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Gabrielle Tetreault

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Juvenile Dependency


The Juvenile Dependency Court is a branch of the Superior Court which hears cases involving neglected or abused children.  Juvenile Dependency is an area of law which involves children who are taken from their parents because the parents are accused of not properly caring for their children, or hurting their children in some way.   In the Juvenile Dependency court, I sometimes represent one of the parents, or one or more of the children.


























Purpose of Juvenile Dependency Court: The Juvenile Dependency Court is a branch of the Superior Court which hears cases involving neglected and/or abused children under eighteen years of age.  The first goal of the dependency court is to preserve families by identifying the problems that have caused the removal of the children and to offer the parents the education or counseling necessary to get the children back in their home.   If it is not possible to return the children to the parents, the court seeks out permanent home for the children through adoption, guardianship or long term foster care.  The children can be placed with relatives or people qualified to accept children into their homes (also know as professional foster care parents).    For the most part, the California Law that applies to these hearings are found in Welfare and Institutions Code Section 300, et. seq.

Take a look at the Juvenile Dependency Court Orientation Video


What happens after law enforcement or the social worker places a child in protective custody? A Juvenile Court Dependency proceeding may begin with children being removed from their parents and placed in protective custody. If the children are not in immediate danger of neglect or abuse, and are living with a parent, relative, or friend, they may be allowed to remain there pending the court proceedings.    The law allows law enforcement to detain children up to 72 hours, for their protection, if the officer or social worker believe that there is a substantial risk of neglect or abuse if the children are not removed.  In San Joaquin County, the children are normally taken to the local Children's Shelter (Walter Britten Children's Center) for processing.   If the children are very young, they will be immediately placed in a pre-approved emergency foster home.   When children are taken into protective custody, the officer or social worker will normally immediately attempt to notify the parents or guardian. When the children are placed in protective custody and taken from the home, there must be an investigation to decide whether the children can be safely returned to the home from which they were taken.



The first investigation is made by the social worker in the Intake Unit of the Department of Social Services  In San Joaquin County, the Human Services Agency - Child Protective intake unit has been delegated this responsibility by the California State Department of Health and Human Services.

-If the social worker decides that the children are not significantly at immediate risk for further abuse or  neglect, the children can be released to the parent.  The social worker decides whether to take court action.  If the social worker chooses not to take the matter to court, the social worker may request the parent sign a Family Maintenance Agreement, which requires the parents to sign and agree certain conditions, classes or programs in order to keep the children in the home and without having to go to court.    If the parent abides by the Agreement for a period of time, normally six months, no further action will be taken.    If there is another report of neglect or abuse of the children, or the parent fail to abide by the Agreement, the children can be removed from the home and a Petition may be filed with the Juvenile Court.


 -On the other hand, if the social worker decides the children are at immediate risk for further abuse or neglect, the children will remain out of the home pending the court hearing. The Department of Health and Human Services must file a Petition with the Juvenile Court within 48 hours. The Petition includes necessary legal information and a statement telling the parents why a Dependency proceeding is considered necessary for the safety of the children. In response to the Petition, a Detention Hearing is held before a Judge or Referee the next court day after the Petition is filed.  The social worker will meet with the parents, investigate the facts of the case, and prepare a report for the court hearing.




The First Hearing:   In the event the children were removed from the home, the first hearing will be a Detention Hearing. If the children were not removed, the first hearing is called an Arraignment or Initial Hearing. Both hearings advise parties of the allegations, appoint counsel, and set a future hearing date.  However, the detention hearing addresses the additional element regarding the custody status of the children pending the next hearing which is called the jurisdiction hearing.  At the first hearing, a social worker  will meet with the parents, normally before the case is called. They will provide the parents (and the parents’ attorney; if a private attorney has been retained) with a copy of the Petition ( a written report containing the allegations of neglect or abuse) filed by the Human Services Agency. The  social worker will tell the parents what the Human Services Agency will be recommending to the Court with regard to whether the children should or should not be temporarily detained from the parents.    If the parents do not have an attorney, the Judge or Referee will ask if they want an attorney to represent them. If the parents answer yes, either an attorney from the public defenders office, or from a panel of private attorneys will be appointed by the Court. Usually a separate attorney is appointed for each parent because sometimes only one of the parents has caused the abuse to the children. If the children are not released to the parents, they will remain detained in their current placement.  The report written for the hearing  by the social worker will include an evaluation of the case, a preliminary reunification/service plan, and recommendations to the Court regarding placement of the children.



