OVERVIEW OF THE JUVENILE COURT PROCESS
Juvenile dependency court can have a significant impact on the lives and futures of children and families. In most cases, a dependency case comes to court shortly after a child has been removed from their home by the police or a social worker. The police or social worker may remove a child from their home if they have a reason to believe the child is not safe, or if there is a credible threat against the safety and well-being of the child.
The court’s authority for dependency cases is found within the California Welfare and Institutions Code.
DEPENDENCY COURT SYSTEM
The circumstances of a dependency case will determine when and which type of dependency hearing will take place. The juvenile dependency court is responsible for ensuring the safety and well-being of children that have been, or are at a significant risk of becoming, abused or neglected. The court’s role is to ensure that the rights of children and their family are protected and exercised in accordance with the law. The court also ensures that the government has performed its duties as appropriate under the law and appoints an attorney to represent each parent/guardian and child.
During these hearings the court will consider several issues related to each case. The court may consider information regarding the severity of allegations, the age of the children, police and social worker reports, medical and psychiatric reports, family history, kinship (relatives), and oral arguments from attorneys. Attorneys are appointed by the court for each child and parent/guardian for each case. Testimony may be heard from people such as social worker(s), police officers, parents, family members, doctors, teachers, witnesses, and in some cases by the child(ren).
The following chart illustrates the process and related time-frames of dependency hearings:
INITIAL HEARING / DETENTION HEARING
Dependency court hearings are initiated when the Social Services Agency files a petition with the court. The petition identifies the child(ren) and parent(s) involved with the case, and describes the allegations of abuse or neglect against the child(ren). The court clerk files the petition and assigns the case to a courtroom for an initial hearing. The initial hearing is also called a “detention hearing” if a child has been taken from their home and placed into protective custody.
The following actions occur at the detention hearing:
- The court gives the parents a notice about what is happening (the “proceedings”).
- The parents get a copy of the petition and any other documents for the case.
- The court tells the parents what can happen in a dependency case.
- The lawyers for all sides (called “parties”) introduce themselves to the court.
- The court writes down the names of the child(ren)’s relatives, if possible.
- If possible, the court confirms who the parents of the child(ren) are; also called “parentage.”
- The court decides if the child(ren) should stay with a parent(s) or live somewhere else until further proceedings take place.
If the court places a child away from a parent, the court may make visitation orders so the parent(s) can see the child(ren). The court will also tell the parent(s) where they can get help so the child(ren) can be returned into their custody.
The court also decides if the Social Service’s Agency made a “reasonable effort” to keep the child(ren) with the parents.
At the jurisdictional hearing the court decides if what the petition alleges is true. The court has three ways to do this:
- The parent(s)/guardian(s) admit the petition is true (called “admission”).
- The parent(s)/guardian(s) do not disagree with the petition (called “submission”).
- The parent(s)/guardian(s) dispute, or contest the petition. Both sides give the court evidence at a hearing. Then, the court finds the petition to be true or not.
Before the judge accepts an admission or submission, the court has to be sure the parent(s)/guardian(s) want to “waive” (give up) their right to a trial. This means the parent(s)/guardian(s) are giving up the right to see, hear and question witnesses, and to bring in their own witnesses, testify, or choose to remain silent.
If the court decides the petition is true, it will say what should happen with the child(ren). The judge can:
- Dismiss the case.
- Let the child(ren) live with a parent(s)/guardian(s) on a “family maintenance” program. This means that a social worker and the court supervise the child(ren) while under the care of a parent(s)/guardian(s).
- Take the child(ren) away from the parent(s)/guardian(s) and send the child(ren) to live with a relative, foster parent(s) or group home and offer the parent(s)/guardian(s) family reunification services.
- Take the child(ren) away from the parents/guardian(s) and not offer family reunification services to get their child(ren) back. If this occurs, there will be a hearing within 120 days to decide where the child(ren) will live permanently (“permanent plan”).
The court may not let the parent(s)/guardian(s) try family reunification services if:
- The brother or sister of a child has been seriously abused or killed.
- The parent(s)/guardian(s) had another child taken away by the court.
- The parent(s)/guardian(s) tried family reunification services in the past and they were canceled.
- The parent(s)/guardian(s) have serious drug or psychiatric problems that are not being treated.
- There are other reasons the court may not order family reunification services and order an alternate permanency plan for the child(ren).
If at this disposition hearing the court orders the child to remain or be placed in custody, concurrent planning commences. The purpose of concurrent planning is to honor the child’s attachment needs and to expedite a permanent home for the child should reunification fail. For more information, see the Concurrent Planning page on this website.
