With rare exceptions, children placed in foster care are either Dependents or Wards of the court. A Dependent child is one who has been placed in foster care due to the parent’s abuse or neglect.
A Ward of the Court is a child who has been placed in foster care because the child broke the law and is on probation. Many children who are Wards have very similar family backgrounds to the children who are Dependents, but they came to the attention of the system as a result of their acting out behavior rather than the parent’s inappropriate behavior.
When a child is first placed in foster care, there must be a detention hearing within 48 hours to determine that there is immediate danger in the child’s home. After that, there is a Jurisdiction hearing to determine if there has been abuse or neglect, and if there is a need for continued court involvement to protect the child.
The Jurisdictional hearing is supposed to occur within 14 days, but is frequently postponed. There is then a Dispositional hearing (this is usually held the same day as the Jurisdictional hearing), to determine whether the child will be returned to the parent’s home with supervision or placed in foster care.
If you accept a child who is just being detained, you need to be aware that the child may be moved at any time without notice. There is also frequent social worker and attorney contact during this court process, and your cooperation in essential to insuring that the people making decisions for the child have all the information they need.
It is also extremely important to inform the family social worker immediately regarding any information the child reveals to you regarding problems in their birth parent’s home.
Once a child has been declared a Dependent of the Court, the parents have eighteen (18) months to reunify with their child. During this eighteen (18) month period, the County has the obligation to provide whatever services are needed to remedy the situation at home so that the child can safely return to their parents.
During this period, visits with the birth parents are usually scheduled at least twice a month, and may be much more frequent.
It is vitally important that we cooperate in visit during this period. If the Juvenile Court Judge feels that the agency or resource parents have interfered with visits, the Judge may return a child home or order their removal to another resource home.
During this eighteen (18) month reunification period, there are court hearings every six months to review the parent’s progress in accomplishing the reunification plan. The child can be returned to their birth parent at any time during this period.
At the end of eighteen (18) months if the child is still in foster care, there is a Permanency Planning hearing. At this time, the Judge must either return the child home or declare that Permanency Planning is now the goal and determine whether adoption, guardianship, or long-term foster care should be the permanency plan.
Having Permanency Planning as the case plan does not change the parent’s right to have visits with the child, although visits are normally less frequent. It also does not mean that it is impossible for the child to ever be returned to the parent. However, if the parents wish to have the child returned to their custody, the parents must now prove that it is in the child’s best interest to reunify with them. Previously, the County had to prove that it was unsafe for the child to return to the parent.
Even after Permanency Planning is declared the goal, there continue to be court hearings or administrative reviews every six months to review the child’s progress and the progress towards meeting the permanency plan.