If a child is dependent, the juvenile court has authority to decide issues related to parental rights, physical placement, foster care, family reunification, family treatment and more.
August 26, 2012 /24-7PressRelease/ -- California has about 80,000 foster children, the largest foster care population in the United States. It follows that the California juvenile dependency system, through which kids can be removed from their parental homes because of suspected abuse or neglect and placed -- temporarily or permanently -- in alternative home settings, is a huge and powerful bureaucracy involving social welfare agencies and the courts.
If you are a California parent facing the possible loss of your children, a lawyer with experience in this system can help you to navigate its complexity, protect your parental rights and fight for custody of your children. A knowledgeable juvenile law attorney can also advise and assist other people concerned about children in the dependency system -- grandparents, other relatives, stepparents, foster parents, potential adoptive parents, tribal members and others.
A System Under Fire
The California child welfare system has been in crisis. The most important questions -- whether a child can live with his or her parents and how to be sure a neglected or abused child stays safe -- were being decided by overburdened judges without the time or resources necessary for adequate decision making. With skyrocketing caseloads, social workers struggled to fulfill their responsibilities for family intervention and rehabilitation, investigation and, if necessary, alternative placement of children outside their families. Despite the critical role of the social worker in California, its ratio of child to social worker is one of the nation's highest.
Against this backdrop and in light of several important child dependency court studies involving the Pew Commission on Children in Foster Care, the American Bar Association (ABA), the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges and the National Center for State Courts, several significant events occurred, including:
- In 2002, the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) evaluated each state's child welfare system. Although in compliance with some federal standards, California had some troubling deficits, especially in programs touching foster care and child mistreatment. In response, the state instituted a Program Improvement Plan (PIP) to reach conformity with federal standards.
- In early 2008, Karen de Sa of the San Jose Mercury News raised public awareness by releasing an ABA-award-winning documentary series entitled "Broken Families, Broken Courts" about a myriad of problems in the California juvenile dependency system, including inadequate legal counsel for family members and children.
- In August 2008, the Judicial Council, the administrative arm of the California courts, approved recommendations of the California Blue Ribbon Commission on Children in Foster Care (BRC) for improvement in the dependency system. The BRC made 79 suggestions in four major areas: agency collaboration, funding, court reform and family and child services.
- The BRC's work culminated in California Rule of Court 5.505, which became effective in mid-2008 and established performance measures for juvenile dependency courts in the areas of "child safety, child permanency, child and family well-being, hearing timeliness and due process."
- A new law that tightens requirements for notice of and presence at dependency hearings by the very children whose fates are being decided there took effect in 2009.
What Is a Dependent Child?
If a child is dependent, the juvenile court has jurisdiction to make decisions about parental rights, physical placement, foster care, family reunification, family treatment and services, adoption and other issues. California law defining a dependent child is extremely detailed, but important factors are:
- Nonaccidental serious physical harm inflicted by a parent or guardian, with some exception made for traditional spanking
- Serious physical harm or illness, or risk of same, from parent or guardian, failure to supervise or protect, failure to leave a child with a safe custodian or failure to provide adequate basic care, with some exception made for spiritual treatment
- Serious emotional damage, or risk of same, caused by parent or guardian conduct, with some exception for lack of mental health treatment for religious reasons
- Sexual abuse or cruelty, or risk of same, by parent, guardian or household member, or failure of parent or guardian to reasonably protect child from sexual abuse or cruelty
- Parent or guardian criminal conviction for causing death of another child by abuse or neglect
- Abuse or neglect, or risk of same, of sibling
- Absence of parent or other adult custodian, or no means of support
- Termination of parental rights
The law requires the court to follow detailed procedures designed to protect the legal rights of parents and other interested parties, as well as the safety and legal rights of the children.
The process usually begins with a report to the authorities of suspected child abuse or neglect. A county social worker investigates and may have the child removed from the home for his or her safety. Within 48 hours of removal, the social worker files a petition to have the child declared a court dependent. By the next court day, an initial hearing (also called a detention hearing) is held wherein the juvenile court decides whether the child stays in temporary custody of the county pending the outcome of the legal case against the parents.
Within a short time, a series of more hearings and reviews is triggered with very specific notice and timing requirements. At these hearings the court decides crucial issues such as whether the abuse allegations are true; whether the child should be a dependent of the court; whether the family should receive informal services; whether the child should live at home or with relatives or foster parents; whether a reunification plan should be ordered; and whether parents should have visitation rights or be restrained from contact with their children. Following placement of the child outside the home, the court must hold a six-month review hearing and a permanency hearing within 12 months. At these hearings and later ones, the court decides important issues such as reunification, termination of parental rights, visitation with continued parental rights, adoption, legal guardianship and more.
Legal Advice Crucial
This system is complicated and a dangerous field to navigate. Parents and other adults facing the California child dependency court system should not go it alone. Consulting with a family attorney thoroughly knowledgeable about California child dependency law, as impacted by federal law, can make all the difference in the outcome of your proceeding -- even whether you and your kids can ultimately stay together.
Article provided by The Law Offices of Vincent W. Davis & Associates
Visit us at www.vincentwdavis.com
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