Cases from The Department of Children and Family Services, also known as DCFS, are sometimes sent to Juvenile Court. DCFS investigations go to Juvenile Court for 2 main reasons:
- To get an order allowing DCFS to remove or keep children from returning to the parent's home
- To provide court supervision over the parenting in a home
DCFS will go to court in order to make parents do something specific, such as allow their child to be interviewed or to release information. This does not happen often.
There are 3 kinds of issues that DCFS will claim and bring to juvenile court:
Abuse and neglect: these cases can be filed in Illinois if just one parent is accused of abuse or neglect. These cases may also be filed if the child is at risk of abuse or neglect. If a child may be at risk of abuse or neglect, this is called anticipatory neglect.
Dependency: this means the parent cannot care for the child. Sometimes this happens for reasons that are not the parent's fault.
This guide does not cover juvenile delinquency cases, though the term juvenile court also applies to delinquency cases. Delinquency cases involve claims that a person under 18 committed a criminal offense.
In most counties, the decision of whether the child protection matter will go to court is made by a state's attorney. A state's attorney is the county's official prosecutor, but the law allows any adult to file a petition. DCFS and the State have separate lawyers and different areas of responsibility. The State's Attorney is the prosecutor. The DCFS lawyer will be the person who helps arrange for DCFS responses to issues about services and visits. There may also be a lawyer for the child, generally referred to as a Guardian, who is involved in hearings and other matters. In some larger counties, like Cook County, there is a whole court building devoted to juvenile court cases. In smaller counties, juvenile court cases may be heard in the same building as other types of cases.
DCFS cases: What is the timing of court action?
The Department of Children and Family Services, also known as DCFS, may have already moved your child to another home under a safety plan agreement. If this has already occurred, read the Responding to Investigations Manual Section V for more information about what you can do about safety plans.
Sometimes in the middle of a safety plan, DCFS will need to make a critical decision as to whether they need the additional authority of the court to enforce what they think is necessary to guarantee the safety of the child. If so, they will engage the State's Attorney to request a petition to bring the family before a judge.
In other cases, DCFS has already determined they need court involvement, and they have taken the child from the parents without any prior agreement. The child will be in protective custody at the time DCFS goes to court to begin a court case. DCFS has to get a court order allowing it to keep your child within 48 hours of taking your child from you. This 48 hour period does not include holidays or weekends.
In either situation, statute, case law, and science all prefer placing children with family members whenever possible.
My DCFS case is going to juvenile court
Juvenile court cases are serious matters. Statewide statistics show that many children are returned home, including occasionally at the beginning of a case. Juvenile court cases, though, can be long and depend on your willingness to jump through a lot of hurdles or effectively prove your innocence. While the law requires the State to prove its case of abuse or neglect, in practice parents are often encouraged not to fight the allegations against them. Juvenile court cases can lead to the complete loss of parental rights if:
- There is a finding of abuse or neglect; and
- A later finding of parental unfitness, unwillingness or inability to care for the child.
Parents should face such a serious proceeding with a lawyer.
The Department of Children and Family Services, also known as DCFS, is required to notify you of the first court date. After that, you must:
- Keep track of court dates;
- Keep track of all persons involved; and
- Keep your lawyer and DCFS informed of your whereabouts.
The juvenile court case has different stages where each of these goals might be considered:
- First hearing, the main issue will be whether the child should be removed from your care;
- Later hearing, the question of whether the child is actually abused or neglected will be decided; and
- At another hearing, there will be a decision as to whether the children should be returned to your care or remain in your home if they remained home during the proceedings.
At different times in a case you may want one or more of these things to happen. The attorney will need to advise you as to how to present your requests at the right stage of the court process.
In Illinois, there is a right to have a lawyer appointed for you if you cannot afford one. The lawyer may be a public defender or a private attorney who takes court appointments. Bring information about your income to court with you on the first day. You also have the right to hire your own attorney.
DCFS cases: What can you try to accomplish in court?
