Juvenile and Child Dependency Proceedings

In a dependency proceeding, the state asserts a parent is unable or unfit to care for a child.

Juvenile or child dependency proceedings determine whether a child's parent or guardian is abusive or neglectful. In a dependency proceeding, the juvenile court may temporarily or permanently remove the child from the parent's home. If the child is removed temporarily, the court can order continued monitoring and services to the family (called family reunification services), with the goal of returning the child to the home. If a child is permanently removed from the home, the court may terminate the parent's rights and another family can adopt the child.

What Constitutes Child Abuse or Neglect

While each state has its own laws governing what sort of behavior can result in dependency proceedings, they generally arise as a result of physical abuse (injury), sexual abuse, neglect (failure to provide adequate food, clothing, shelter, medical care, or supervision), abandonment, or severe emotional abuse. Abuse and neglect can have many different causes, but parental drug addiction and untreated mental illness are both big risk factors.

The following are examples of abuse and neglect:

  • a parent who beats a child, causing injury and hospitalization
  • a parent who fails to call the police and allows a dating partner to spend time alone with children knowing that partner is sexually abusive
  • a guardian who does not send a child to school regularly, does not keep the house stocked with food, and regularly leaves a young child alone, and
  • parents who make methamphetamine at home and expose their children to toxic chemicals, drug sales, and drug abuse.

Many of the behaviors that can constitute abuse or neglect are also crimes.

For more information on related criminal laws, see Assault and Battery, Sex Crimes, Domestic Violence Laws and Penalties, Child Endangerment Laws, Child Desertion and Abandonment, and Child Abuse: Laws & Criminal Penalties.

Child Dependency Proceedings

Usually, dependency proceedings begin when abuse or neglect is reported to police or to a Child Protective Services (CPS) social worker. While proceedings vary from state to state, generally, if there is some evidence of abuse or neglect, the child may be removed from the home, or CPS can file a petition alleging abuse or neglect, or both.

Removal From the Home

While CPS social workers and police can remove children on an emergency basis, children can be kept out of the home only if a juvenile court judge reviews the case and decides that the home is not safe. Children who are removed from their homes may be sent to stay with relatives or placed in foster care or a group home. Generally, except in the most egregious cases, parents will be allowed to visit with their children, as long as the goal is family reunification.

Court Proceedings

Whether the child is removed or not, CPS may file a petition to have the child declared a dependent child. Once a petition is filed, the court can order family reunification services. In most cases, the families come back to court periodically so that the court can determine how the children are faring. Child dependency cases can take several years to resolve. Usually, parents and children have their own attorneys, although, in many states, the children's attorneys are volunteers.

Family Reunification Services

Family reunification services include parenting classes, substance abuse treatment and testing, mental health services, and household management classes. Parents may also be asked to look for work or attend school.

Constitutional Rights of Parents

Parents have a constitutional right to raise their children in the manner that they see fit, including discipline. However, there are limits. For example, parents may use physical discipline against their children only if it is done in moderation and does not cause injury to the child; and parents may keep their children out of school only if their children are homeschooled.

Dispositions in Dependency Cases

If a court determines that a parent is unable to properly care for a child, then the parent's right can be terminated and the child can be placed for adoption. Unfortunately, many older children are not adopted and instead spend the remainder of their childhoods in foster care or group homes. Even if the parent's rights are not terminated, the court may decide to name a different legal guardian for the child or place the child with a relative or foster parent, or in a group home.

Obtaining Legal Assistance

Parents in dependency proceedings are entitled to the assistance of an attorney, and those who cannot afford to hire an attorney will have counsel appointed for them. If you are the subject of an investigation, you may wish to consult a local attorney who can explain the legal process to you, answer your questions, and help you protect your rights.

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