When DCF files a petition in the Juvenile Court alleging that your children have been abused or neglected, you will have to appear in Court. These Court proceedings can result in very serious consequences for your family, and could lead to the removal of your children. Additionally, Court involvement often extends the period of time that DCF is involved in your family’s lives.
When a petition is filed, a lawyer will be appointed to represent your children. You do not have the right to hire the lawyer for your children in Juvenile Court. DCF will be represented by an Assistant Attorney General. Although you have the right to represent yourself, this is not usually a wise decision, given the serious implications of proceedings in Juvenile Court.
Your chances of effectively resolving matters in the Juvenile Court are greatly increased when you are represented by a qualified and aggressive lawyer. Our goal is to help your family get your lives back in order and end DCF and Juvenile Court involvement as soon as reasonably possible. However, it is not possible to give exact predictions. The Juvenile court world can be very confusing, and has never been adequately portrayed in the mass media.
In addition to representing parents in
Juvenile Court matters, our office also has extensive experience
representing other family members with an interest in the case.
In many cases, the children’s relatives can play an important
role providing support to the family, and even serving as
placement resources for the children.
In all cases, please do NOT take legal advice from DCF or from friends. Juvenile Court is like no other Court, and is no place for amateurs.
How Are Juvenile Court Petitions Resolved?
In a criminal court case, you have a VERDICT; and, if guilty of one or more charges, a SENTENCE.
In a Juvenile Court case, you have what lawyers call ADJUDICATION and DISPOSITION.
This is a finding of the court that the petition alleging that the child is abused, neglected, or uncared-for is either CONFIRMED or DISMISSED. If the petition is dismissed, the court case is over.
In the vast majority of cases, the parent will plead NOLO, meaning that he or she does not admit that the allegations of the petition are true, but does not intend to contest the allegations. In that case, the court will find the child neglected (or abused or uncared-for).
The reason for a nolo plea is to save time and money. Another reason is that an adjudication based upon a nolo plea is NOT a finding that the parent was guilty of anything. Therefore, it cannot be used against the parent in a subsequent substantiation or registry hearing. If there is a contested hearing, and the court upholds the petition after evidence, that fact can be used against the parent.
Sometimes a nolo plea is allowed to a lesser charge. For example, the petition may allege neglect, and the parent may be allowed to plead nolo to uncared-for, in the sense that the child has specialized needs.
You cannot be forced to plead nolo, but it is commonly done to save time and money, and to move the case forward to settlement (disposition). You should discuss this carefully with your lawyer.
When a child is taken on an OTC, it is sometimes advantageous to plead nolo to the underlying petition. This vacates the OTC, and sets the stage for disposition. Again, individual cases vary, and you should discuss this with your lawyer.
You should NEVER discuss these legal issues with the social worker. Social workers are not lawyers, and they are not your lawyer. If you rely on incorrect advice, you may be out of luck.
Assuming that the child is adjudicated (abused, neglected, or uncared for), the court must now order a disposition. This is just a fancy way of saying that something must now be done.
At present, the Court has four choices:
1. Commitment. The child is ordered committed to DCF. This means that DCF becomes both the child’s guardian and custodian. The child will then normally be placed (or have the OTC placement continued) outside of the home. Specific steps to facilitate reunification will be ordered.
Your job, in working with your lawyer, is to “rehabilitate”. That means: see that the specific steps are met, the roadblocks are cleared, and that your lawyer can eventually file a motion to revoke the commitment. This will let the child be returned to you, normally under protective supervision.
NOTE: If you do not rehabilitate in a reasonable time, or if DCF believes that no rehabilitation is possible, then DCF may file for termination of parental rights (TPR). It goes without saying that working with your lawyer to facilitate reunification is necessary.
2. Protective Supervision. This means that the child is returned to you, but under conditions. These normally include: cooperating with DCF home visits, getting all necessary treatment, staying out of trouble, etc. You should review the details with your lawyer.
The goal is that protective supervision is eventually ended, and DCF is out of your life. Note that if protective supervision does not go well, DCF can file to extend protective supervision, or to have the child committed.
3. Transfer of Guardianship (TOG). The child’s guardianship is to transferred to someone else, often a relative or close friend. The effect is to end Juvenile Court involvement, but not to terminate your parental rights.
In other words, at a later date, you could file in court to have guardianship transferred back to you. If you did that, DCF would become involved again; but in a lesser capacity.
4. Transfer to Permanent Legal Guardianship. This is the same as TOG, but with one important difference: you are not allowed to file a motion to have guardianship transferred back to you. However, an adult relative of the child, the child’s lawyer, or (in extreme cases) the Court itself may file a petition to change the child’s permanent legal guardianship status.
Permanent legal guardianship is a new idea, effective October 1, 2012. Essentially, it is for children who would otherwise be terminated, but for whom adoption is not practicable. It also means that the new guardian is free from worry that the natural parent will keep filing motions to get guardianship back.
It is almost like a TPR without the formal court termination of parental rights. As with all new laws, it remains to be seen how this will play out.
When a petition is filed, and the child is not removed, you try to keep it that way, and to eventually get rid of DCF.
When a petition is filed, and the child is removed via an OTC, you work to rehabilitate and get the child back if at all possible. Your goal is to avoid a TPR, and to eventually get rid of DCF.
Sometimes the petition is resolved by a transfer of guardianship. This ends the court involvement, and in some cases is the best possible resolution.
Legalities should be discussed with your lawyer, not with the social worker.
Note on Appeals:
The court’s ruling can always be appealed to a higher court. However, keep in mind that appeals are very expensive, and in Juvenile Court cases are seldom successful. Appellate judges defer to the factual findings of experienced Superior Court juvenile judges, and only in extreme cases will those judges be reversed.
Most Juvenile Court appeals occur in TPR cases, and the great majority are unsuccessful. You do far better cooperating with your lawyer, and trying to win the court case, rather than hoping for a successful appeal.
For an example of an abuse /neglect case that our office handled, See: Bob and Karen
It is not always necessary that your children were actually neglected. Sometimes just the chance of neglect is enough to get you in court. See: Herman and Glenda , and note the surprising twist added to this case on June 28th, 2012.