The juvenile dependency court system is an entirely separate court system from family court in that it’s governed by it’s own set of rules under the California Welfare and Institutions Code. While both dependency court and family court are part of the overall San Diego Superior Court system, family law rules do not apply in dependency court for the most part.
The purpose of juvenile court is to protect the safety of children. This can be done by restricting parental behavior, removing children from unsafe environments, and planning for the permanency of a child’s custody elsewhere. Parents are entitled to free counsel if they can’t afford private counsel, and children are always assigned and represented by counsel in proceedings.
Generally, children enter the dependency system because someone has called the child welfare hotline. This could be a relative, teacher, or other mandated reporter. A social worker will then go investigate the home environment to assess the alleged risk and decide whether the child needs to be removed immediately. If not, the social worker will often offer to enter into a Voluntary Family Maintenance (VFM) Contract contract with the parents, without removing the children. If the child is removed due to emergency, then the social worker can offer to enter into a Voluntary Family Reunification (VFR) Contract with the parents.
Both the contracts will offer free social services to the parents, such as counseling or drug rehabilitation or testing, depending on the identified harm to the child. Both types of contracts are offered prior to the social worker filing a formal petition in dependency court. The VFM contract will spell out services to be completed in order to not move forward with filing a petition in court. The latter contract, the VFR, will outline services to be completed in order to return the children to the parent’s custody.
If the parents choose to not engage in these voluntary contracts offered, then the social worker may go forward with filing a formal petition in dependency court. She will then spell out to the court the specific Welfare and Institutions Code under which the harm to the child falls. She will provide to the court a report of facts from the home investigation, as well as interviews with the child (if age appropriate) and others who interact with the child, to back up her allegations of harm to the child. The San Diego County Counsel, Juvenile Dependency Division is responsible for representing the social worker in filing the petition and the proceedings that follow.
Once the petition is filed, and the parents and children are assigned counsel, the court will hold several proceedings to determine if there is enough evidence to find a substantial harm to the child in the care and custody of the parents. If so, the court will next determine which services the parents should take part in to remedy the situation. The services ordered are often the same services the social worker recommends in her report. The court will also determine if, while the parents are receiving such services, the child should be removed from the parents’ care and placed either in foster care or with a close relative.
Because the parental right to care, custody and control of their children has been found to be a fundamental right under the U.S. Constitution, court’s must ensure that parents are provided with due process prior to removing a child from his or her home, and certainly before moving any further along in the dependency process, such as terminating parental rights. This is why parents are encouraged to attend proceedings with their attorneys and be heard on the issues of safety of their children. They are entitled to a trial on any contested issues, as well as immediate appeal throughout each step of the entire dependency process.
If you have any questions about dependency proceedings involving your children, give the attorneys at Cage & Miles, LLP a call to discuss your parental rights.