How to Navigate the Dependency and Neglect Court Process
 
If the child/youth was placed by the county department of human/social services (due to abuse/neglect, abandonment or imminent danger), the court process will be handled through a Dependency and Neglect (D&N) proceeding in District Court, or for Denver County, it is the juvenile court. This is a civil and not a criminal proceeding, however depending on the severity of the allegations, the perpetrator may also be charged criminally. Children under the age of six and any siblings are provided expedited procedures through the court process to assure their developmental needs for permanency are met. This process is called Expedited Permanency Planning (EPP).

Timeline of a Dependency and Neglect Case
Child/youth removed from home and put into placement.
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Temporary Custody Hearing– must be held within 48-72 hours of the date of placement.
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County department of human/social services files a Dependency and Neglect petition (Usually filed at the Temporary Custody Hearing).
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Adjudication Hearing– must be held within 60-90 days of the date of placement depending on the child/youth’s age.
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Dispositional Hearing– must be held within 45 days of Adjudication (May be held at the same time as Adjudication).
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Review Hearing– must be held within 90 days of Disposition and every 6 months thereafter.
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Permanency Hearing– must be held within 12 months of date of placement.

A temporary custody hearing (sometimes known as a shelter hearing) must be held within 48 to 72 hours of the placement of the child/youth in out-of-home care for the court to decide if the child/youth will remain in temporary placement. The investigating caseworker presents the facts of the case and the basis for placement of the child/youth. The judge determines whether or not the child/youth should remain in out-of-home care and whether the county department provided “reasonable efforts” to maintain the child/youth in the parental home. If the judge decides that placement is unnecessary, the child/youth is returned to the parents’ home the same day. If the child/youth remains in placement, the judge will advise the birth parents that they may retain an attorney, or if they cannot afford one, the court can appoint an attorney (based on parental income). The court will also order the parent to identify relatives who are suitable to care for the child/youth. The parents must provide this information to the county department within five (5) business days from the first court hearing (shelter or detention hearing). The child/youth is appointed a guardian-ad-litem (GAL), who is an attorney representing the best interests of the child/youth. It is part of the GAL’s job to meet with the child/youth. Caregivers have a right to know who the GAL is and to communicate with him/her. The attorney representing the county department is ordered to file a Dependency and Neglect (D&N) petition on behalf of the child/youth. This is the legal action that will initiate the following process.

At the adjudication, the court makes a determination whether or not the child/youth is “dependent and neglected.” The adjudicatory hearing must be held within 60 days from filing of the D&N petition, if the child is under 6 years of age (and any siblings). If the child/youth is 6 years and older, the court has up to 90 days to adjudicate. If the court finds the child/youth to be “dependent and neglected,” the child/youth remains in the legal custody of the county department and remains in placement.

At the dispositional hearing a Family Services Plan (FSP-treatment plan) is submitted to the court by the county department caseworker. The dispositional hearing must be held within 45 days of adjudication. If a child is under age 6, the hearing must be held within 30 days of adjudication. If it is possible, the adjudication and dispositional hearings are held at the same time. The caregiver, as a part of the treatment team, must have some involvement and knowledge regarding the treatment plan, particularly the logistics of visitation between the parent and child/youth and the requirements for any special needs the child/youth may have. An example would be transportation to and from medical or mental health appointments. Any protective orders, such as restraining orders, which were filed earlier, may be changed at this time if appropriate. The treatment plan for the family must be reasonable and developed so the parent can learn to provide adequate parenting to the child/youth within a reasonable time, and it must relate to the needs of the child/youth. If the child/youth has been in care for more than three months, caregivers may intervene (which means they can be heard by the court) as a matter of right at this time with or without an attorney. Caregivers may write a letter to the judge, but it may be useful to hire an attorney who can advise and intervene on their behalf. Caregivers would intervene if they believe they have pertinent information to share that is not being reported to the court regarding the best interest of the child/youth. If the court finds that no appropriate treatment plan can be devised for a particular parent based on abandonment of the child/youth, significant abuse, or long-term, severe neglect, immediate permanency (including termination of parental rights) can take place.

The court may also decide that it is appropriate for the county department to place a child/youth with a kinship foster family, kinship family, a non-related foster family or a legal custodian who could care for the child/youth on a permanent basis, if needed. At the same time, the county must continue to make reasonable efforts to preserve and reunify the family through a treatment plan. This process is called concurrent case planning. Such procedures generally happen if the child is under 6 years of age, but it also occurs for older children if the prognosis for successful reunification with birth parents is poor. Concurrent planning means that the department is working towards two goals such as reunification and adoption at the same time.

At the court review hearing, the judge determines if the parents are in compliance with the treatment plan, if “reasonable efforts” are being made by the county department to reunite the family, and whether there are any other matters that relate to the best interest of the child/youth. A court review hearing must be held within 90 days of the dispositional hearing for any children/youth who are placed out of the home, and every six months thereafter.

At the permanency hearing, the court must determine whether the original placement goal (reunification) for the child/youth continues to be appropriate and determine whether “reasonable efforts” to find a safe and permanent home for the child/youth have been made. If the child/youth remains in out-of-home placement, the court must hold a permanency hearing no later than 12 months after entering out of home care. If the child/youth is under the age of 6 years (and the siblings), the permanency hearing must be held no later than 3 months after the disposition, which should be 6 months or less from the date the child/youth was placed in foster care.

If the court has previously made a determination that no appropriate treatment plan should be developed, the permanency hearing must take place within 30 days of disposition. If, based on the parents’ noncompliance with the treatment plan, the court decides that the child/youth cannot be returned to the parents within 6 months, the court must enter an order determining the future status of the child/youth. This order must include information regarding the permanency goal for the child/youth:

  • Returned to the parents, 
  • Referred for legal custody or guardianship proceedings with relative, kin, or other person, 
  • Placed for adoption with relative, kin, or other person, or 
  • Other planned permanent living arrangement.

When the child/youth cannot be returned home, the court may order the county department to show cause why it should not file a motion to terminate the parent-child legal relationship. Possible causes are called compelling reasons and include:  

  • The parents have maintained regular consistent contact with the child/youth, and it is not in the best interest of the child/youth to discontinue the relationship. 
  • The youth is 12 years of age or older, objects to termination, and will not consent to adoption. 
  • The foster parents of the child/youth are unable to adopt due to exceptional circumstances but are willing to provide a permanent home for the child/youth, and removal from that home would be detrimental to the child/youth. 
  • The criteria of the termination statute have not yet been met.
  •  A compelling reason is identified to document why it is not in the best interest of the child/youth to terminate the parent-child legal relationship.

If the county department has none of these reasons for not filing a motion to terminate the parent-child legal relationship, they will file such a motion, and the judge will set the date for a trial to hear the case.

Once the court terminates the parent-child legal relationship, the birth parents have 45 days to appeal. If the parents’ attorney files an appeal, the adoptive parents must wait until the appeal process is concluded before they can file a motion to adopt. More information on adoption and termination of parental rights can be found in Article 5 of the Colorado Children’s Code (19-5), which is Title 19 in the Colorado Revised Statutes.

If the child/youth was placed into your care by the biological parents, you as the caregiver will need to petition the district court for Allocation of Parental Responsibilities (Colorado’s term for permanent custody), however it is recommended that an attorney is consulted and/or retained to assist because the legal process is quite complicated. The forms and instructions for filing a petition for Allocation of Parental Responsibilities can be found at http://www.courts.state.co.us/Forms/Index.cfm under the Domestic/Family category.