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In child dependency court, the court could rule to take your child away temporarily and be placed in a foster home or with other relatives until the court decides that it is safe for your child to return. Dependency courts are established to protect the welfare of children who might be suffering abuse or neglect from their primary caregivers. Los Angeles Divorce Lawyer has the expertise and knowledge in dependency law in California. We represent parents going through dependency and provide guidance and advice to help them navigate dependency court. If you have questions about dependency in California, contact our attorneys for help.

Overview: When Does a Child Become a Dependent of the Court?

Child dependency courts are established to protect children from any form of neglect, abuse, or the risk of neglect or abuse. Under the California Welfare and Institutions Code 300, a child can become a dependent of the court if:

  • The child has suffered or is at risk of substantial physical harm, which was inflicted non-accidentally (you committed the act voluntarily, with or without the intention to harm the child). The discipline of a child through age-appropriate spanking does not amount to physical abuse.
  • The child has suffered or could suffer physical harm or illness due to willful neglect to provide food, clothing, shelter, or medical treatment for the child or lack of supervision from the parents. Giving birth to a child with positive toxicology results for drugs in their system could also result in child dependency proceedings.
  • The child has suffered or is at risk of suffering emotional damage due to the caregiver's failure to provide appropriate care.
  • The child has been or is at risk of sexually abused
  • You knew about the sexual abuse of your child and failed to stop it
  • The child is aged less than five years and has suffered severe physical abuse, which you or another person knew or should have known about
  • You neglected or abused another child and caused their death
  • The child is without any support due to incarceration or institutionalization of the parents, or the parent's whereabouts are unknown.
  • The parents released the child for adoption through termination of their parental rights for at least 12 months.
  • You have subjected the child to extreme acts of cruelty at home.

Dependency proceedings can begin when someone reports concerns that:

  • You or another person is abusing your child
  • You are not taking proper care of your child
  • You are not protecting your child from abuse from another person or yourself
  • Your child is at risk of abuse or neglect

Anyone can report child abuse, including a passerby who witnesses you abusing a child. The law mandates professionals such as doctors, social workers, police officers, teachers, and other healthcare professionals to report any instances of suspected child abuse, neglect, or abandonment.

Police officers and social workers are expected to investigate if they receive reports that a child might be neglected or abused. The investigation will include the officer or social worker talking to you and your child. Following the investigation, the social worker may:

  • Take no action if they do not find evidence of abuse or neglect
  • Offer you voluntary services to help you learn parenting techniques to parent your child safely.
  • File a petition in court asking the court to protect your child, but leave the child in your care
  • Take your child from you and file the petition. If the social worker takes your child from you, they must file a petition within two court days. A social worker is required to take your child if he or she believes that your child is in immediate danger. Your child will be placed in a foster home, with the other parent or with relatives.

If a social worker contacts you and takes your child away, you should provide information on your relatives to prevent your child from being placed with foster homes or shelters. You could also ask the social worker to set up frequent visits with your child.

California Dependency Process

The child dependency process in California is complex, and you should never navigate it alone if you desire to keep your child. Your child becomes “a dependent of the court” once a police officer or social worker takes your child from your care or files a petition with the court.

The official child dependency hearing starts with the detention hearing. A detention hearing is the first court hearing after a social worker or emergency responder files a petition with the court for your child's protection. This hearing happens a day after your child is taken from you or within fifteen days if you still have custody of your child.

You should hire an attorney to represent you during the hearing. The court will appoint an attorney for you if you cannot afford one. Depending on the county, the court might also appoint an attorney for your child.

The social worker, if present, also has an attorney. Before the proceeding, the social worker must provide all attorneys involved and the judge with a petition and written report about the reasons for the petition (called allegations). 

During the detention hearing, the judge will decide whether you can go home with your child or issue an order on when and where you can visit your child.

The judge will ask about the possibility that your child could be a member of a Native American Tribe. The Indian Child Welfare Act governs the jurisdiction and other issues related to dependency for Native American children.

The judge also asks about the other parent and other people who qualify as parents to the child. Determining other parents in a detention hearing helps the judge determine paternity and parentage during the proceedings.

The jurisdiction and disposition hearings follow the initial hearing. The judge determines whether the allegations made are true (jurisdiction). If the judge determines that the allegations are untrue, he or she will dismiss the case, and you and your child will be out of the system.

However, if the judge rules that the allegations are true, the child becomes “a dependent of the court.” Even if your child still lives with you after the hearing, the judge can make orders about the child’s care.

If the judge determines that the allegations in the petition are true, the case proceeds to the disposition hearing. During the disposition hearing, the judge determines the steps you should take to improve your situation for your family. During the disposition hearing, the judge develops a reunification plan for your family. This plan will include:

  • Where your child should live
  • Who should live with your child
  • When, where, and how to visit your child
  • The reunification services you require to protect and live with your child
  • The services your child needs to keep them safe and health

The reunification process in a dependency proceeding means getting your child returned. The judge sets certain conditions that you must fulfill before your child is returned from you or the case ends. You must fulfill all the reunification conditions within a year unless your child is under three years, where you have only six months to fulfill these requirements.

The social worker the court assigns to you will determine the reunification services required with your input. You should start participating in these reunification services as soon as possible to increase the chances of your child being returned to you.

If you show progress within the first six months, the court might return your child to you as you complete other services to meet your reunification goals. In cases where you feel your home is now safe for your child, you can file a petition to ask the court to return your child.

