Juvenile Dependency Proceedings

Juvenile or child dependency proceedings determine whether a child’s parent or guardian is abusive or neglectful. In dependency proceedings, 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.

Juvenile courts also handle delinquency cases, in which a child under the age of 18 is accused of committing a crime or a status offense (a violation that is illegal onlybecause of the child’s age, such as truancy). Different rules apply in dependency cases and delinquency cases, although unfortunately, many children in dependency cases later end up in delinquency cases.

For more information on delinquency cases, see Juvenile Crimes.

What Constitutes Abuse or Neglect?

While each state has its own laws governing what sort of behavior can result in dependency proceedings, generally, they 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 father who beats a child, causing injury and hospitalization
  • a mother who fails to call police and allows her boyfriend to spend time alone with children after they tell her that he 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.

Reporting Child Abuse

Many people who work with children, such as teachers and doctors, are required to report any suspected child abuse. If you suspect that a child is being abused, contact the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-422-4453.

Court 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.


While CPS social workers and police can remove children on an emergency basis, children can be kept out of the home onlyif 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 at periodic intervals 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

These 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

People 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 onlyif it is done in moderation and does not cause injury to the child; and parents may keep their children out of school onlyif their children are home schooled.

For more information on corporal punishment, see Criminal Consequences of Spanking Your Children.


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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