Visitation and Services pending the next hearing:  The social worker will also arrange visits, if Court approved, between the parents and the children and coordinate services for the parents and the children. Visitation for the parents is normally set for at least 1 hour 1 time per week.    Initially the social worker must make referrals for services that the social believes might assist the parent in reunifying with the children.   Initially these are not court ordered, but voluntary.  At a later time (at the dispositional hearing) the court might order the parent to participate in services, but at this point it is voluntary.   These services may include referrals to parenting classes, counseling, drug and/or alcohol testing, or whatever other services would be appropriate. It is important for the parents to cooperate with both their attorneys and the social worker. If the parents make a positive effort to participate in the services offered by the social worker, the Court will take this into consideration in deciding whether to return the children.



Important things to do EARLY in the case  At the first few hearings, the parents will be asked to identify all fathers, or possible fathers for all of the children effected by the proceeding.  The parents will also be asked to identify all immediate relatives or non related persons with strong personal relationships with the children.   These people can be evaluated for possible placement options for the children which would allow the children to stay with the other "non offending" parent, other family or friends rather than being in foster care.  THIS IS ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT THING YOU CAN DO TO HELP CHILDREN INVOLVED IN THE DEPENDENCY COURT.    A parent must know that the end result of the dependency proceeding (if they are unwilling or unable to fix the problems that caused the children to be removed) is that the court will eventually make a "Long term plan" for the kids.   In other words, if the parent is unable to fix the problem in the home, the children could eventually be placed for Adoption, Guardianship or Long Term Foster Care If the case goes "bad" and the parents do not reunify with the children, a parent normally has an opportunity to at least remain a part of the child's life if the child is placed with a relative.  .   If the child is remains placed with a stranger foster home, it is possible that the child could be adopted by strangers and that may limit or totally eliminate later contact between the parent and the children it the parents are unable to fix the problems that led to removal of the children.



Other important things to do at the early in the case:   If the parents have ANY Native American Indian Blood, the children and parents may be subject to specialize treatment under the Indian Child Welfare Act.  "ICWA".   Even if it is only "a little bit" it is important to mention it as early in the proceedings as possible because if the child quality's under ICWA the court proceedings may take an entirely different procedural route that is normally very beneficial to both the parent and the child.    Benefits and qualifications under ICWA are too numerous and voluminous to discuss here, so I won't mention it further, except to say, DISCLOSE INDIAN BLOOD as early in the proceedings as possible.



The Jurisdictional Hearing The proceeding at which the Court determines whether allegations of abuse or neglect concerning a child are true or not is called a Jurisdictional Hearing. This hearing provides the basis for state intervention into a family.   The parents are entitled to a trial to prove or disprove the allegations as stated by the social worker's petition.   The standard for this hearing is very very low.   Unlike a criminal court, where a person is found "guilty" "beyond a reasonable doubt", the dependency court finds the petition "true" or "false" by a "preponderance of the evidence".     If the court finds the petition to be true, it does not mean that the parent goes to jail.  Rather, it only means that the court is going to intervene on behalf of the children and protect them from further abuse by the parent.    Preponderance of the evidence is a much LOWER standard than reasonable doubt.   Therefore the social worker does not have to have the same quality of evidence as the state would normally have to have for a criminal proceedings.   For this reason, it is much easy to prove something is "true" in a dependency court than it is in a criminal court.   Further, the social worker does not have to produce LIVE WITNESSES to take the stand (again very much unlike the criminal court).  Rather the social worker is permitted to introduce notes from the social worker's investigation and police reports as evidence in the dependency proceedings.    This makes it very easy for the social worker to produce enough "credible" evidence to have the court find the petition is true.



The Disposition Hearing  The disposition hearing addresses where the child will live and identifies the services to be offered to the child and the parent. Sometimes, the child is permitted to be returned home with the agreement from the parent that the parent will comply with the  Reunification/Service Plan or Case Plan.   Other times the child has to remain out of the care of the parents and wait for the parents to make progress in the Case Plan.   If a child is out of the care of the parents, the child is living in foster care, a relative, or another parent that is not involved in the allegations that brought the child before the court.   The Reunification/Service Plan or Case Plan  tells the parent what s/he needs to do to resolve the problems that brought the children’s case before the Court.   It is at this time that the court will be ordered to comply with this plan.  Up until this point, the parent's participation in the plan has been voluntary. This plan may include parenting classes, counseling, visitation requirements, and drug/alcohol counseling, domestic violence counseling, psychological evaluations, and many other types of services.   (On some rare and serious cases, the court might order that the parent be "bypassed" and that the social worker not give services to the parents.  If this happens, the parent is not given the opportunity to have the child placed in their care ever again.    This normally happens with severe intentional child abuse cases (torture) and  sexual abuse cases, or the death of a child.



