When the government interferes with the relationship between a parent and a child. it can be just as devastating, if not more so, than a criminal arrest. Dependency proceedings, much like criminal cases, involve fundamental rights (your natural rights to your child) - and, as a result, you have certain rights that you should know and understand.
If the State physically takes your child(ren) in what they deem to be an “emergency” situation, they may be legally sheltering your child(ren). In this case, there should be a hearing (called a “shelter hearing”) within 24 hours. At this hearing, the judge will determine whether the State had proper cause to remove the children and, if so, where they should be placed. Typically, the court will try to place children with family or friends, assuming there is someone available, willing, and able to submit successfully to a home study. If this kind of placement is not immediately available, the court may place the child in foster care.
Petition for Dependency
Separate from shelter, which deals only with the placement of the child during a dependency proceeding, a petition for dependency seeks to declare a child dependent. If the child was sheltered outside of their home, this hearing should happen within 21 days. If the child remains at home, then the hearing must take place “within a reasonable time period”. The Petition is typically filed by the Department of Children and Families, but can be done by a private party as well. This Petition should state the specific grounds for declaring the child dependent. The parents will have an Arraignment within 28 days of the shelter hearing. The purpose of an arraignment, similar to criminal proceedings, is to inform the parents of the claims against them in the Petition, and allow them a chance to admit or deny the claims in the Petition for Dependency.
The Department will normally come up with a case plan, which lays out the different things they would like you to do - and what the ultimate goal will be (maintain/strengthen - if children remain in your care; reunification - if they do not remain in your care but the goal is that they will in the future; or adoption). This is similar in many ways to a plea agreement in a criminal case and a case plan is similar in many ways to probation. Typical conditions of a case plan may include random urinalysis (drug testing) and substance abuse counseling, mental health evaluation and counseling, stable housing and income, and parenting classes/coaching. If you enter into a consent, you are agreeing to comply with the case plan in order to meet that ultimate goal, and you are waiving your right to contest the claims in the dependency petition.
If the parties do not initially agree on the terms of the case plan, they can enter into mediation. Mediation is an informal proceeding where all of the parties involved get together to negotiate the terms of the case plan, without the judge. The conversations that take place in mediation are confidential, so that the parties may feel free to discuss the issues that may be keeping them from an agreement. At the end, the mediator will write a report that outlines the parts that the parties agreed upon, or disagreed on, and whether or not they have reached an agreement.