JUVENILE LAW FAQ
HOW DO YOU DEAL WITH DCF?
The Department of Children and Families (DCF) is Connecticut’s child protection services agency. DCF becomes involved with a family when it receives a call from a person concerned about a child’s safety. Some parents call DCF themselves for help. DCF exists to help children and families (it is in the agency’s name after all) however its investigations, assessments and services may lead to more difficulties. This could start at the hospital as soon as a child is born.
Much of DCF’s work occurs before a case is filed in court. Parents often do not have attorneys during this time or even think they need to be represented. While DCF might be helping you out, it could also be building a case against you. It is important to note that without a court order, cooperation and communication with DCF is voluntary. You should be very skeptical of any kind of evaluation (psychological, substance abuse, etc.) and very cautious about signing releases of information. DCF could only obtain information (again, absent a court order) from health and treatment providers if you authorize it to do so. Once DCF has that information, it will use it and hold onto it.
DCF has the authority to remove a child from his or her parents if it suspects the child is in danger. There are limits and a process to this power. Although this will be described in greater detail in the Orders of Temporary Custody section, you should note that such removal cannot continue for more than 96 hours without court approval. The possibility of this removal is often enough for people to cooperate with DCF rather than question it.
If DCF starts talking to you, you should really call an attorney. Preferably us. Use the contact box on the right to send us a message or call me at (203) 691-6594.
WHAT IS THE RIGHT TO COUNSEL IN CHILD PROTECTION MATTERS?
With fundamental rights at stake in judicial proceedings involving parent-child relationships, it is imperative to be represented by effective counsel. Children are automatically appointed an attorney by the court. Connecticut is one of the states that appoints attorneys for parents who cannot afford the services of a private attorney. These attorneys, commonly referred to as “contract attorneys,” have contracts with the Public Defender’s Office. Each juvenile court has a panel of attorneys. I serve on the Middletown panel. Although we are paid by the state, we do not work for the state. We work for our clients. The application process is similar to the public defender process for criminal matters. A prospective litigant fills out an application with information regarding income and other assets. If the requirements are met, the court will appoint an attorney. This can be done at the initial plea for the petition or OTC preliminary hearing or anytime after the filing of a petition or OTC.
If you are not eligible for assigned counsel, you should retain a private attorney right away. In addition to assigned cases, we represent parents as private counsel in all of Connecticut’s juvenile courts, primarily Middletown, New Haven, Waterbury and Bridgeport. Please contact us to further discuss representation in a juvenile matter.
WHAT ARE THE ORDERS OF TEMPORARY CUSTODY?
Individuals have a Fourteenth Amendment right to family integrity. For that reason government intrusion into a family’s life is highly restricted by law. Essentially the state can only become involved if a child is being, has been or will be harmed. DCF, hospitals and few other authorities have the the legal authority to remove a child from his or her parents for up to 96-hours without obtaining a court order. This is often called a “96-hour hold.” It can only be exercised if the agency reasonably suspects that the child is in immediate danger and that a removal is necessary to protect his or her safety. If there is no court order at the end of the hold, the child must be returned.
If the emergency persists or the agency seeks a longer removal, it must obtain and Order of Temporary Custody (OTC) from a judge. This is initially done on an ex parte basis, meaning that the moving party can present the application to a judge without the other side (the parents) knowing. If the court determines there is probable cause that a child is in immediate physical danger, it can issue an ex parte OTC. The evidence is often by affidavit. Note that this is very, very similar to how police obtain a warrant to perform a search or make an arrest. A petition alleging that the child is neglected, uncared for or abused is also filed at this time.
The parents must be served and are given a court date within ten days of the issuance of the OTC. This is called the OTC preliminary hearing. At this time the parents are allowed to apply for and receive attorneys if they are indigent, are advised of their rights by the court and decide whether to contest or to sustain the OTC. Parents have a right to a trial within ten days of the preliminary hearing to force the state to prove, by a preponderance of the evidence (more likely than not–the typical civil standard), that the child will be placed in immediate physical danger if returned to the parents. Sustaining the OTC means that the parent is waiving the right to a hearing and allowing the child to remain in DCF custody until further notice.
Whether an OTC is sustained by agreement or the court after a hearing, it could be vacated in the future uon motion by any of the parties. If it is not, it will remain in effect until there is an adjudication or a dismissal of the petition.
A person whose child has been removed should consult with an attorney as soon as possible. Connecticut provides court-assigned counsel for those who cannot afford private attorneys. One can be applied for and obtained prior to or even on the OTC preliminary day.
WHAT ARE MY RIGHTS WHEN DEALING WITH NEGLECT, ABUSE AND UNCARED FOR CASES
Individuals have rights under the United States and Connecticut constitutions to family integrity. The government can only become involved in families–particularly parent-child relationships–if a child has been, is being or will be harmed. The primary legal mechanism is a petition alleging that a child is abused, neglected or uncared-for. This petition must be filed and decided in court. Parents and children have several legal rights in these proceedings, particularly the rights to
Counsel. A parent or child in a child protection proceeding has a right to counsel.
Trial. A party to a child proceeding has a right to put the state to its proof on its allegations. Trials in juvenile matters are decided by a judge, not a jury. You can challenge the state’s evidence and also put on your own evidence.
Silence. A party does not have to testify in a trial. A party does also not have to give any statements. Just as in criminal cases, statements of a party can be used against him or her at trial.
Upon adjudication (either through a trial or an admission or nolo contendere plea) the court decides the disposition. Usual dispositions are protective supervision (the child remains home but subject to DCF services), commitment (the child is placed in foster care) or transfer of guardianship. A termination of parental rights requires an additional petition and adjudication.
HOW DO YOU HANDLE A TERMINATION OF PARENTAL RIGHTS?
Termination of Parental Rights (TPR) is the highest level of state intrusion into the parent-child relationship. A TPR is the complete severance of that relationship. For that reason the legal requirements, under statutes and case law, are strict. The state must prove the TPR by “clear and convincing evidence,” which is a standard higher than a preponderance (used in neglect, OTC and most civil proceedings) but below the criminal standard of beyond a reasonable doubt.
TPR’s can occur in either Probate Court or Superior Court. If the TPR is initiated by DCF (and most are), it will proceed in Superior Court. A parent facing a TPR has the right to a trial. A parent may also consent to his or her termination, which may be part of an open adoption agreement with the prospective adoptive parents.
Upon termination a parent loses his or her rights to and responsibilities for the following
custody, guardianship or control of the child or youth
to care for the child or youth or make any decisions on behalf of the child or youth
to obtain the child’s birth certificate
any state or federal benefits the parent received for the child or youth
legal responsibility to support the child or youth and to pay for the child’s or youth’s maintenance, medical and other expenses
A termination must be entered by a court upon certain required findings to be effective. Termination of parental rights is required before a child can be adopted.
In a few limited circumstances can a TPR be initiated without a prior adjudication and commitment. While most cases do not go that far, TPR becomes a possibility, even if remote, as soon as a petition is filed. It is important to beware of that possibility and be diligent to avoid a case from going to that level.
To discuss a TPR or any juvenile case, please use the contact form on the side of the page to reach us.