The Process of Dependency Court

If you click the “Download” button below, it will download a personal guide for you, the biological parent, that will assist and guide you in the Dependency process. This guide was written by the Judicial Council of California. If you need a printed version, your attorney or your social worker may be able to print a copy out for you. Ask them and they will let you know.

The Detention Hearing: The First Court Hearing Held

The Detention Hearing

If your child has been removed, the first hearing must happen the day after the petition was filed. If your child was not removed, the first hearing must be held no later than 15 days after the petition is filed.

At the first hearing a few different things will happen. First, if you cannot afford a lawyer, the judge will appoint one for you. The judge will also appoint a lawyer for the other parent of your child if he or she shows up for the first court hearing. Most counties will also appoint an attorney for your child. 

Important: The attorney client relationship is a special one. First, your communications with your attorney are confidential, which means that the attorney cannot tell anyone else what you talk about unless you say it is okay. Your attorney talks to you about the law and how it applies to the facts of your case. And your attorney is your voice in court and presents your position to the judge. If there has been a break down in your relationship with your attorney and you do not feel like he or she is representing your interests, you can ask the judge to appoint a new attorney for you.

The social worker will be at the first hearing. He or she also has an attorney, often called the county counsel or agency attorney. Before the court hearing the social worker will provide all the attorneys and the judge with the petition and the written report that talks about the reasons the petition was filed. The petition has a list of things that are numbered, like A-1 or B-1. These are called allegations, and they summarize what the social worker thinks is going on with your and your children.

If your child has been removed, the first hearing is called the detention hearing and the judge will decide whether your child can go home right away. This is the first time the judge will be asked to make sure that your child is safe. If your child can’t go home right away, the judge will make orders about when and where you can visit your child.

The judge may also ask you some questions about whether your child may be a member of a Native American tribe. The questions about connections to a tribe are important because of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA).

The judge will ask you about the child’s other parent, if that parent is not at the hearing. This means that the court will ask if there is a father or another person who qualifies as a parent to the child. The questions about the other parent are needed to find out who your child’s legal parents are. Click for information on Rights of Fathers and Other Parents to find out more about parentage and paternity in juvenile court.

If your child has been removed you have the right to argue against the removal (detention) of your child. The hearing where you argue against your child being removed will take place a few days after the first hearing. It is called the jurisdiction.

The Jurisdiction / Disposition Hearing: Types Of Court Hearings Held at the Beginning of Your Case, Often Called “Juris” and “Dispo” for Short

The Jurisdiction / Disposition Hearing

The jurisdiction hearing is the hearing that comes after the first hearing. At the jurisdiction hearing the judge will decide whether the allegations in the petition are true. If the judge decides the allegations are true, the court will take authority over your child. This is called jurisdiction in the law; that is why the hearing is called the jurisdiction hearing.

At the jurisdiction hearing:

  • If the judge decides that any of the allegations are true and your child isn’t safe, then your child will become a dependent of the court – whether your child is living with you or not. That means your child is in the system. Being in the system does not necessarily mean that your child will live with someone else. It only means that the judge is allowed to make orders about your child’s care.
  • If the judge decides that none of the allegations are true, then the case will be dismissed and you’ll be finished with the system.

If your case is not dismissed, there is a disposition hearing after the jurisdiction hearing. Often the jurisdiction and disposition hearings are combined and handled at the same time.

Disposition is the part of the case where the judge will decide what you should do to make things better for your family and your child. This is called the reunification plan. It will include:

  • Decisions about where your child should live (this is called placement).
  • Should your child live with you or with someone else?
  • If your child does not live with you, whom should your child live with?
  • Decisions about when, where, and how you can visit with your child.
  • Decisions about what reunification services you need to make your child safe and able to live with you at home.
  • Decisions about what services your child needs to be safe and healthy.

If you disagree with the allegations in the petition, you have a right to a hearing to contest the allegations in the petition. That hearing will occur at a later date. If you do not dispute the allegations in the petition but you disagree with the reunification plan, you have a right to contest that.

Reunification Services: Services Offered to Address the Issues That Led Your Children to be in Foster Care

Reunification Services

With certain exceptions (called bypass provisions), the court must offer you services to help you reunify with your child (get your child returned to your care). The social worker assigned to your case will come up with the reunification services, with your input. The judge will order you to complete all the reunification services. You should immediately begin participating in those services because you have to complete all of the reunification services to get your child back and you have a limited amount of time to do it. 

Most of the time, you will have a year to complete your requirements if you keep making progress. But if your child is under three years old, you will have only six months to show that you are committed to finishing up everything.

After the court orders you to participate in reunification services, your next court hearing is not for 6 months. During this six months you should be participating in the reunification services offered to you. If you make progress, your child could be returned to you prior to the next court date. It is important to keep in touch with your attorney and social worker to keep them up to date on your progress toward your reunification goals. If you believe that it is safe for your child to be returned to your home, your attorney can file paperwork asking the court to return your child.

If you do not participate in the services set forth in your reunification plan, the court can terminate your services. If your services are terminated that means that the goal for your case has changed from getting you back together with your child to finding a permanent home (that is not with you) for your child.

Bypass Provisions

“Bypass provisions” are specific exceptions which the court may use to NOT offer you (the parent) reunification services. If it is mentioned to you that you may be “bypassed” or you fit a “bypass provision”, speak with your lawyer!

Review Hearings

During the time your child is in the system (whether your child is living with you or with someone else), the court will have a hearing every six months. These court hearings are dependency status review hearings, which in different courts can also be called status review hearings, periodic review hearings, or DSR hearings.

The purpose of each review hearing is pretty much the same: it is for the court to decide if you have been really working on your case plan and if it is safe for your child to be returned to your care or, when your child is living with you, if your case can be dismissed.

At six month review the court can:

  1. return your child to your care if he was removed from your care,
  2.  order that your child remain out of your care but give you another six months of services, or
  3. order that your child remain out of your care and stop offering you reunification services.

Permanent Planning: What Happens if the Court Terminates Reunification Services

Permanent Planning

It is important to understand that “concurrent planning” is being done from the moment your child enters foster care. This means that a permanent plan for your child is worked out early for if the court terminate reunification services (and subsequently your parental rights). This is done so that your child spends the least amount of time possible in foster care. This is done for every child that enters the foster care system.

Once the court terminates reunification services, your reunification time has ended and the court must make a permanent plan for your child. This is the plan that says whom your child will live with for the long term.

There are several things you should know if the court does not return your child and terminates your reunification.

  • First you can continue to visit with your child, unless the court finds that it is harming the child, even if your reunification services have been stopped.
  • Second, the court must select a permanent plan for your child. This plan can be adoption, legal guardianship, or continued placement in a foster care setting.
    • Adoption is always the first choice. This is when the court terminates your parental rights. That means you are no longer legally your child’s parent and have no legal rights or responsibilities to him or her.
    • Legal guardianship is the second choice: A legal guardian has all the legal rights and responsibilities that any parent would have taking care of a child. Your rights as a parent are not terminated but are on hold during the guardianship. Usually the court will dismiss your case from the system, but in some cases the court may continue to monitor your child. It may also grant you the right to visit your child under certain rules; and
    • A long term planned permanent living arrangement is the third choice: Long-term planned permanent living arrangement means that your child will continue to live with foster parents, either related to her or him or unrelated. The case stays in the system and the court will have a review hearing every six months.

Below is a flow chart that shows you each step in the dependency court process from the beginning to the end. Click “Download” to view it.