The purpose of dependency court is to protect children from harm and provide them with a safe and nurturing environment. In some cases, dependency court may also be used to determine custody arrangements for children.
This article will discuss the basics of dependency court and what you need to know if you're involved in such a case.
What Is Dependency Court?
Juvenile dependency court is a type of court that hears cases involving children who have been abused, neglected, or abandoned. When a parent cannot properly care for their child, the court may step in to provide temporary or permanent custody arrangements.
Every state has specific laws and procedures for dependency court; thus, in San Bernardino County, California, for example, dependency proceedings may be different than in Colorado. Still, the general idea in all states is to keep children safe and ensure they have a stable home life.
It’s important to note that dependency cases are not criminal cases, so the purpose is not to dole out punishment. Instead, the court provides parents with the tools to fix the problematic situation and retain legal guardianship, if at all possible. This can include mandatory Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings, drug treatment, or other means.
What is more, juvenile court records are private, so nobody who isn’t related to the case can view them.
Dependency court cases are not to be confused with family court cases. While family law is concerned with matters such as marriage, its dissolution, and child custody, the juvenile dependency court process focuses on child abuse, neglect, and abandonment.
Dependency Court Case Procedure
There are three leading causes for a dependency dispute: abuse, neglect, or abandonment. These cases are usually initiated by a report from a mandatory reporter, such as a teacher, doctor, police officer, or social worker. The allegations are then investigated by Child Protective Services (CPS). If Child Protective Services find evidence of abuse, neglect, or abandonment, it may file a petition with the court.
Once the petition is filed, the next step in the dependency court process is for the parents or guardians to be notified. They will be given a chance to present their case in a detention hearing. This hearing is held to determine whether there is probable cause for the charges that justifies further action, i.e., adjudication.
This also serves the purpose of deciding what kind of placement is in the child's best interest. The options for placement include:
- Staying with the child's parent or guardian
- Staying with a relative or foster family
- Staying in a group home
- Staying in residential treatment
After the detention hearing, the court will make a ruling on the case. If the parents or guardians are found unfit, they may lose custody of their children.
In some cases, however, the court may order that the children be placed in the care of their parents or guardians under certain conditions, such as attending counseling or completing drug treatment.
Dependency Law: What Are the Parent’s Rights?
Even if a parent or guardian faces legally losing their child, they still have certain rights guaranteed by law. These include:
- The right to an attorney: If they cannot afford an attorney, the court will appoint one for them.
- The right to a hearing: They have the right to a hearing within a certain number of days after the petition is filed.
- The right to present evidence: They have the right to present evidence at their hearing.
- The right to cross-examine witnesses: They have the right to question any witnesses who testify against them.
- The right to appeal: If they disagree with the court's ruling, they can appeal to the court.
Dependency Law: What Are the Child’s Rights?
Every child has the right to a safe and stable home with enough food and clothing. They also have the right to an allowance if they are placed in a group home and must be allowed to contact the individuals involved in the dependency case, such as the judge, dependency lawyer, and social worker. If a child is removed from their home due to abuse or neglect, the dependency court will work to find a safe and suitable placement for them.
In 1978, the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) was passed to ensure the safety of Native American children in dependency cases, as Native American children were being separated from their parents and placed in white foster homes at a rate much higher than their non-native counterparts.
According to research, this was happening to as many as 25% to 35% of Native American children. What is more, a staggering 85% were being placed outside of their communities, even in cases when they had relatives that were able to adopt them.
The ICWA gives Native American tribes the right to intervene in juvenile dependency cases involving their children and establishes specific standards that must be met before a child can be removed from their home.
What to Do If You’re Involved in a Dependency Court Case
If you are involved in a dependency court case, it is vital to seek legal assistance as soon as possible. A juvenile dependency attorney can help you understand the process and protect your rights as you navigate the complex legal system surrounding this issue.
Dependency court cases are emotionally difficult, as a rule, but it is important to remember that you have rights and options. With the help of an attorney, you can ensure that your voice is heard and that your child's best interests are protected.