The county Public Children Services Agency (PCSA) starts an investigation if it thinks a child may be:
- Abused. Abuse includes physical harm done on purpose (like hitting, biting or burning) that injures the child. Abuse also includes putting the child at risk of harm or involving the child in sexual activity.
- Neglected. Neglect means the parent or guardian isn't providing enough food, clothing, shelter, medical care or supervision to keep the child physically and mentally healthy, safe and well.
- Dependent. Dependent children include kids who are:
- Destitute (living without basic necessities)
- Without adequate parental care
- Living in other bad environments or with dangerous people. This can include a household member included in another child’s abuse, neglect or dependency case.
- The problems that make the child dependent may or may not be the parent’s fault. The problems may be due to the guardian’s health guardian’s health or another reason.
Investigations may include:
- Visits to your home
- Interviews of you, your children or other people in your life
- Reviews of school, medical or other records
After the PCSA finishes an investigation, it reviews the evidence and determines its next steps. The PCSA may ask the court to remove the child from the parent’s care or suggest a safety plan designed to protect the child without court action.
Your rights as a parent during an investigation
During an investigation, you have the rigth to decide if your child stays in your care until a court makes an order. If it is considered an emergency, which is uncommon, a court may make an order to remove a child very quickly. If you need legal advice about what to do during an investigation, you can talk to a lawyer at any point.
Being polite and respectful with PCSA is important. You may not agree with everything a caseworker thinks. But being respectful helps you get through the investigation smoothly.
A safety plan is an agreement between a parent and PCSA. The safety plan lists:
- Activities. The plan lists specific activities to keep the child safe. It also explains how the activities lower danger.
- People. The plan names who is responsible for each activity.
- Supervision. The plan explains how the PCSA and court will monitor the plan.
A voluntary agreement for care is an agreement between a parent and PCSA. The parent agrees to put their child in PCSA’s care for up to 30 days. The 30-day period can be extended in certain circumstances.
You have the right to refuse a safety plan or a voluntary agreement for care. If you do sign a voluntary agreement for care, you have the right to cancel your permission at any time. If you choose to cancel your permission, contact PCSA to let them know.
If you need help deciding whether or not to accept a safety plan or a voluntary agreement for care, talk to a lawyer.
If PCSA files a case against you in court and you cannot afford a lawyer, you have the right to a free lawyer. Depending on the county, your free lawyer could be either court appointed counsel or from the Public Defender’s Office.
If a complaint is filed in court
After collecting evidence, the PCSA starts the case by filing an official complaint that includes:
- An allegation of abuse, neglect or dependency
- A statement of evidence
- The names and addresses of the child’s parents, custodians and guardians
- A statement of what the PCSA or the caseworker want the court to do.
The law encourages courts to keep children in their homes if they are safe with appropriate care. Treat everyone respectfully and try to cooperate with the PCSA to fix the problems in the PCSA’s complaint. This could help you keep your children in your home.
First court hearings and emergency hearings
For non-emergency complaints, the court schedules a hearing. This is sometimes called a Day One hearing.
For emergency complaints, the court schedule a hearing right away, even outside of business hours. Some courts allow any party to request an emergency order by phone.
Emergency custody orders are uncommon. Emergency orders only happen when a sworn witness in open court says the child is:
- In immediate danger of serious physical or emotional harm, AND
- There are no other options.
The child’s health and safety are the court’s most important concerns.
At the first hearing, the court:
- Addresses the case status.
- Determines who the child’s mother and father are so the court can include the parents in the case. (If paternity is unknown, the court asks for a list of possible fathers.)
- Asks about the mother and father’s tribal affiliations. The court has to ask these questions to follow the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA.)
- Appoints the child’s guardian ad litem.
- Explains the guardian ad litem’s role.
- Appoints the parent’s attorney, if requested.
- Decides whether to place the child or continue placement.
- Considers what services the child and parents have or need.
- Chooses the least restrictive placement for the child. This could include placement with available relatives or an adult the parents request, if possible. Parents may ask the PCSA to consider any specific adult guardian (not just relatives).
- Reviews whether the PCSA made every reasonable effort possible to avoid placement. The PCSA must do everything they can to avoid placement outside of the home. Reasonable efforts include solutions like:
- Removing abusers from the home
- Sending family members to drug rehab
- Having someone else (like a grandparent) to move into the household for support
- Ordering other actions.
- Decides if staying in the home is in the child’s best interest.
- Orders terms and conditions for visitation.
- Assesses the responsible school district’s education costs.
- Explains the PCSA custody timeframe to the parties.
Your child’s case plan
After the Day One or Emergency hearing, the PCSA creates and files a case plan. The case plan:
- Describes the current placement. The PCSA must show its effort to prevent removal, end ongoing removal and help the child return home.
- Explains the PCSA's efforts to find the child a safe and permanent living situation. The goal is to find the least restrictive and most family-like permanent setting possible. The court considers in-home services like Family Preservation. The law says siblings should be placed together whenever possible. The law says children should return to their parents or guardians as soon as possible. If it is not in the child’s best interest to return home, the law says alternative placement must be found within 12 months.
- If changes are necessary, it must be modified by the court. The court must approve any substantive changes (like a parent’s visitation rights). However, the PCSA may make an emergency change to the case plan if the child is in immediate physical or emotional harm. The PCSA must notify all parties. If the PCSA notifies you about a change, you should call your lawyer immediately.
Adjudication and dispositional hearings
The adjudication hearing is where the court decides if the child is abused, neglected or dependent. The adjudication hearing happens within 30 days following the complaint filing date. The court may extend the hearing deadline up to 10 days if there is a good reason.
The court holds a dispositional hearing where the judge decides where your child should live and what you and PCSA must do to reach the case plan goal. The case plan may be modified. The dispositional hearing happens within 30 days following the adjudication hearing. The disposition hearing must be completed within 90 days of the complaint filing date or the complaint must be dismissed. At the dispositional hearing, future hearing dates are set.
Periodic review hearings
The court and PCSA hold hearings to review the case status and case plan progress. PCSA must review the case at least every 6 months. The court must review the case at least once a year. These hearings are an opportunity to identify problems that prevent parents from making progress, and services that may help the family. Parents, foster parents and children should all be invited to the meeting.
Annual review hearing for permanent placement
The annual review hearing is a hearing to review the permanent plan for the child and make permanency decisions. The date for the annual review hearing is set at the dispositional hearing. The annual review hearing is set at least 30 days before the 1-year anniversary of the child’s placement or complaint filing date.
Ohio Law encourages courts to move children to permanent placement (where the court is not involved) as quickly as possible. Temporary custody expires within one year from the start of substitute care. Temporary care can be extended for up to 2 six-month periods. When temporary custody expires, the PCSA may request:
- Permanent PCSA custody and termination of parental rights, or
- Some other permanent plan for the child, including giving custody to someone else or PPLA (permanent foster care).
You should follow your case plan as quickly as possible to avoid termination of your parental rights.