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How Does Juvenile Dependency Work in California?

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If you are a parent dealing with a juvenile dependency matter, this can be an incredibly frustrating and traumatic time. You, your partner, or another individual in your home may be accused of child abuse or neglect, and custody of your children – as well as your parental rights – may be at risk as a consequence.

The Child Dependency Court can order any of the following and more:

  • Remove your children from your home
  • Send your children to live with relatives or in foster care
  • Terminate your parental rights
  • Establish new parental rights

When you are involved in a child dependency matter, there is clearly a lot at stake. While a better understanding of this process may not have a bearing on your possible outcomes, it can help you cope with the process itself and whatever outcomes may come to pass.

How Child Dependency Cases Begin

In most cases, a child dependency issue will begin when a referral about potential neglect or abuse is sent to the California Department of Social Services. This agency will send an emergency response worker to assess the situation and determine whether or not there is credibility to the claim. If the response worker finds that the child may be suffering from neglect or abuse, the child may be removed and become a dependent of the court.

The Detention Hearing

If a child is removed from the home their parents or legal guardians, an initial Child Dependency Court hearing will be scheduled as soon as possible. This is known as the detention hearing, and its purpose is to determine if the child can return home with their parents or if they will continue to remain a dependent of the court.

At the detention hearing, those accused of neglect or abuse will also have a chance to admit or deny the allegations, but without elaboration. After reviewing the facts of the case, the judge will determine a living situation that is in the best interest of the child. If it’s determined that the child should be removed from their parents’ care, then they may be placed with a relative or in the foster care system.

The Jurisdiction Hearing

If a child is removed from their parents’ custody after the detention hearing, they can respond to the allegations of abuse or neglect during the jurisdiction hearing. After hearing your side of the issue, the judge will determine if the allegations are true. If he or she does find them to be true, then it is unlikely that you will have your child returned to your custody. The case will then proceed to a disposition hearing.

The Disposition Hearing & Reunification Plan

If the child is not allowed to return to their parents, a disposition hearing will take place approximately 10 days after the jurisdiction hearing. During the disposition hearing, the court will propose a reunification plan for the parents and their child. The plan will include a series of requirements that must be met in order for a child to be reunited with their parents.

Examples of requirements include the following:

  • Go to counseling
  • Attend parent education classes
  • Receive drug treatment and testing services

Reunification Review Hearings

Six months after a unification plan is implemented, the court will evaluate how the parents have complied with it. If the court is satisfied with how the parents have followed the reunification plan and that the problems that initiated the dependency case are resolved, then the child may be returned to their parents’ care.

If the court finds that not enough progress has been made, a 12-month review hearing will be set. If the court is still not satisfied with the parents’ progress at this hearing, then the case may proceed to a permanency hearing.

Permanency Planning Hearing

The purpose of the permanency planning hearing is to determine a permanent home for a child. If the court has previously determined that a child should not return to the custody of his or her parents, then it is unlikely that it will occur at this stage. Instead, the court is inclined to determine whether the child should be placed in the care of a relative or in the foster care system.

The court may also decide to terminate the parents’ parental rights. Should this occur, a selection and implementation plan – a “26 hearing” – will occur to create a plan that ensures the child will have a safe and stable home. This plan may also account for adoption or establishing a legal guardian for the child.


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