Reunification services are not available for the parents where:

  • A sister or brother to the child was seriously abused or killed due to neglect or abuse
  • You have another child that the court took
  • You tried reunification services before and were canceled
  • You have serious drug problems for which you have not received treatment
  • The whereabouts of the parents are unknown, and a diligent search to find their whereabouts was unsuccessful
  • The child was abandoned, and the abandonment posed a serious danger to the child
  • The parent has been convicted or is facing a conviction for certain violent offenses
  • The parent or guardian is required to register as a sex offender
  • The parent has previously abducted the child from their placement

You must participate in the reunification services; otherwise, the court will terminate these services and begin looking for a permanent home for the child.

During the reunification services, the court holds several review hearings to determine whether you are working towards making your home safer for your child. The first review occurs after six months where the court can:

  • Return your child into your care
  • Keep the child out of your care but require you to continue participating in reunification services for another six months.
  • Terminate your reunification services and order that the child remains out of your care.

Review hearings continue every six months after the court returns your child to determine whether your child continues to be safe. The court will dismiss the case if satisfied that your home is safe.

The court must make a permanent plan for your child upon the end or termination of your reunification services. The permanent plan determines the long-term custodian of your child.

Even if you do not end up with the child, you have the right to visit the child unless such visitation is harming the child. You must also select a permanent plan for your child. A permanent plan refers to options such as adoption, continued placement in foster care, or guardianship.

In adoption, the court will terminate your parental rights meaning you lose your parental rights and responsibilities over the child.

In legal guardianship, the guardian will have parental rights and responsibility as the natural parent. However, the court will place your parental rights on hold instead of terminating them. The court might dismiss the case or continue monitoring your child. You may be granted visitation rights and certain rules you must observe during visitation.

Long-term placement in foster care is usually the third option for permanent placement. Your child will continue living with his or her foster parents. The court will continuously review the case every six months (the case remains in the court’s jurisdiction when the child is in foster care). During the review, the court will determine:

  • Whether continued placement in foster care is necessary and appropriate
  • The compliance and appropriateness of the permanent plan
  • The extent of the agency’s efforts to return the child to a safe home
  • Whether the services provided to the child are adequate
  • The progress the parents have made in removing the need for the placement of their child in foster care
  • The likely date when the child will return to a safe home, placed for guardianship, or adoption
  • Transition services that a child 16 or older is receiving for independent living
  • The nature and importance of developing or maintaining a sibling relationship
  • The frequency and nature of sibling visits

If a child is still a dependent of the court when they turn 18 and they have graduated high school, the court will terminate its jurisdiction of the child. However, if the child has developmental delays, the court might retain jurisdiction until the child is 21. The child must be present during the termination of jurisdiction.

Rights during Dependency

When going through a dependency, you might feel like you do not have any rights or responsibilities. However, the law grants certain rights to both parents and children in dependency proceedings.

The rights of a child in dependency care include the right to:

  • Have a support person during an interview with a social worker
  • Go to court if you are ten years or older
  • Be involved in developing a plan if you are 12 years or older. You are entitled to contribute to the plan, sign it, and be informed of any changes to the case plan.
  • Stay at your school if you have been removed from your parent’s care
  • The right to visit with your siblings

If your child is placed in a group or foster home, he or she has the following rights:

  • The right to live in a safe and comfortable place with sufficient healthy food, clothing, a place to store their things, and a phone for confidential calls
  • The child has the right to be treated with respect, attend religious activities of their choice, speak with their attorney, social workers, and other people involved in the case, and be informed about the details of their case.

You can learn about additional rights for your child in a dependency proceeding here.

Parents also have certain rights during a dependency proceeding. Non-custodial parents have the right to know of these proceedings, and if they qualify, request custody of their children. In such a case, the court will determine whether placing the child with the non-custodial parent threatens the safety or emotional and physical well-being of the child.

You may have the right to visit your child. Visitation orders may take different forms depending on the circumstances. The most common visitation plans are:

  • Monitored visitation where an approved adult or social worker is present at all times when the parent visits the child. The court is more likely to order supervised visitation during the earlier stages of the case when the court has yet to gather enough facts or is concerned about leaving the child alone with the parent.
  • Supervised visitation in a neutral setting, such as at the DCFS office or a park. This type of visitation is more restrictive.
  • Unmonitored visitation where the parent is allowed to visit the child without supervision from the DCFS or a social worker
  • Unsupervised visitation for overnight or weekend visits

Fathers and other parents also have certain rights as follows:

  • Alleged parents have the right to be informed of the dependency hearing. You also have the right to prove that you are a presumed parent. However, you do not have custody or reunification rights.
  • Presumed parents have reunification rights, and their relatives can receive special consideration when a social worker is considering the child’s placement. A presumed parent has been included in the birth certificate, raised the child as their own, or has been granted parental rights in a family court.
  • Biological fathers have the right to notice of dependence hearing. You can also be allowed to participate in reunification services if the court believes that the services are in your child’s best interests.

Find a Family Law Attorney Near Me

Child dependency laws are complicated. Therefore, you should consult a family law attorney when you learn of the petition for the court to protect your child. Note that child dependency proceedings are separate from criminal proceedings, and being in one does not mean you are facing criminal proceedings. Instead, dependency proceedings aim at helping parents provide a physically and emotionally safe environment for their children to grow up. Los Angeles Divorce Lawyer works with parents and caregivers who are facing dependency proceedings. We advise you on what to expect, your rights, responsibilities, and the steps you can take to have your children returned. For more information about dependency in California, contact us at 310-695-5212.



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