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Juvenile Dependency

When parents, guardians, or other family members cannot provide for a child's basic needs, the government may step in. If the parents are abusive or neglectful toward their child, a juvenile dependency hearing will determine if the child should be temporarily or permanently removed from the family home.

Unfortunately for parents, the state dependency process does not always work as it is supposed to. False reports of child abuse or overly aggressive state social workers may fight to get a child out of the home when the child is perfectly safe and happy. When this happens, it can be difficult for parents to navigate the family court system to get their child back quickly. If you find yourself in this situation, a family law attorney can fight to protect your parental rights and help you reunite with your child as quickly as possible.

What Is Juvenile Dependency?

A dependent child is a minor who is not in the care of a parent, guardian, or legal custodian. Juvenile dependency may include a child who:

  • Was abandoned, abused, or neglected
  • Does not have a parent or guardian capable of caring for them
  • Is in foster care

Juvenile dependency typically happens through a court order. Any person can file a dependency petition for a child, including concerned family members. The state will involve itself in a dependency petition after it receives a report to its child welfare agency. The family court may then order the child taken into custody if the child's health, safety, and welfare are at risk of imminent harm.

Reasons for Juvenile Dependency

Any risk of harm or neglect may be the basis for juvenile dependency. Common reasons include:

  • Physical abuse, emotional abuse, or sexual abuse
  • Negligence by the parents
  • A parent's drug addiction or substance abuse problems
  • Parental incarceration or institutionalization
  • Inability of parents to provide food, shelter, clothing, medical care, and other basic human needs

What Happens at a Dependency Hearing?

As a parent, you will receive notice of the dependency hearing after their child is taken into custody. You have the right to appear at the hearing and be represented by an attorney. Your family law attorney can present supporting evidence and question witnesses. In most dependency cases, if you cannot afford an attorney, you will have a lawyer appointed to represent you at no charge.

In Georgia, dependency cases include two stages. First, the judge determines whether there is probable cause to believe the child is being abused or neglected in a "preliminary protective hearing." If they find probable cause, the case moves on to a "dependency hearing." There, the judge must decide whether there is clear and convincing evidence that the child's parent or legal guardian is no longer able to care for them.

The judge will then make a ruling to determine whether:

  • The child can remain at home. The judge can also issue additional conditions to protect the child from immediate harm, such as home visits by a social worker.
  • To remove the child from their home. In this case, custody of the child would likely pass to a relative, agency, or the foster care system.

Some states have courts dedicated to juvenile dependency cases. For example, California has its own dependency court. Judges in these courts may have different responsibilities than in other types of cases. In Oregon, juvenile court judges rely on their own judgment of a juvenile's case plan as well as the arguments made by DHS or lawyers involved. They often engage directly with parents and children to determine what is in the child's best interest.

After Your Child Is Removed From the Home

After removal from the home, the state will likely evaluate the child, including conducting medical and mental health examinations.

Where the child lives will be based on the best interests of the child. There is generally a preference for placing the child with a relative who can provide a healthy, safe environment and will respect the judge's orders (including not allowing you to have unsupervised visitation with your child). Relatives may include grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings, step-family, and others.

Returning Home After Juvenile Dependency

Family courts prioritize reunification with the family, as long as it is safe for the child. To achieve this, a judge may place conditions on you. This may include seeking substance abuse and/or mental health treatment, taking parenting classes, and getting help with public benefits.

The court may also order regular hearings to check in on you and your child to make sure you are providing a safe environment. During these hearings, the court will determine if your child should stay at home or return to protective custody.

Eventually, you may need to attend a permanency hearing to determine if your child can remain at home for good or if your parental rights will be terminated and the child will be adopted.

How Can a Family Lawyer Help?

Sometimes people make false allegations of abuse or neglect to punish parents for a contested child custody dispute. Some state officials take anonymous claims at face value without giving parents a fair chance to respond. Or sometimes you and parents like you are genuinely struggling, but it does not mean you deserve to have your children taken away.

Juvenile dependency attorneys will be able to represent you in a dependency hearing to advocate for your parental rights your child's best interests. They understand how the family court system works and what evidence will be necessary to keep your children at home.

Learn more about Juvenile Dependency

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