Most parents who have juvenile court cases want to have their children returned to them as soon as possible. Sometimes, parents are not asking for custody for themselves but want to make sure another parent who is abusive does not gain custody. Some parents will want to assert that they did not abuse or neglect the child and that they are fully capable of caring for the child. Other parents genuinely need some help in order to be full time parents for their children.
The court may order the children to return to only one parent, at least temporarily, while the other completes evaluations and/or services. The county may also order the children to remain with someone else while both parents do services. Parents will want to make sure they have visits and other ways to stay involved in their child's life, even if the child is living with another person. And parents usually want to make sure that the Court and The Department of Children and Family Services, also known as DCFS, know about relatives who could care for the child if they cannot do so.
You should tell your attorney what your goals are. Here are a few questions to help you decide what you want to accomplish in court:
- Are you trying to get a child that DCFS took away from you?
- Are you seeking to keep a child from living with another parent who is abusive?
- Are you trying to keep children in your care?
- Are you asking to be relieved of all parental responsibility so that the child can be adopted?
- Are you claiming whether the child was not really abused? For example, is DCFS claiming that your child was abused, but you believe they are wrong?
- Are you trying to make sure that your children, who are in the DCFS system, get the best care and services they can?
- Do you think the court's involvement is helping you or a family member seek help for a problem in your family, such as addiction?
- Are you trying to get more visitation or other rights to contact your child that have been denied to you?
- Are you trying to make sure that a particular relative can care for your child if you cannot?
- Is the help DCFS is supposed to provide working or even being provided?
Different judges have different processes for you to make decisions related to your goals. Judges who have received good training will often say that visits are an issue to address at every single court day. Some judges will press to return children home by asking the State why a child cannot return today. But other judges will be more hands off and not question DCFS decisions. You should discuss how to approach your goals through the court case with your lawyers.
Sometimes you will change your mind about what you would like to happen. You may want one thing at one point in a case and something very different later on. That's OK, but it is important to communicate your goals with your lawyer and develop a plan for how to accomplish those goals through the court action. Your lawyer should advise you on the steps you will need to follow to achieve your goals.
Goals in a DCFS juvenile court case
In juvenile court cases, your actions before and after the court case starts will make a big difference in the outcome of the case. You will almost certainly be ordered to have assessments and services to establish your ability to care for the child safely. Your level of cooperation will be judged, even if you are claiming you did not abuse or neglect the child. Sometimes you may face hard decisions about the steps you need to agree to take in order to have your child returned.
Unlike other court cases, such as criminal cases, which focus mainly on a single specific event from the past:
- Cases involving child abuse or neglect sometimes entail an ongoing evaluation of past, present, and future events. The parties and the judges will be considering risks.Judges are more likely to be cautious about returning children home if they do not receive favorable reports from service providers or receive favorable testimony from caseworkers; and
- Ultimately, at some point, you must convince the judge you are trustworthy and can provide a safe home for your children.
This means that if your children were taken away from you for a problem that can be fixed, such as addiction, you can influence the future of the case by working to fix the problem and showing that you have done so.
If you do not want to or believe it is unfair for you to be required to comply with court orders, you should discuss how to handle this with your attorney. Sometimes orders can be challenged, but orders must be followed unless the court rules in your favor. You also have a right to participate in the discussion of the services you are being required to receive. There are some issues regarding services or visits the judge cannot help you with. These must be addressed through DCFS internal administrative procedures.
DFCS cases: Do I need a lawyer?
The simple answer is Yes. Because juvenile court cases have different stages and different evidence is considered at each state, it is very important to have a lawyer throughout the court case. Cases involving The Department of Children and Family Services, also known as DCFS, are often very different than other types of cases. Hearings in these cases have different names and many unique rules. A lawyer who is experienced in these kinds of cases can help you as you try to sort out what you want to accomplish in the court and how to get to that point. Most court-appointed lawyers have experience and training in understanding the different stages. They can also advise you about how to put your best foot forward.
