There are two main areas of juvenile law and I practice in both of them. Juvenile matters courts in Connecticut hear primarily delinquency and child protection matters. Delinquency cases concern juveniles charged with criminale offenses. Child protection matters are those in which the State, often through DCF, seeks to intervene in family relationships (such as removing children from their parents). For information on how to deal with DCF, check out my Juvenile Law FAQ page.
In Connecticut, juveniles are persons under the age of 18. The same criminal statutes apply to juveniles as adults, but in most cases, juveniles are subject to different procedures and consequences than adults. Generally, juveniles found liable of violating the law are not considered convicted but are adjudicated delinquent. Juvenile delinquency matters emphasize Connecticut’s policy of rehabilitating juveniles, when possible, rather than punishing minors.
If the State brings criminal charges against a person under the age of 18, in most cases the Superior Court for Juvenile Matters has exclusive original jurisdiction. However, in some cases, a juvenile matter can be transferred to the adult criminal court. Juveniles possess some but not all of the rights guaranteed to adult criminal defendants. Juveniles are guaranteed the assistance of counsel in all critical stages of their proceedings and also have the right to court (but not jury) trials. Due to the potentially serious nature of juvenile delinquency, juveniles, and their parents should consult an attorney as early as possible.
DCF, Child Protection and Parental Rights
Parents have the right to parent their minor children, but the State also recognizes the importance of protecting children from harm and neglect. The Connecticut Department of Children and Families (DCF) is required to investigate allegations of abuse and neglect. When DCF determines reasonable cause supports a claim that a person caused abuse or neglect, the case is considered substantiated. DCF may also place the person on the child abuse and neglect registry. The person accused of abuse or neglect may request a substantiation hearing to challenge the agency’s decision. This is an administrative process. If the subject disagrees with the administrative hearing officer's finding, he or she may further appeal to the Superior Court and, if necessary, the Appellate and Supreme courts. Read more about the DCF administrative appeal process here.
Termination of Parental Rights (TPR)
Before parental rights can be restricted or taken away, Constitutional due process affords the parents or guardians rights throughout the proceeding. This is a court process. Parents, guardians, and the child have the right to counsel. DCF (or other petitioner) initiates the action by filing an abuse, neglect or uncared-for petition. To remove a child, DCF can take an administrative 96-hour hold. Any removal lasting longer than 96 hours requires a court order, called an order of temporary custody (OTC), signed by a judge. If an OTC is granted, the parents will be ordered to a preliminary hearing within 10 days. The parents (or guardians) have the right to a trial on the OTC, to make DCF prove that the child is in immediate physical danger, within 10 days from the preliminary hearing. If it cannot make its burden, the children must be returned. Most cases do not involve removal but it is always possible when a case is pending. The most common dispositions in a neglect case are protection supervision (child remains with parents) and commitment (child is placed in DCF care). In order to terminate parental rights and free a child for adoption, DCF or another authorized petitioner must file a TPR (termination of parental rights) petition and prove its case before a juvenile court judge.
In some cases, grandparents and other family members may join in the action through a motion to intervene and can also file their own motions, such as those seeking transfers of guardianship. Parents have the right to deny and contest the allegations, which must be proven in court through a trial.
GUARDIANSHIP AND PARENTAL RIGHTS IN PROBATE COURT
The information I wrote above concerns state action against parental and guardianship rights. Individuals (non state actors) are allowed to file their own motions to assume custody, transfer guardianship or terminate parental rights but must do so in probate court. They could be transferred or appealed to juvenile court. Only a few limited people may initiate one of these actions. There are times when parents and guardians might want to temporarily transfer their own guardianship rights.