Much of my clinical experience has been with children who are dependents of the court; in other words, children who have been removed from the home for one reason or another. The California juvenile dependency court system can be overwhelming to caregivers caring for young relatives or first-time foster parents. This post will outline the overall process of dependency proceedings, and is a reflection of both my experience navigating this system and published material from the Judicial Council of California. In Part II, I will detail the kinds of information that you as a caregiver can offer the court that may be helpful.
- Getting to court. If someone reports suspected child abuse or neglect, the Department of Social Services will respond by conducting an investigation. If the social worker conducting the investigation concludes that the child in question is in need of protection by the courts, then they will file a petition, called a section 300 petition, to declare the child a dependent of the court. This is also referred to as detaining the child.
- Initial Hearing. The initial hearing, sometimes referred to as the detention hearing, is where a Judge decides whether the child’s safety warrants that child being removed from the home until a formal hearing can occur on the abuse or neglect charges. This hearing occurs very quickly after the filing of the section 300 petition, usually on the same-day or by the end of the following day. Because it occurs so quickly, parents and caregivers are unlikely to have information to submit at the initial hearing.
- Jurisdiction hearing. A child’s parents, or whomever has been accused of abuse and/or neglect, have a right to be tried on the allegations against them. This occurs at the jurisdiction hearing. If the court decides that the allegations are true, then the court will uphold the petition. The jurisdiction hearing must occur within 15 days of the initial hearing. If the court finds the allegations of abuse or neglect to be true, one of three things can happen:
- the court can dismiss the case, if they believe this is in the best interest of the child.
- the court can order informal services for the child and family.
- the court can decide to make the child a dependent of the court.
- Disposition hearing. If the court has decided to make the child a dependent of the court, then the child’s case will proceed to a disposition hearing. The Jurisdiction and Disposition hearings are often held on the same day convenience. The kinds of decisions made at a disposition hearing include:
- whether the parent can provide safe and appropriate care for the child.
- what services the child and family need in order to reunify.
- Six-Month Review hearing. Anytime a child is placed in foster-care or in the care of a relative, the child’s case must be reviewed by the court every six-months. At the six-month review hearing, information about the parents’ progress toward reunification is given, as well as information about the child’s overall wellbeing while in the “care” of the court. Caregivers and foster-parents must be given at least 15 days notice prior to the hearing, and have the opportunity to provide valuable insight into the child’s physical, emotional, academic and social development. This information can be submitted in writing, or in-person if the caregiver/foster-parent chooses to attend the hearing. In Part II, I will detail the kinds of information that may be helpful to the court.
- Permanency hearing. Within 12 months of the jurisdiction hearing, a permanency hearing must be held. At this hearing, the court will decide if a child can be returned to his or her birth family, or if they must remain in the care of others. If the Judge decides that a child cannot be returned to his or her birth family, a decision will be made to either continue reunification efforts or terminate reunification efforts. Most importantly, however, the Judge will also decide on another permanent placement. This can be:
- legal guardianship
- some other planned, permanent arrangement
I hope this information is helpful for those trying to understand the juvenile dependency system. For additional information, you can visit the California Department of Social Services web-page for foster-care, or call the Center for Families, Children & The Courts at 1-415-865-7739.