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The Wild Wild West: The Unique Nature of Juvenile Court Cases

The vast majority of family law cases are handled within the Superior Court, which is a State level court of general oversight that handles both civil and criminal cases. Juvenile Courts are specific to issues of child dependency and delinquency. On occasion, a case can be transferred from the Superior Court to the Juvenile Court, most likely one of these issues exists or there is already a related matter before the Juvenile Court.

The Juvenile Court does not have the ability to grant permanent custody but can establish permanent guardianship, temporary custody, and delinquency outcomes. The Juvenile Court can establish the grounds for permanent custody to be awarded and does still have the ability to change parenting time and visitation. If your family law case is before the Juvenile Court, it’s important to keep in mind exactly what reason brought it there. Most commonly this will be dependency, or a contention that it exists. While dependency may be brought as an issue by a private individual, it is typically brought by DFCS. Cases brought because of dependency issues and delinquency issues are quasi-criminal in nature, which means that they can include criminal implications if the juvenile court deems them necessary.

What is DFCS, and What Does it Do?

DFCS, or the Division of Family and Children Services, is an agency of the Georgia Department of Health and Human Services. It is also commonly called “the Department”. Each county has their own division office, and they each operate independently under regional oversight. DFCS cases are actually made up of two phases, CPS or child protective services, and DFCS itself which focuses on a case plan. A case is not transferred from CPS to DFCS proper unless a safety plan is determined to not be enough to resolve the dependency concern.

What’s Dependency?

Dependency is based upon a concern that a child has been abused, neglected, or is otherwise without parental care and control. As such, the child is dependent on an outside source to remedy that. If a child has unstable housing, unmet educational needs, unmet medical needs (including mental health), a parent with outstanding criminal issues to resolve, a parent with substance abuse issues, or has been abused or abandoned, then that child may be considered dependent.

Private individuals have the ability to file their own dependency petition if a report to DFCS is unsuccessful in initiating an investigation, or if removal does not occur and you believe it to still be necessary to protect the child in question. Most often, DFCS will initiate a dependency proceeding by filing a complaint and/or requesting a removal order from a Judge. The request and order can be verbal if time is of the essence, though written documents must follow. A safety plan is not required to be put in place ahead of time if the Department feels that imminent removal is the only available step to adequately protect the child. DFCS may determine that a safety plan can be put in place and that it will be enough to address the issue. These are agreements of behavior that include DFCS oversight to ensure that each term is being met. If they are not, then DFCS can use noncompliance as a grounds for removal of the child from the home. Safety plans are intended to avoid that extreme measure.

What Does a DFCS Case Look Like?

Cases before the Juvenile Court based on a complaint from DFCS or a private petition differ greatly from standard civil cases. Juvenile cases can have one of two designations, Emergency and Non-Emergency. Emergency cases are those requiring immediate removal. Non-emergency cases are typically those where conditions can be placed on a home, or a third party can be utilized to prevent the use of foster care. These designations affect the timeframe for when hearings must occur and when a petition must be filed after the complaint. The utilization and age of the child at issue can also impact the timeline for the case. The first hearing is the Preliminary Protective Hearing, which might be called a ‘Probable Cause Hearing’. The next is the Adjudication Hearing. The Adjudication determines whether the child is in fact dependent. The Disposition, which may or may not occur simultaneously with the Adjudication, determines the case plan to remedy the dependency. After the Adjudication and Disposition are out of the way, the Court sets a schedule of Judicial Review Hearings, Citizen Review Panels, and eventually Permanency Hearings which determine, from the Review Hearings, what the permanency plan is and what progress has been made toward them.

There are two different kinds of permanency plans: reunification and non-reunification. These can also run concurrently together. Reunification focuses on bringing the family back together. Non-reunification focuses on a separate place other than the parent’s where the child will best be cared for. There are several types of non-reunification case plans, including permanent guardianship and termination of parental rights (usually followed by adoption). When a non-reunification case plan is added, it is vital to address the outstanding concerns in the case plan and to follow it in order to show the Court that no step towards anything but reunification is warranted.

Who is Involved in a DFCS Case?

DFCS is present through the case worker, manager, or supervisor who is working directly on the case, and they are represented by the Special Assistant Attorney General, or SAAG. The SAAG is an appointed individual to cover a specific county or set of counties, but any attorney working under the SAAG is referred to by the same title. The parents obviously should have their own attorneys. Juvenile Court cases are unique in that the child is a party to the case, and therefore entitled to representation. A Guardian ad Litem will automatically be appointed and they will serve the dual role of Guardian and Child’s Attorney. In addition to these attorneys, it is common to have a CASA volunteer participate to keep tabs with the process and child, as well as for any foster parents to appear and update the Court.

This is merely a 30,000 ft view of a unique, particularly complex, and intensive process. Unfortunately, very little is made publicly available besides the black letter of the law itself to explain how these cases work and how to navigate them. It really can be the wild, wild west for attorneys who don’t know the landscape.

If you find yourself involved with Juvenile Court and DFCS, you need attorneys on your side who are well versed in this peculiar institution.  Don’t put yourself at a disadvantage.  Don’t go it alone.

Kaitie Ruhl-Pirone