How does the dependency court process work?
There are several stages of a dependency case. Before a case gets to court, there is an investigation by an emergency response social worker into whether allegations of abuse, neglect, or abandonment are legitimate. In some cases, social workers work informally with families to fix issues without having to go to court. When the social worker and county counsel determine that court intervention is necessary, they file a petition and a report on the family with the court.
Detention: Once the petition has been filed, the court schedules a detention hearing. If the children have been detained, the detention hearing will take place within a few days of removal. If the children have not been detained, then the detention hearing will take place within a couple weeks of the petition being filed.
At the detention hearing, the main issue for the judge to address is whether there is enough evidence to justify detaining the children from one or both parents. Since the case is new and there has not been enough time for a full investigation to be made, the court does not need very much evidence that there is a risk of danger to the children in order to detain them. The evidence presented is presumed to be true unless contradicting evidence is produced.
Jurisdiction: By the jurisdiction hearing date, the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) will have completed a more thorough investigation of the family’s situation. County counsel might have added to or changed the allegations being presented to the judge. The social worker will have prepared a new report containing new facts and recommendations for the family. The judge reads and considers the new reports.
At the jurisdiction hearing, the judge decides if the court has jurisdiction over the case. In order for the court to have jurisdiction, the judge has to decide that there is enough evidence that it is more likely than not that the allegations are true. Once the court has jurisdiction, the judge also issues orders about where the children should reside while the case continues. Depending on the case, the judge may order that the children live with one or both parents, a family member, or be placed with a foster family or other placement. If the children are placed out of the home of the parent(s), the judge can also decide how often and how long visits with the children should be and whether visitation should have a monitor.
Disposition: Once the court has jurisdiction, its next task is to decide whether the children should be adjudged a dependent of the court. In order to adjudge children to be dependents of the court, the judge has to decide that some or all of the allegations are substantially more likely to be true than not. The judge must firmly believe that the evidence is true.
If the judge decides that the children are dependents of the court, then the judge must also decide where the children should be placed, the frequency and length of any visits with the children, what services must be provided to the parents, and whether DCFS made reasonable efforts to prevent removal of the children from their parent’s home. Finally, the judge will order you to complete a case plan which includes a list of classes or other activities for you to do to reunify your family.
Review Hearings: Review hearings are the hearings that take place after the disposition hearing. Before the hearing date, the social worker prepares new reports on the family and the parent’s progress in fixing the issues that brought the family to dependency court. The judge reads and considers these reports. At review hearings, the judge has to decide whether to return the children to the home of one or both parents or, if the children are already home, whether to terminate the court’s jurisdiction over the case. The number of review hearings that the court holds depends on each case.
Remember, the judge is going to pay close attention to whether you have completed the case plan he/she ordered you to do to reunify your family. If you fail to make substantial progress in completing your case plan, your children could be taken permanently out of your home and your parental rights could be terminated at a later hearing.