Families find themselves involved in juvenile court for a number of reasons.
A child may be in need of care or supervision if the child has been abused or neglected, is beyond the control of their parents, or is truant (has not been going to school). The court calls this type of case CHINS (which stands for "Child in need of care or supervision"). Another reason for involving the juvenile court is if a child has been accused of committing a delinquent act (an act that would be a crime if committed by an adult). This type of case is called delinquency.
All juvenile court proceedings are confidential. The public does not have access to juvenile court files or juvenile court hearings.
Research in adolescent brain science, developmental psychology, and sociology demonstrates that emerging adulthood, between the ages of 18 and 25, is a distinct developmental stage that is critically important to the transition into mature, independent, and productive adulthood. This research indicates that, to some degree, risky and even illegal conduct is normative for adolescents and emerging adults. This developmental period is marked by malleability, which makes this cohort more effectively served by the juvenile justice system’s rehabilitative approach than by the adult system’s more punitive approach. Fortunately, research shows that:
- nearly all youth will mature and age out of crime if given the opportunity to do so, and
- there are times when less formal intervention is better, as the justice system can unintentionally interfere with the natural desistance process.
Emergency Care Hearing
A child is placed into emergency custody if that child is in immediate danger, has run away, or has been arrested. An emergency hearing may happen in front of a judge or by phone, after court hours. The judge then approves a temporary plan until the judge can hear more of the facts.
Temporary Care Hearing
Within 72 hours of an emergency care order, a temporary care hearing is held. Children over the age of 10 are usually expected to attend this hearing, unless there is a reason that this may be harmful to them. The court may return custody to the custodial parent unless returning home is not in the child’s interests. The court may transfer temporary custody of the child to a noncustodial parent, a relative (grandparent, sibling, aunt, uncle, etc.), someone with a close relationship to the child, or the Department for Children and Families (DCF). A return home or placement with a relative or person with a close relationship may be subject to conditions. This is called a conditional custody order.
If the child has not been removed from the home by an emergency order, the first hearing is a preliminary hearing. The petition and the affidavit explain why the child has come to the attention of the court. If everyone admits to the allegations in the petition, the next hearing will be a disposition hearing. If anyone denies the allegations in the petition, the next hearing will usually be a pretrial or a merits hearing. Parties may resolve the case anytime before the merits hearing.
The pretrial hearing informs the judge of all issues that need resolution. The judge may proceed to the merits stage if the parties are in agreement. There may be admissions to the allegations at this stage. If there are admissions or agreements to the merits, the next hearing will be a disposition hearing.
The merits hearing is the trial in the case. Testimony is under oath. After listening to the evidence, the judge will make a decision. If a child is delinquent or in need of care or supervision, the judge orders DCF to prepare a disposition case plan. If the evidence does not support the charges, the judge can dismiss the case. If the judge needs more time to think about the case, the judge will make a decision in writing at a later date.
At the disposition hearing, the judge finalizes a plan for the child and the family. Before this hearing, the social worker prepares a report called a disposition case plan. The plan focuses on what the family and child need to do to remedy the problems that brought them to court. DCF looks for involvement by the child and family in the case planning process. All parties, including the court, should receive a copy of the plan before the hearing.
At the hearing all parties give their opinions about the case plan. The judge will either accept or reject the plan and make a decision about custody of the child.
In delinquency cases the judge may place the youth on probation. In special circumstances, if there is no community alternative, there may be an order for residential placement. This would be to ensure that the youth’s services or treatment needs are met.
Post-Disposition Review Hearing
If the goal of the disposition plan is reunification of the juvenile with a parent, guardian or custodian or not, the court is required to hold a review hearing within 60 days of the disposition order being issued. The purpose of this hearing is to monitor progress under the disposition case plan and to review parent-child contact. At this hearing a judge may keep the disposition order in effect with no change; may change legal custody or issue a conditional custody order; may establish parentage, or order parent-child contact.
The permanency hearing comes later in the process. This hearing is to decide on a permanent home for the child, which could be at home with the family or elsewhere if the child is not safe at home. About a month before the hearing, DCF files an updated case plan called a permanency plan. Parties have the right to disagree with the permanency plan. The judge will issue a permanency order.
It is important that you attend all court hearings, unless your lawyer tells you not to. Try to arrive at least 15 minutes before the time on your court notice.
The court sends all parties in a juvenile case advance notice of hearings. The notice is usually sent in writing to the lawyers and to any party who does not have a lawyer. On occasion, in emergency situations, the court gives notice of a hearing in person or by telephone. Always let your lawyer and the court know how to contact you if your phone number or address changes.
Any party can request, in writing, to continue (postpone) a hearing if they cannot attend. Continuances are granted by the judge only for good reasons, such as illness. When a hearing gets continued, the court sends a notice (in writing if there is enough time) of the change in date.
People who have a case in the court come in contact with many people. Here is a list of people who may be at a juvenile hearing:
- Family services caseworkers from DCF help children and families work through the problems that brought them to court. They also gather information to help the court make decisions about a case. In delinquency cases they may supervise juvenile probation.
- Police officers work with the social worker and State's Attorney to investigate complaints.
- Court security officers make certain that the courthouse is safe and that people treat each other with respect.
- Court staff and courtroom officers answer questions, notify you of the judge’s decisions, and help run the court.
- A lawyer who represents a parent or child may be present. If you can't afford a lawyer, the court will consider appointing one. Speak to the court staff about applying for a lawyer.
- The guardian ad litem can be the child’s parent or guardian, or it could be a court-appointed volunteer who looks out for the child’s best interest. In a delinquency case the child's parent often serves as the child's guardian ad litem.
- The State's Attorney (prosecutor) presents and proves the petition (allegations) to the court.
- The judge makes the decisions based on the facts and the law. (There are no jury trials in the juvenile court.)
- Diversion staff from the diversion program may attend delinquency hearings. Diversion is an alternative to court.
The guardian ad litem, lawyers, and social worker may need to gather information from schools, clergy, counselors, and so on. They must keep all information confidential.
You and your child have the right to be represented by a lawyer if you become involved in a juvenile court case in the family division.
A public defender is a lawyer paid by the state who represents people who cannot afford to hire a lawyer. To have a public defender represent you in juvenile court, you must apply for their services. Other lawyers, called assigned counsel, also represent parents and children in juvenile cases by agreement with the defender general.