A county public children services agency (PCSA) starts an investigation if it thinks a child is:
- Abused. Abuse includes physical harm or risk of harm and inappropriate sexual activity.
- Neglected. Neglect means inadequate care for the child’s basic physical and mental needs (like food, supervision or medical care).
- Dependent. A child is dependent when they receive inadequate care for any reason. The reason may or may not be the parent’s fault. Children who are homeless, destitute (living without necessities) or living in other bad environments or with dangerous people are labeled dependent.
If the PCSA finds evidence of abuse, neglect or dependency, it starts the case by filing an official complaint in Juvenile Court. The PCSA may:
- Suggest a safety plan to address the issues putting the child’s safety at risk
- Ask the court to remove the child from the parent’s care
Next, the court schedules a “Day One” hearing. If a sworn witness says the child is in immediate physical or emotional danger, the hearing may be an immediate emergency hearing in person or by phone.
At the hearing, the judge determines if staying with the parents is in the child’s best interests. If staying with the parents is not in the child’s best interest, the judge picks the least restrictive placement for the child (like with relatives or with an adult the parents choose, if possible). At this time, the parents still have “legal custody,” but the court gives “temporary custody” to the PCSA, and places the child to live with a kinship caregiver, foster family, or group home that has “physical custody.”
If the court removes the child from the parent’s care, the ultimate goal is to reunify the child and parents.
Adjudication and dispositional hearings
After the Day One hearing, the court’s next steps are:
- Determine if the child is abused, neglected or dependent
- Making a placement plan
The adjudication hearing is where the court decides if the child is abused, neglected or dependent. The adjudication hearing happens within 30 days after the complaint filing date. The court may extend the hearing deadline up to 10 days if there is a good reason. If the court does not find that the child is abused, neglected or dependent, the case is dismissed, and the child is reunited with their parent(s).
If the court finds that the child is abused, neglected or dependent, the court holds a dispositional hearing. At this hearing the judge decides where the child should live and what the parent(s) and PCSA must do to meet the case plan’s goals. The case plans provide a clear and specific guide for the caseworker and the family to improve behaviors and the conditions that reduce safety, increase risk and hurt family functioning.
At the dispositional hearing, additional review dates will be scheduled to supervise case plan progress. At least 30 days before the 1-year case-filing anniversary, the court holds the annual review hearing. At the annual review hearing, the court reviews the permanent plan for the child and makes permanency decisions.
If the family meets the case plan goals, the child and parents can be reunified.
Federal and state laws encourage courts to move children to permanent placement (where the court is not involved) as quickly as possible. PCSA’s temporary custody of the child expires within one year from the start of substitute care. Temporary care can be extended for up to 2 6-month periods after the first year.
When temporary custody expires, the PCSA may request:
- Permanent PCSA custody and termination of parental rights, or
- Another permanent plan for the child, including giving custody to someone else or PPLA (Planned Permanent Living Arrangement, sometimes called permanent foster care)
Learn more about the abuse neglect and dependency case process.
Your options for involvement
There are many ways that family members or close friends can support a family in an abuse, neglect and dependency court case.
If a child close to you is removed from their parent’s care, you can contact the child’s Childrens Services case worker to request that the child be placed with you. The agency will conduct a background check and home study to make sure that your home is a suitable, safe environment for the child.
If you are unable to have the child placed in your home, you may still provide valuable help. Frequently, relatives supervise visits for parents, which allows longer and more frequent contact between parents and the child. In some cases, you may provide brief childcare to give the parents time to get supportive services.
If the child is placed with you, make sure to communicate with your child’s case worker about how you want to support the child. If the parent’s custody is terminated by the court, Childrens Services can ask the court to place the child with you permanently if it’s in the child’s best interest.
Support for Kinship Families
A full abuse, neglect and dependency court case can take up to 2 years to complete, and during this time, you may be eligible for benefits to help you support and care for the kin child.
Read more to learn about the Kinship Support Program, becoming a Kinship Foster Parent, and additional programs.
If the child is not placed with you
If you want the child to be placed with you, but Childrens Services does not place the child in your care, there are legal options to become a party to the court case. Becoming a party can be very complicated, especially in abuse, neglect and dependency cases. If you want placement of a child who is already placed in another family’s care, speak with a lawyer to understand your options.