Each state has a child protection agency in order to regulate and deal with cases involving child abuse and neglect. These agencies investigate reports of abuse, and then take appropriate steps to ensure the safety and welfare of the child in question. Dependency and neglect proceedings are a judicial analysis of a family’s health.
At the request of the prosecution, a state welfare agency (such as a child protection agency), or the court itself, an order may be issued to a family with a child to analyze a family’s health. The specific focus of dependency and neglect proceeding is on the fitness or condition of the child’s parent or guardian.
States that have dependency and neglect proceedings generally place the needs and best interests of the child far ahead of those of the child’s parent or guardian. It is the child protection agency’s job to investigate abuse allegations. They must determine whether they are true by conducting interviews with relevant parties, observing relevant parties and their interactions, and obtaining any relevant documents and evidence.
If the agency finds that there is truth to these claims of abuse or neglect, the child may be temporarily removed from the home in order to ensure their safety.
Dependency and neglect proceedings are generally triggered by the following four circumstances:
- A Child Commits a Juvenile Crime: Juvenile crime refers to any crime committed by a child under the age of eighteen. Most states consider a child aged fourteen or older to be capable of intentionally committing a crime. In comparison, children aged seven and younger are generally considered incapable of committing a crime, other than homicide. If a child commits a juvenile crime, or is a repeated offender, a dependency and neglect process hearing may occur in order to investigate whether there is any neglect or abuse at home that could be contributing to the child’s delinquent behavior;
- A Child Is Continually Late or Absent from School: If a child exceeds the number of unexcused absences from school, they may be considered to be a truant. The child’s school is required to keep records of attendance, and if the child is considered truant, the school district will notify the child’s parents. They may also file a truancy petition with a family court which could lead to a dependency and neglect proceeding in order to investigate if the parents are responsible for the child’s habitual absence;
- One or Both Parents Are Involved in a Case of Domestic Violence: Domestic violence includes emotional and physical abuse, and is behavior used by one person in a relationship to control the other. If there are reports of domestic violence, a child protection agency will likely conduct a dependency and neglect proceeding in order to ensure the child’s safety, as well as determine if there is additional abuse towards the child; or
- One or Both Parents Are Involved in a Direct Case of Child Abuse: This is the most obvious circumstance under which dependency and neglect proceedings would take place. Child abuse includes physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, and neglect.
The consequences of a dependency and neglect proceeding are typically administered in addition to any criminal punishments for domestic violence and/or child abuse. Criminal punishments typically include incarceration, parole, fines, and probation. Dependency and neglect proceeding consequences may include, but is not limited to the following:
- The appointment of a Guardian ad Litem (a person assigned to advocate for a child and their best interests during supervised visitation and child abuse cases);
- Completing a treatment plan such as family counseling;
- Community service;
- Fines ranging from $50 to $5,000;
- Jail time ranging from three days to two years;
- Adverse effects on any child child custody or visitation arrangements; or
- Termination of parental rights.
The severity of the abuse or neglect influences the penalties levied against the offender. Generally speaking, the court is able to do as it sees fit in protecting a child and their best interests. Therefore, only a court’s decision to order a dependency and neglect proceeding, or their decision to terminate parental rights, are subject to an appeal.
As previously mentioned, the entire goal of dependency and neglect proceedings is to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the child. It is of the utmost importance that any child being neglected or abused be cared for and kept safe. Courts do not generally like to separate families or terminate parental rights. They will generally only do so if it is truly what is best and safest for the child.
If you are being investigated and undergoing a dependency and neglect proceeding, it is in your best interests to consult with a well qualified and knowledgeable family attorney in your area. An experienced family attorney can help you understand why you are being investigated, and educate you on your state’s laws and your rights. Additionally, they can represent your interests in court as needed.