Children and Youth Services ("CYS"), the Pennsylvania organization that responds to concerns about child welfare, has gotten involved with your family and is threatening or has already taken your child away. This is called a "dependency proceeding," or a proceeding to determine if a child is dependent on the State for care. This is almost always a scary, confusing, and emotionally painful experience. Because the process can be disorienting, our Lehigh Valley Children and Youth Attorneys have put together a step-by-step outline of this process for you:
Step 1. Call a Lawyer
CYS's sole focus is on what they believe is the best interest of the child. They will have little concern, if any, for protecting and preserving your rights. That is why it is critical that you contact a lawyer as soon as possible to find out what your rights and obligations are in your particular case. Only your own lawyer will know the necessary steps to take to ensure CYS does not take advantage of you.
Step 2. The Shelter Care Hearing
A child can be removed from the home several ways: by voluntary agreement, by a non-emergency dependency proceeding (where CYS is attempting to gain custody but the child is remaining with the parents in the meantime), or by an order for protective custody (where a Judge determines a child needs to be removed from the home because of emergency danger). Due to the nature of situations for which CYS is often called, protective custody is not uncommon. Within three (3) days of a protective custody Order being entered, the Court must hold an Emergency Shelter Care hearing, where the Court will determine what type of care your child will be in (foster care, care of a relative, care of the parents) while the proceedings are going on. Unfortunately, due to the emergency nature of protective custody orders and shelter care hearings, these proceedings can often be held without the parents present. This serves to add to the confusion in the process.
Step 3. Adjudication and Disposition Hearings
After an emergency shelter hearing, CYS will often file a formal petition to have a child adjudicated dependent. Within ten (10) days of the petition (if the child is taken from the parents) or forty-five (45) days (if the child remains with the parents), the Court needs to hold a hearing regarding an adjudication of dependency. You are entitled to a public defender at your adjudication hearing. However, if you do not speak to an attorney before the date of your hearing, then you are already behind while CYS has been building its case. Further, a finding of dependency is something that can be agreed to by "stipulation;" your CYS caseworker may try to present you with a written stipulation where you agree your child will be declared dependent. In some cases, this may be the best decision. You should consult with your lawyer to make that decision.
Pro tip: do not sign anything without speaking to your lawyer.
At an Adjudication hearing, you will present formal evidence and it will be conducted as a formal trial. If your child is found dependent, the Judge will then hold a Disposition hearing to determine what to do with your child going forward. Often, Disposition hearings are held right away to determine the next steps in terms of how the child will be cared for and what the goals are going forward (i.e. reunification with the parents, termination of parental rights). Once the Disposition hearing occurs, you will need to follow the recommendations of the Court and DCPP if and until the Court finds it no longer needs to be involved in your case.
If you have an issue involving dependency, please contact one of our experienced Lehigh Valley Children and Youth attorneys today to set up a free consultation.
The foregoing is intended to be a general discussion of the law and is not intended to be construed as legal advice. If you have a specific question, please contact our office to speak with an attorney.