The driving force behind everything that happens in the child protection court process is the best interests of the child. From the initial investigation following an allegation of abuse, neglect, or dependency, to later decisions regarding possible termination of parental rights, determining what is in the child’s best interests is paramount.
Temporary Custody Hearing
The first hearing to take place during the child protection court process is the temporary custody hearing. A temporary custody hearing must take place within forty-eight hours (exclusive of Saturdays, Sundays, or court-designated holidays) of the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) taking protective custody of a child after investigating an allegation of child abuse or neglect. At the temporary custody hearing, the court must decide whether the safety of the child would be at risk if the child were to return home to the natural parents. If the court finds, based on the evidence presented, that there is an “urgent and immediate” need to remove the child from the care of the parents, the court will appoint DCFS, or an appropriate adult, as the child’s temporary custodian and set the case for trial.
At the trial, also known as the adjudication, the court must determine whether the child is abused, neglected or dependent. After listening to the evidence, the court may decide that the child was not abused, neglected or dependent and dismiss the petition. If, however, the court decides that the child was abused, neglected or dependent, the court will proceed to the next stage in the child protection court process, the dispositional hearing.
At the dispositional hearing, the court must decide whether it is in the best interests of the minor to return home to the parents. The court listens to evidence regarding, among other things, what services the parents have participated in to address the issues that brought the case before the court. The court will also hear evidence regarding the child’s placement, well-being, and service needs. The court looks at the efforts made by DCFS to assist the family, and the best interests of the minor. If the parents are unable, unwilling or unfit to care for the child, the court may appoint DCFS, or an appropriate adult, as the guardian of the child.
If the child has not yet returned home, the court will begin to hold permanency hearings every six months to monitor the progress of the parents as they attempt to address the issues that brought their child into the system. In addition, the court will monitor the well-being of the child and carefully review issues regarding the child’s placement, service needs, education, and family visitation. To ensure that all parties are moving in the same direction, the court will also set a permanency goal that everyone is expected to work on during the next six month period. The permanency goal can be Return Home, Substitute Care Pending Court Determination on Termination of Parental Rights, Adoption, Private Guardianship, Substitute Care Pending Independence, Long Term Foster Care or Home Environment Not Appropriate. In determining the most appropriate permanency goal, the court will consider a variety of factors including the progress of the parents, the needs of the child, the length of time the child has been in the system, and the child’s own wishes. Based on the permanency goal, the next step in the child protection court process may be in a variety of different directions. Again, the standard that the court uses at all stages of the child protection court process is the best interests of the child.
Although the child protection court process can appear daunting, the court’s main function is to act in the best interests of the child and, in so doing, ensure the safety and well-being of our community’s most vulnerable members.