What is Juvenile Dependency Law?

The primary purpose of “juvenile dependency law” is to provide for the protection and wellbeing of children who have been, or are at risk of being, abused or neglected. In California, each county has an agency (e.g., Health and Human Services Agency (San Diego), Department of Public Social Services (Los Angeles)) responsible for the welfare of the children residing there. Because agency names vary from county-to-county, the term “Agency” is used generically here.

The Agency is responsible for investigating allegations of child abuse and/or neglect. If an investigation reveals there are legitimate concerns for the wellbeing of children in a household, the Agency will likely get involved with the family; typically, this means the Agency either offers the parents “voluntary services” (e.g., drug treatment) to remedy the concerns or files a “petition” (under Welf.  & Inst. Code, § 300). Filing a petition is essentially asking the juvenile court to get involved.

Much of juvenile dependency law is concerned with the juvenile court proceedings that occur after the Agency files a petition.

How Do Juvenile Dependency Cases Start?

The way the Agency becomes involved with a family is by receiving a “referral” from a concerned person. Oftentimes, referrals come from calls made to “child abuse hotlines” which anyone can call to report neglect or abuse. It’s also common for referrals to originate from police. Once the Agency receives a referral, it will investigate and determine the appropriate action to take.

If the referral can’t be “substantiated” for abuse or neglect (i.e., there is no evidence to support the allegations), the Agency typically won’t take any further action. If, on the other hand, the referral is substantiated, the Agency will need to take measures to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the children involved.

In less serious cases, the Agency may opt to offer the parents “voluntary services.” In this way, the Agency may be able to address the family’s issues without the juvenile court being involved. Voluntary services may include things like substance abuse treatment or parenting classes.

However, in more serious cases, and in cases where the parents fail to adequately address their issues with voluntary services, the Agency will likely seek more formal intervention by filing a “petition”(under Welf. & Inst. Code, § 300) in the juvenile court. The filing of the petition marks the beginning of a juvenile dependency court case.

Rights of Parents in Juvenile Dependency Cases

In juvenile dependency proceedings, parents have legal rights that typically come from the California and U.S. Constitutions, as well as statutes. Statutes are written laws that are created by the legislature; the statutes that are most important for dependency cases are found in the Welfare and Institutions Code. The California Supreme Court has said: “A parent’s interest in the companionship, care, custody and management of his children is a compelling one, ranked among the most basic of civil rights.” (In re Marilyn H., 5 Cal.4th 295, 306 (1993).)

Dependency cases are complex and the rules that apply to them are intricate and numerous. However, among the most basic rights parents have in these cases are the rights to the assistance of an attorney, and notice of the dependency proceedings and all court hearings. When a parent wishes to contest an allegation (e.g., whether the parent was driving under the influence with the child in the car) or issue (e.g., whether child will be removed from the parent’s home), the parent has the right “to be heard” at a court hearing. This means that the parent has the right to come to court, argue their position, present evidence, have witnesses testify, and cross-examine witnesses that are called to testify by other parties. Of course, it is typically the parent’s attorney, rather than the parent themselves, that does most of these things at the hearing.

Rights of Minors in Juvenile Dependency Cases

In dependency proceedings, minors have rights similar to those of parents. Minors have the right to the assistance of an attorney, to be to present at all court hearings, present evidence, call witnesses to testify, and cross-examine witnesses called by other parties.

Although minors do have constitutional rights in dependency cases, they have less (or at least less defined) constitutional rights than parents do. As such, most of their rights are considered “statutory” (i.e., they come from the Welfare and Institutions Code) rather than constitutional. 

Stages of Juvenile Dependency Cases

While the overarching goal of dependency law is to protect children from neglect and abuse, children should only be removed from their parents’ custody when protection is necessary. (Welf. & Inst. Code, § 16000.) And once a dependency case begins, “family preservation” becomes the first priority. (In re Elizabeth R., 35 Cal.App.4th 1774.) In other words, once a child is removed from their parents, the goal thereafter is to help the family remedy the issues that put the child at risk of neglect or abuse.

Dependency cases do not always take the same path. Ideally, children can be returned to their parents’ custody without extensive and prolonged involvement of the Agency and the juvenile court. However, where safe return to parental custody cannot be achieved, it is possible for a dependency case to go through all of the following stages:

  • Petition and removal,

  • Detention,

  • Jurisdiction and disposition,

  • Review hearings,

  • Selection and implementation hearing, and

  • Post permanency review hearings.

Juvenile Dependency Appeals

An appeal is where a party (a parent, the child, or the Agency) challenges a decision of the juvenile court in a higher court—the Court of Appeal. Whereas in most criminal cases, there is only one opportunity to appeal—after the verdict and sentencing—it’s common for there to be multiple appeals arising from a single juvenile dependency case. It’s because parties in dependency cases can appeal at numerous stages of the case.

The first opportunity to appeal in a dependency case is after the disposition hearing.  Although there are typically several  hearings that occurs before the disposition hearing (the detention and jurisdiction hearings), those hearings can’t be directly appealed. The prior hearings can, however, be appealed as part of the appeal from disposition. (See Welf. & Inst. Code, § 395, subd. (a); In re Joann E., 104 Cal.App.4th 347, 353-54.)

After the disposition hearing, “any subsequent order” of the juvenile court can be appealed. (Welf.  & Inst. Code, § 395, subd. (a).) The only exception to this right to appeal is when the juvenile court orders a hearing under Welfare and Institutions Code section 366.26 (often called a “26 hearing”) to be set. When that happens, the order (and any other orders made at that hearing) must be brought to the Court of Appeal using an “extraordinary writ petition.” (Welf. & Inst. Code, §366.26, subd. (l); Cal. Rules of Court, rule 8.452.) The extraordinary writ petition serves the same purpose as any other appeal, but process is much quicker.

Because juvenile dependency cases often involve lots of hearings after disposition, the result is lots of opportunities to appeal. Like criminal appeals, in juvenile dependency cases, the appeals typically aren’t handled by the trial attorneys—a different attorney will be appointed represent the client in the Court of Appeal.