent her.
  • Appointed attorneys for the kids and the parents generally are on court panels and tend not only to work before the same bench officer (judge, commissioner or referee) every day. Still, they try to remain objective and to do a good job. Try and do, however, are two different things. It is hard not to try to please the judge who feeds you and these attorneys are almost always way overburdened with little time to spend on any one case.

The initial hearing occurs within 72 hours when a child is detained from his parents. If not, the hearing has no particular time when it must occur. In either event, the CPS agency is required to provide the parents or guardians proper notice of the hearing, which means in a manner and within a time period, which will provide them a meaningful opportunity to appear and to be heard. When a parent shows up at court, he or she will generally first check in with the court’s Bailiff, a Deputy Sheriff assigned to that courtroom. The Bailiff usually unlocks the courtroom at 8:30 a.m. and takes roll to determine which people have shown up and for which cases.

After Checking in, the parents, friends and families of the children wait outside of the courtroom until their case is called. If the child has not been detained, or if he has been detained with a relative who has brought him to court, then he waits outside of the courtroom too.

Parties and others may not enter the courtroom to hear cases of children in whom they have no interest because the proceedings are “confidential,” supposedly to protect the privacy of the children. However, the reality it the confidentiality laws work only to protect the social workers, foster caretakers and others responsible for providing care to detained dependent children from pubic scrutiny of the manner in which they handle and provide care for the children. The confidentiality laws are the one aspect of the juvenile dependency system, which, if eliminated entirely, or modified so that they only protected exposure of children’s names to the public, would bring accountability to the troubled system and truly improve the conditions in which the state raises children for whom it has substituted itself as parent.

How Long Will it Take to Reach Court?

Juvenile dependency courts have 40 to 45 cases on calendar each day, so it can make for a long day of waiting before one’s case is called for a hearing. Before a parent’s or guardian’s child’s case is initially called, an attorney appointed by the court to represent the parent or guardian, or to be appointed during the hearing, will come out to speak with the parent or guardian, hopefully to learn what happened from the parent’s perspective and to map out a strategy for handling the case and getting the kids home.

What Happens During the Arraignment/Detention Hearing?

During the Arraignment/Detention hearing, the parents, each of whom has a separate attorney appointed to represent them unless the parents have privately retained an attorney to represent one or both of them will generally waive reading of the petition and enter a denial of the allegations against them. Thereafter, their attorney might argue for the release of the parent’s child.

Sometimes courts agree that there is not prima facie evidence to support the detention where it is clear that the child is highly unlikely to suffer harm if released to the parent pending further hearings. The social workers will be permitted to make unannounced inspections of the parent’s home and child if a release is granted. On very rare occasions, the juvenile court might even dismiss a CPS petition at this early stage, though case law (decisions by Courts of Appeal or the Supreme Court) states that a court has to allow CPS its day in court and may not dismiss at the A/D hearing (even though that can be the CPS’s day in court too when the petition is based upon nothing evidentiary, which does happen occasionally.

What Happens After the Original Hearing?

In the normal case, the court orders the detention to continue pending the next hearing. The next hearing could be a “No Time Waiver Trial.” An NTW is one, which occurs within 15 calendar days if the child is detained and 30 days if he has been released to his parent. The next hearing usually is set by the parents’ attorneys for a “Pre-Trial Resolution Conference (PRC). That hearing may include a “mediation” by a neutral third person wherein the neutral attempts to get the parties to settle without resort to trial, or not.

If the PRC does not include mediation, then it is an informal negotiation of the CPS’s petition allegations and the possible disposition orders if the petition is not going to be dismissed, which it rarely is.

The Jurisdictional Hearing

The PRC comes at the second or third hearing, which is the Jurisdictional Hearing. It is the third hearing if there has been a “Detention Rehearing,” which is held within three court days of the original detention hearing at the request of a parent or guardian for purposes of cross-examining the social worker who detained the child about her reasons and the need for the detention.

It can also be the third hearing, maybe the fourth, if the court conducts what is called a “Pre-Release Investigation (PRI) Hearing.” That is a hearing for purposes of the CPS reporting to the court its efforts to place a child with a particular relative of the child as requested by the parents. Some courts call the CPS’s responsibilities to attempt to place detained kids with their relatives, “361.3 and 4” obligations and a hearing to consider their efforts a “361.3 and 4 hearing.”

What is the Purpose of the Jurisdiction Hearing?

The Jurisdiction Hearing is for purposes of having the court determine whether the CPS’s petition allegations of abuse or neglect concerning a child are supported by a preponderance of the evidence, and if so, whether the allegations are of a nature, which are legally sufficient to support state intervention on behalf of the child. The Jurisdiction Hearing provides the basis for state intervention into a family. The disposition hearing addresses where the child will live and identifies the services to be offered to the child and the parent(s).

Are Jurisdictions Hearings Ever Contested?

Jurisdiction Hearings may be uncontested negotiated settlements, or they may be contested court trials (no juries).

