Court Processes

The child welfare system is a large, complex system with many stakeholders that work together to improve the lives of children and families.

In the grand scheme of the child welfare system, a relatively small percentage of cases require court oversight and supervision. Many families receive voluntary services from a variety of professionals, and, as a result, the large majority of cases served by the agency are never seen by the courts.

Due to the fact that a large percentage of work done by system professionals is done outside of the court's purview, many professionals who work with children rarely get to directly observe the court's impact on the child welfare system. As a result, the court system can appear convoluted and confusing.

The complexities of working with people make it difficult to provide all the possible scenarios that may be involved in a court case. The following is meant to be a brief overview of the court process to aid system professionals in their understanding of Dependency Court.

Entry into the Dependency Court System

The removal of a child from a home can be on a voluntary, cooperative basis or, as often occurs, met with great resistance from the family. Although ideally a contested removal should occur after a court hearing, the circumstances usually require immediate action by the county's children and youth agency before a preliminary protective hearing can be arranged.

There are several ways in which a child may enter care. The primary means of entry include:

  1. Standard Dependency Petition
  2. Medical or Police Protective Custody/ Oral order
  3. Emergency Shelter Care Applications

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Even if they have not been removed from home, children can still be placed under the supervision of the court.

In a Standard Dependency Petition, the petition is typically filed by the agency, but may be filed by others through application. A standard dependency petition is typically done on a non-emergency basis and will proceed directly to adjudication and disposition.

In cases where medical or police protective custody is necessary, the procedure used in many counties is for the caseworker or supervisor with the agency to telephone a judge to request a verbal order. A police officer at the scene may also request confirmation over the phone as to the verbal order.

Lastly, a case may come into the system through an Emergency Shelter Care (ESC) Application, which is an emergency situation by which the agency takes protective custody of a child. The ESC application may also be orally made to the judge. Once the child is removed from the house, a shelter care hearing must be conducted by a judge or a court-appointed master within 72 hours of taking custody. The 72 hour rule only applies to the Shelter Care Hearing 42 Pa. C.S.A. 6332 (Juvenile Act); 23 Pa. C.S. 6315(d) (CPSL).

Many cases can avoid entry into the court system if an emphasis is placed on the front-loading of services. Providing services prior to reaching the point where court action is necessary is beneficial to all parties involved. This early intervention approach is commonly based on efforts of System Professionals outside of the county agency.

Adjudicatory Hearing

In the parlance of Pennsylvania dependency proceedings, the adjudication hearing is the bench trial before a judge or master for a determination as to whether the child is indeed dependent.

This adjudication hearing must be promptly held, no later than ten days after the petition is filed. Pa. R.J.C.P. 1404(A). If the child is still in the home, the matter may not be as urgent, and thus the hearing can occur within 45 days of the filing date. Pa. R.J.C.P. 1404(B).

All parties to the adjudication hearing should receive formal notification.

Notice of the adjudicatory hearing shall be provided to the agency solicitor, the child's GAL or legal counsel, parents, the child's foster parent, preadoptive parent or relative providing care for the child, the county agency, the Court Appointed Special Advocate if assigned and any other persons as directed by the court, including System Professionals where applicable. (Pa.R.J.C.P. 1361).

The burden of proof imposed by law upon the agency is to establish by "clear and convincing evidence" that a finding of dependency be established. 42 Pa. C.S. 6341(c). If the court sustains the allegations of dependency, the child is officially adjudicated dependent. In many jurisdictions, the adjudication and disposition are held jointly as a means to expedite the process.

Disposition of Dependent Children

In the timeline of court hearings, the disposition hearing occurs immediately after adjudication. The adjudication and disposition are separate processes and serve two different purposes. The majority of jurisdictions in Pennsylvania hold these hearings consecutively for the purposes of timeliness and convenience. This occurs for several reasons: many, if not all, of the parties are the same at both hearings, much of the evidence presented is similar, it aids to expedite the process and many times the outcomes overlap.

In the event a child is removed from the home, the disposition hearing must be held within 20 days of the findings of clear and convincing evidence of adjudication. (Pa.R.J.C.P. 1408 & 1510).

In the juvenile court process, disposition is the stage in which the court determines who shall have custody of the child in question, as well as what services should be provided to the child and family after determining that jurisdiction is proper. In the interest of protecting the child from further neglect or abuse — which is the circumstance which necessitated the family's appearance at dependency court — a court will make the decision whether to remove the child from the home, continue out-of-home placement and review safe alternatives to placement or return the child to the home.

In its written findings of fact and legal conclusions, a court must address both the immediate and long-term plans for the maintenance of child, including the nature of the placement and why it is necessary and appropriate under the circumstances. The court must also review the case plan as well as the concurrent plan, proposed by the agency and determine if it is allowable as is, or needs modification, and whether the plan is capable of being implemented, monitored and followed by the family. The findings and conclusions must include the services ordered and the corresponding needs to be met.

Further provided by the court, is its decision whether reasonable efforts have been made to prevent or eliminate the need for placement, and finally, if placement is warranted, what the terms are for parental visitation, and the parental responsibilities for child support. When children are placed in foster care, the court should order child support if the parents are able to help cover the costs of care, keeping in mind that child support obligations should not be unduly burdensome.

Permanency

The permanency hearing is one of the most important stages of dependency proceedings. It is the driving force of a dependency case as the proceeding often determines the outcome of the case. In fact, the term permanency reflects the ultimate goal of a dependency case; to establish a proper home on a permanent basis for a child. The purpose of the permanency hearing is to "fine tune, correct, adjust, and update the case plan." These hearings can help ensure that decisions concerning a child's future are made at regular intervals and implemented.

A typical Permanency Hearing is required to be held within six months of the date of the child's removal from his or her parents or pursuant to a transfer of temporary legal custody or other disposition, whichever is the earliest. The court shall conduct a permanency hearing every six months until the child is returned to a parent (or guardian), or removed from the jurisdiction of the court. (Pa.R.J.C.P. 1607 B).

Some circumstances require that permanency hearings be scheduled more frequently than every six months. Permanency hearings can always be scheduled more frequently than the mandated time frames.

Termination of Parental Rights

The Adoption and Safe Families Act requires state agencies to file a petition to terminate parental rights (TPR) and concurrently, identify, recruit, process and approve a qualified adoptive family on behalf of any child, regardless of age, that has been in foster care for 15 out of the most recent 22 months.

Upon hearing a TPR case, the court makes the determination to eliminate parental rights to the child including rights to visit, communicate and obtain information about the child.

The termination of parental rights does not terminate court or agency oversight of the child. If a court grants TPR, the child's case continues with six month Permanency Hearings (or more frequently as determined by the court) until a permanent placement (typically adoption) can be found for the child.

Termination of Court Supervision

The termination of court supervision is often times confused with Termination of Parental Rights, however these are two distinct actions. The termination of court supervision can occur at any point in the case. A court action must occur for the case to be terminated. Court supervision can occur for a variety of reasons including:

  • Adoption
  • Aged out at 21 or reached majority
  • Willing/Able Parent comes forward
  • Placement with relative or legal custodian
  • Family Service/ Permanency Plan completed
  • Transferred to another county
  • Entering prison or military service
  • Death
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