The attorney in my DCFS case isn't helping me
Sometimes attorneys in juvenile courts have very high caseloads and many demands on their time. If you genuinely believe your attorney is not working with you or listening to your concerns, you should discuss your concerns first with that attorney and then with their supervisor, if they have one. Put your concerns in writing. If your attorney is refusing to ask for something you need, provide the attorney with any documents you can get and names of people who can help in court. Sometimes attorneys will have a very good reason for not going ahead with your requests, or suggest a different strategy. But you are entitled to know what your attorney thinks about your case and concerns.
It is possible to ask the court to appoint a different attorney, or hire your own.
If you hired your attorney privately, you have the right to change attorneys if you are not satisfied with the representation you are receiving.
Getting children back from DFCS
You should always try to talk with your attorney about the steps you are taking to get your child back, but there are some general rules to follow:
- First, try to visit with your child as much as is possible. As long as the goal of the case is for the child to return home, you should be able to visit with your child once a week, unless there is a court order limiting the visitation. In addition, you can ask for and should receive unsupervised visits before you have the child returned to you.
- Second, you should follow through with the services The Department of Children and Family Services, also known as DCFS, has asked for or the Court has ordered you to complete, whether your children remain in your home or not. These services often include parenting classes, counseling, domestic violence and substance abuse services, visitation, locating adequate housing (which DCFS can help with through the Norman fund if you are unable to find housing without assistance, and ending a relationship with someone who is abusive.
It is important to remember that many of the people who work with you in these services may be required to report to the court or to DCFS on your progress and what you say to them. You can keep track of and have proof of your actions to have your children returned to your care if you:
- Help your attorney get records showing you are complying with your services; and
- Keep your own records of your contacts with service providers and the caseworkers.
Parents are sometimes put into difficult choices during juvenile court cases. For example, a therapist wants them to admit that they have abused a child so they can admit their problem, but the parents fear that if they admit abusing a child, this will hurt their court case or lead to criminal charges. Or, the parent may truthfully deny abuse occurred but be told that an admission will speed up the court case. Or a parent who did not hurt the child and who wants to give the benefit of the doubt to her husband may be told that the only way she can get the children returned to her is to agree that her husband will not live in the home. There are no simple answers to many of the choices parents are given during juvenile court cases. But discussing these matters with your lawyer is important. Remember you can talk to your lawyer in confidence. This means the lawyer cannot tell anyone else what you tell them in confidence.
Do work with and discuss your services and concerns with your caseworker. Be aware that the caseworker should not be viewed as a friend or confidant but as someone who is required to provide objective information to the court.
Sometimes moving a child to a relative's home during the pending case will allow for more contact for the parent. Relatives who are interested in playing a bigger role in the child's care should be encouraged to come to court and support the parent. Judges are more likely to favor parents who they see have a strong support network in place. However, parents who have children in relative care should not think that they do not need to work on their own service plans for the return of the children. If something happens to disrupt care relatives provide, parents who have not been actively working on their own service plans may lose extensive visitation after the placement has disrupted. They may even lose any parental rights. For this reason, even if children are placed with relatives and the parents don't mind the living arrangements, parents must continue to show interest and engagement with their children.
Just because a case is in juvenile court, don't assume DCFS findings against you are being addressed. DCFS registers decisions about abuse and neglect after investigations. DCFS will not change its abuse or neglect registry automatically if the parent wins the juvenile court case. Parents have the right to file an appeal from a registry decision within 60 days of a juvenile court case closing, if the case closed without abuse or neglect findings against them. See Family Defense Center Pro Se Manual for more information about filing appeals from indicated findings.
Domestic Violence and DCFS toolkit for advocates
The family defense center offers a Toolkit for domestic violence advocates. The purpose of the Toolkit is to equip domestic violence service providers with the knowledge, strategies and tools to effectively advocate on behalf of and empower clients to achieve safety and stability for children and families during DCFS investigations related to domestic violence.