The Disposition Hearing “Dispo”

The Disposition Hearing is usually conducted on the same court day and immediately following the Jurisdiction Hearing, especially where the petition was settled by negotiation. If it is contested, it is usually on the heels or even concurrent with the Jurisdiction Hearing. However, a court might separate the two hearings and continue the Dispo where only that hearing is contested, or to receive results of an Evidence Code section 730 Psychological or Custody Evaluation, or to allow the parents a chance to enroll in programs as a predicate to returning the child at dispo, for instance.

Whatever the case, without any question, the Disposition Hearing is the most critical hearing of all or the multiple types of hearings that occur during dependency proceedings. During dispo, the court decides whether to assert jurisdiction and thus to make a child a dependent, whether and what sort of reunification and visitation orders to make, and so on.

Disposition is the first hearing from which an appeal may be taken in order to challenge any of the findings and orders made to that point. In certain circumstances, as delineated in WIC section 361.5, the court might bypass reunification efforts at disposition and set a hearing to determine a permanent plan for a child, including possibly terminating his parents’ rights so that he can be adopted.

Why Hire an Experienced Attorney?

Much can happen at disposition. This is the hearing where inexperienced attorneys do their most harm to parents, guardians, relatives of children and to the children themselves. Parent-Child relationships and lives are often destroyed at disposition by rookies who do not do what they should or must. But, parents and others may not even know until it is too late to do anything about it.

In this area, juvenile dependency, it is more critical than in any other that people have experienced, knowledgeable attorneys. In no other area are the consequences of mistakes so undetectable for those who do not know how to discern that they occurred, and in no other area of law are the consequences of mistakes potentially so grave. A parent may end up getting his parental rights terminated because his attorney failed early on, at the dispo phase, to make the right argument, ask for the right thing, appeal a bad decision, and so forth.

The Reunification/Service Plan

Reunification Services are known to attorneys in the business as “FR.”

The Reunification/Service Plan or Case Plan tells the parent(s) what s/he needs to do to resolve the problems that brought the children’s case before the Juvenile Court. This plan may include parenting classes, various types of counseling and possibly drug/alcohol, testing, visitation requirements, and so on. The CPS suggests the case plan, but the court’s dispo orders are the Reunification Case Plan.

Review Hearings

Six month review hearings are conducted under WIC sections 366.21 (know and the “two-one-f”) and 366.22 (known as the “two-two”). The Court is required to review the status of each dependent child regularly, at least every six months. It may set as many interim progress hearings as it desires.

Prior to each review, the assigned services social worker will prepare a report and submit it to the court. This report describes the services offered/provided to the parents 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.

The CPS is required to make “reasonable efforts” to reunify parents and children, and the court is required to find at these review hearings that the CPS did so. If not, the court may extend services beyond the statutory limits of 12 months maximum for kids under age three at the time of detention, and 18 months for kids over three when they were detained.

If the child is with the parents, the six month review is conducted pursuant to WIC section 364, and the CPS will then report on the continuing necessity of supervision. If the child is out of the home, it reports on whether the child can be returned to the parents or on the development of an alternative permanent plan if the child cannot be returned. If the report indicates that the family problems are resolved, the Court may terminate dependency at this time.

If the problems remain, which require the help of the Department of Health and Human Services, dependency will continue. Six month reviews occur as long as the child remains a dependent, but after a maximum of three, the six month reviews become known as Reviews of Permanent Plans (or “RPP”) Hearings and the court conducts them under 366.3.

Does the Age of the Child Make a Difference in Review Hearings?

If at the 366.21(e) (“two-one-e”) hearing, the first six month review, a child under three when he was detained cannot, by a preponderance of the evidence, be returned to his parent, the court will terminate FR and set a hearing under WIC section 366.26 in order to establish a permanent plan other than return to the parent for the child. For kids over three at the time of removal, the parents get 12 months before the court can terminate FR. The courts can for a maximum f 12 months for kids under three, and 18 months for kids over three when they were detained initially.

Can a Parent Challenge the Court’s Decision after a Review Hearing?

If a parent wishes to challenge a court’s decision to terminate FR ad set a 366.26 (“two-six”) hearing, he must do so by a petition for alternative writ. A parent has seven days to file a Notice of Intent to file a Writ Petition, and not long after the record (clerk and reporter’s transcripts) to submit a written brief, petition for writ.

What Happens to the Child if Parental Rights are Terminated?

At the WIC section 366.26 hearing, the court will select termination of parental rights and adoption for a child if it is able, because that is the preferred permanent plan for a child under the law. If not, then legal guardianship is the second choice because it also is a fairly permanent plan. Least favored of the three possibilities is long term foster care, which provides the child no certainty of placement at all.

Contact an Experienced Juvenile Dependency Attorney

These are the nutshell basics of Juvenile Dependency. With these rules and facts, you can understand most of what is going on in and out of court and you will have a better chance of successfully reunifying with your child, and much sooner. For more information, or to speak with an experienced lawyer about your case, please contact Link to Contact Us the Law Offices of Vincent W. Davis & Associates today.

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