Understanding California Dependency Laws

Serving Clients Throughout Sonoma, Mendocino, Lake, and Napa Counties

For children, the home should be the one place on earth where they are provided with unconditional love, support, and protection no matter how confusing and unkind the outside world may be. Of course, the enormous responsibility to provide a child with such safe and nurturing conditions lies primarily with the parents. Sadly, a parent’s own personal struggles can sometimes make it extremely hard for them to extend such loving care in a consistent and systematic manner. When a child seems to be suffering from abuse and neglect that substantially endangers their physical and emotional well-being, responsible authorities appointed by the government and working within the framework of the law can make the decision to remove the child from their home.

When a child is separated from their biological parents as a result of suspected neglect or abuse, the parents will face a juvenile dependency case. This court-supervised process, involving multiple court hearings, will ultimately determine the fate of the child – whether he or she can be eventually returned to the parents and if so, under what conditions. In this article, we will shortly explain the process most juvenile dependency cases follow.

Removal of a Child

Appropriate authorities like social services or the police can make a decision to investigate the child’s living conditions. Such investigations follow a report made by a third party, alleging that parents abuse or neglect their child, that parents allow someone else to abuse or neglect their child, or that the child is in immediate danger of experiencing such abuse or neglect.

The investigation is conducted by a social worker and it includes interviews with the parents, the child, other family members, and the family’s acquaintances. It is important to remember that the social worker is legally allowed to talk to the child at school without the parents being present. Additionally, the social worker will visit the place where the parents and the child live to check the living conditions.

After a thorough investigation, the social worker will make a decision about how the case will proceed. He or she may decide not to take any action or offer voluntary services to parents (with the intent to help them take better care of the child). The social worker may also decide that the child does indeed need protection and file a petition with the court to open a juvenile dependency case. Additionally, the social worker may also make a decision to remove the child from their current home if they decide the child is in immediate danger in their parent’s care.

Juvenile Dependency Court

When a social worker files a petition with the court, a juvenile dependency case is opened and a series of court hearings follow. The initial hearing is often called a detention hearing. The purpose of this hearing is for the judge to determine whether the child should stay with his or her parents or be temporarily removed. The role of the judge is to decide whether the child is, indeed, at risk of suffering immediate harm or has been harmed already.

The parents of the child have the right to be present at the detention hearing with their court-appointed lawyer. At the hearing, the judge will try to establish if there are any immediate relatives that could take care of the child should the removal decision be upheld. The decision that the judge ultimately makes will be temporary. It can be upheld, however, by the judge at the jurisdiction hearing.

The decisions taken by the judge at the jurisdiction hearing, also called the adjudication hearing, will be permanent for a specific period of time. First, the judge has to decide whether the allegations made by the social worker in their report are true. The parents have the right to admit to the allegations, present a counter-report, plead no contest to the allegations (this means that they neither admit nor deny the allegations), or contest the allegations.

If the parents decide to contest the allegations, a contested jurisdictional hearing follows. There, both the parents’ attorney and the attorney for the child will be able to have witnesses testify under oath and cross-examine the other party’s witnesses. The parents can testify as well. Depending on the maturity of the child, the judge may decide to ask the child some questions directly.

At the end of the jurisdiction hearing, the judge may decide to dismiss the case if there isn’t enough evidence. Alternatively, the judge can order that the child be removed from the home, which creates a disposition hearing to decide where the child will live. The judge will also decide how the child’s medical and educational needs will be met.

Review Hearings

The parents will be presented with a case plan for reunification. This plan lists all the issues that led to the removal and subjects the parents to reunification services that may include drug therapy and counseling. In most cases, parents are given 12 months to show the court that they can provide the child with a safe and nurturing home. After six months, the parents and the social worker will meet in the court again for a review hearing to analyze the parents’ progress and make further recommendations.

At the end of the 12-month period, the court can decide that the child can be safely returned under their parents’ care or, alternatively, decide on a permanent plan that may include termination of parental rights, establishing legal guardianship, or placing the child in permanent foster care.

Facing a Child Dependency Case? Contact Carroll Law Office

Being faced with the removal of your child can be devastating for every parent. If you have experienced this difficult situation, the decision a social worker made may seem to you unjustified and unfair. And even if you recognize that you haven’t done everything well in the past, you surely deserve a chance to right the wrongs and be reunited with your child.

If you are currently facing a child dependency case, we would like to offer our help. The attorneys at Carroll Law Office can provide, not only comprehensive legal support but also a compassionate ear and reliable advice. Please contact us today to schedule a consultation on your child dependency case.

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