Review Hearings The Court is required to review the status of each dependent child regularly. These Review Hearings are held every six months. Prior to each review, the supervising social worker will prepare a report and discuss the recommendation with the parent. This report describes the services offered so far in the case, and what additional services should be provided to the parent to correct the problems which resulted in the child becoming a dependent of the Juvenile Court. It also discusses the parents’ progress and cooperation in these services. If the child is with the parents, the report contains information about the progress of the parents in the case plan and makes a recommendation as to whether there is a need for continuing supervision by the court.  If the report indicates that the family problems are resolved, the Court may terminate dependency at this time.  Further,  If the child has remained out of the home, the report will state what progress has been made by the parents in the case plan and  whether the child can be returned to the parents.   If the parent has not made good progress in the case plan, it is possible that the court might stop the services and order the social worker to  develop of an alternative permanent plan for the child.   If problems remain which require the help of the Department of Health and Human Services, dependency will continue. Such reviews occur as long as the child remains a dependent.



Termination of Reunification Services Hearing. If the child was removed from the parent, placed in foster care, and the Court determines at a second (sometimes even a third) six-month review that reunification of child and parent is not likely, the Court will attempt to find a permanent home for the child.  It is normally after this second or third review hearing in which the social worker will ask the court to "Terminate Reunification Services".  This means that the services such as parenting class, domestic violence class, counseling, substance abuse program that are being offered to the parent, and paid for by social services are about to come to an end.    This is normally requested when the parents have not made "sufficient progress" in their reunification plan.   If services to the parent are terminated, a Permanency Planning hearing (Adoption, guardianship or Planned Permanent Living Arrangement [another name for Long Term Foster care]) will follow within 120 days.



Change of Circumstances, 388 motion.  After a Termination of Reunifications Services Hearing,  the court is no longer really concerned about the parent's rights, or the progress made by the parent in the reunification process.  At this state, the court is only concerned about the child and what is in the child's best interest.   A parent might have one more shot if they file a "changed circumstances" motion also known as a "388" petition, however the parent will have to show that despite the fact that the reunification services were terminated, that they managed to become a suitable parent and it is in the child's best interest to be returned to the parent.



Termination Parental Rights Hearing.   If the long term plan is to adopt the child, the court must proceed to terminate the parental rights of the parent.   This normally means that visitation with the parent stops as well, because it is normally in the best interest of the child to move on, and to be adopted by the relative or the foster care provider that has been caring for the child. The parent looses the right to legal and physical custody of the child and normally loses his/her right to visit the child.   If visitation is allowed, it would be in the sole discretion of the adopting parents.     If the long term plan is not adoption, but is a guardianship, then the parent will still loose legal and physical custody, but the court can order the guardians to allow visitation between the parents and the children.  Further, under a guardianship, the court does not terminate parental rights.     Lastly, if the court orders Planned Permanent Living Arrangement (a.k.a Long Term Foster Care), the court keeps legal custody of the child, gives the social worker the right to determine the physical custody of the child until 18 and will normally order continued visitation with the child with the parents, if visitation is in the best interest of the child.

The difference between a TRIAL and a COURT HEARING


There is a difference between a COURT HEARING and a TRIAL or CONTESTED HEARING   Court hearings are normally very short hearings to determine if the parents agree or disagree with the recommendations of the social worker.   When the parent or the children do not agree with the social worker, they will normally request a TRIAL or CONTESTED HEARING so the court can listen to the parents or children's evidence on why the court should not follow the recommendation of the social worker.


In San Joaquin County, the court hearings are often continued because the social worker has not completed the report, or because the attorney or the parents have not yet read the report.   The continuances are normally for short periods of times, 2-4 weeks.     However, if a parent or child disagrees with the report, and requests a TRIAL or CONTESTED HEARING, that normally is scheduled in about 45-50 days.  On that day, the court normally schedules 4-5 other trials, besides your trial because on trial day, many of the issues to be debated at the trial have a way of RESOLVING (the parents and the social worker find some middle ground and agree not to proceed with trial).   If the trial proceeds, the parents, children, social worker, relatives, caretakers, and other witness may be called to the stand to testify.   Also the parents can provide (under certain restrictions) documents for the court to review.



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Differences between

Long Term Foster Care - Guardianship - Adoption

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