6-MONTH REVIEW HEARING
This hearing lets the court see:
- how the child(ren) is doing, and
- how the parent(s)/guardian(s) is doing with the services the court ordered.
If the child(ren) lives with a parent or guardian, the court can:
- dismiss the case, or
- keep supervising the child(ren) with family maintenance.
If the child(ren) does not live at home, the court can
- give the child(ren) back to a parent(s)/guardian(s). The family will stay with family maintenance, or
- keep the child(ren) out of the house and order family reunification services.
However, if the child(ren) was under three years old when the court took them away from the parent(s)/guardian(s), the court can stop family reunification services. This happens if the parent(s)/guardian(s) do not participate or exhibit appropriate progress in treatment programs.
12-MONTH PERMANENCY HEARING
At this hearing the court decides if the child(ren) will return to the custody of their parent(s)/guardian(s). If not, the court will cancel the services so the child(ren) can receive a permanent plan. The court must set a .26 hearing, which is a hearing to decide a permanency plan for the child(ren). For more information, see the .26 Hearing section on this page.
The court can let the family reunification services continue for another six months if there is a good chance that the child(ren) will return to the custody of their parent(s)/guardian(s).
18-MONTH PERMANENCY HEARING
At this hearing, the court decides if the child(ren) will go back to the parent(s)/guardian(s). If not, the judge will cancel family reunification services. The court will have a hearing to decide a permanent plan for the child(ren).
FAMILY MAINTENANCE REVIEW
The court may have this hearing to:
- check up on the child(ren),
- to see how the social worker is working with the family, or
- to see how the parent(s) are doing with their case plan.
SELECTION & IMPLEMENTATION HEARING, also known as a .26 HEARING or PERMANENCY PLANNING HEARING
At this hearing, the court makes a permanent plan for the child(ren). The plan(s) can:
- end parental rights so the child(ren) can be adopted,
- name a legal guardian for the child(ren), or
- place the child(ren) with a relative, foster parent, or in a group home for an extended period of time.
At the .26 hearing, if the agency is recommending that parental rights be terminated so that the child can be adopted, the parents may object to the grounds for termination and request a contested hearing, which allows them to present witnesses and evidence. A contested hearing will delay the final decision on whether the child can be adopted and is usually set several weeks or several months out, depending on the court’s calendar. If the birth parents do not prevail at the contested .26 hearing and their parental rights are terminated, they have 60 days within which to file an appeal of the termination order. If the parents do file an appeal, the adoption will be delayed pending a decision from the Court of Appeal, a process than can take many months.
Appeals from the termination of parental rights are “fast-tracked” which means that they move faster through the appellate system than other kinds of appeals but they can still feel like they take a long time if you are the prospective adoptive parent waiting for finalization. Generally, the briefing is completed in about four to five months but can take longer if the record prepared by the trial court clerk is not complete. If the record is not complete, one of the appellate attorneys will file a motion to augment the record and that process can take one or two months. The briefing time does not start until the record is complete. Once the briefing is complete, the court will generally set the case for oral argument to be heard within two or three months after that. Once the court has heard oral argument, or the appellate attorneys waive oral argument, the case is considered submitted and the court has 90 days after the submission date to decide the case. They often do not take that long. If the court rules against the birth parents(s), then they have the option of filing a petition for review with the Supreme Court within 40 days of the date of the court of appeal’s decision. If they choose to do that, the process can take up to an additional four or five months before the Supreme Court decides whether to grant or deny the petition for review. If the court grants the petition for review, resolution could take several more years. Historically, the Supreme Court only grants review in about two dependency cases a year, so that odds of that happening are really low.
There is a way that you can keep track of what is happening in the appeal online. You can go to http://appellatecases.courtinfo.ca.gov/ where you can search by County. Once you have hit the “search” button, there, type your juvenile court case number in the first box. This number should be on notices of juvenile court hearings you should have received from the county. After you type in the number, hit search. This will take you to an information page concerning the appeal in your case. If you click on “Docket,” that will give you a chronological listing of the various events that had taken place in the appeal. At the bottom of the page, you can click a box to sign up for automatic same day email notifications of significant events in the case like the filing of the various briefs and the issuance of the court’s decision. If you also bookmark the docket page, you can easily get back to it to check periodically for things that may have happened for which there is no email notification.
POST-PERMANENCY PLANNING HEARING
This hearing determines if progress is being made to find a permanent home for the child(ren) and if the case can be dismissed. This type of hearing can occur every six months until the case is dismissed.
Source: Superior Court of California – Orange County, Modified by Advokids. This information is applicable to all counties in California.
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