In Pennsylvania, the court responsible for hearing cases in which a child is alleged to be neglected or abused is the Children's Court of the Family Division. Family Division is one branch of a county's Court of Common Pleas. These types of cases are known generally as "dependency" cases. It is important to note that each dependency case is unique and is adjudicated based upon the merits of the case.
Although, the Court strives to reunite children who have been removed and placed outside of their homes in a timely manner, sometimes reunification is not possible. In these instances, the Court seeks to place the child in a permanent setting that meets the needs of the child. Examples of permanent placement for children include: permanent legal custodianship (PLC), independent living arrangements, placements with a willing relative, and adoption.
There are three parties in dependency cases and they are Allegheny County Children Youth and Families, the children and the parents. All parties have the right to legal representation at each stage of dependency proceedings.
The purpose of this hearing is to obtain a judicial review of the protective custody order and establish a beginning reference point to why the child or children ae in protective custody.
Determine as to whether the child can be immediately and safely returned home.
Determine whether any services would facilitate the child’s immediate return home.
Determine whether a child’s out-of-home placement should continue.
Determine whether continuation in the child’s home would be contrary to the welfare of the child.
Determine whether the out-of-home placement is the least restrictive placement and whether placement with a relative or kin has been considered. (Act 80 of 2012).
Determine visitation that would support the child’s safety, well-being and permanence.
The Shelter or Informal Hearing must occur within 72 hours of CYS obtaining a protective custody order and the child’s placement in out-of-home care.
If a determination of dependency has been made, then a determination as to whether “aggravated circumstances” exist, if aggravated circumstances were alleged in the petition.
If a dependency determination is not made, then the matter is concluded as the court does not have jurisdiction to proceed or possess authority over the parties.
This must occur within 10 days of the informal hearing, if protective custody of the child has been obtained.
If the hearing is not held within this time, the child is to be immediately released OR a child can be detained for an additional 10 days if the court determines after a hearing that:
Material evidence is not available and due diligence to obtain the evidence has been employed and
There are reasonable grounds to believe that the evidence will be available at a later date and
Court finds by clear and convincing evidence that the life of the child would be in danger or the child will abscond or be removed from the jurisdiction of the court
The day mandate may be waived (a right that is voluntarily or intentionally given up.)
Identify witnesses and/or documentary evidence to support or inform:
The allegations in the petition;
They are to make reasonable effort services to prevent placement, if applicable;
The existence of emergency precluding reasonable efforts, if applicable; and
Suggesting recommendations as to placement and visitation, if applicable.
Giving testimony regarding evidence to support or clarify the above.
The standard of proof is clear and convincing.
This term means that the judge finds that it is highly probable that the existence of the presented facts is true.
Hearsay testimony, based on child’s statements, is allowed. See (42 Pa.§ 5986).
The parties may request court to issue subpoenas requiring attendance of witnesses and documentary evidence. See (42 Pa.§ 6333).
The purpose of this hearing is to obtain a judicial:
Determine whether the evidence supports state’s intervention,
Determine whether the child is dependent; OR
Determine whether the child is dependent and abused, if abuse was alleged in the petition.
A disposition hearing is held to determine the custody and control of the child and only after the court makes a finding that the child is dependent.
The purpose of the Disposition Hearing is to obtain a disposition that is best suited for the safety, protection and physical mental, and moral welfare of the child including:
Permitting the child to remain with the parent, guardian, or custodian subject to conditions and limitations, including supervision as directed by the court
Subject to the court’s conditions and limitations transfer temporary legal custody to any of the following:
Any individual, including relative, who, after study, is found to be qualified to receive care for the child.
An agency or licensed private organization to receive and provide care to the child.
A public agency authorized by law to receive and provide care for the child.
Subject to the court’s conditions and limitations transfer permanent legal custody (PLC) to an individual including any relative, who, after study is found by the court, to be qualified to receive and care for the child.
This order may include temporary visitation rights of the parents and; the issue of whether to transfer custody of the child to a juvenile court of another state. See (42 Pa.
Prior to entering any of the above orders of disposition that would result in the child’s removal from home, the court must make the following findings on the record or in the court order.
Whether continuation of the child in his home would be contrary to the welfare, safety or health of the child; and
Whether reasonable efforts were made prior to the placement of the child to prevent or eliminate the need for removal of the child from his home, if the child has remained in his home pending such disposition; or
If preventive services were not offered due to the necessity for an emergency placement, whether such lack of services was reasonable under the circumstances; or
If the court has previously determined in the informal hearing that reasonable efforts were not made to prevent the initial removal of the child from his home, whether reasonable efforts are under way to make it possible for the child to return home.
If the court previously determined that aggravated circumstances existed and that no new or additional reasonable efforts to prevent or eliminate the need for removing the child from the home, or, to preserve and reunify the family are required then the court should not make the reasonable efforts findings described above.
Immediately or within 20 days of adjudication hearing if the child is in an out-of-home placement.
Within 60 days, if the child is not in an out-of-home placement. (42 Pa.
The judicial determination of reasonable efforts must occur within 60 days of the child’s removal from home, if applicable.
Permanency plan must be developed within 30 days of removal.
Appeals may be filed only after the issuance of the disposition order.
Identify witnesses and/or documentary evidence to support or inform:
To recommend custody and care of the child and the permanency plan;
Regarding a child’s safety, permanence and well-being, including:
Education, medical, mental health and any special needs of the child.
Appropriateness of out-of-home placement and consideration of placement with family.
Proximity of placement to family, school, and community
Visitation with parents and siblings
Testifying regarding to support or inform the above.
The legal standard to remove a child from the parents’ care and control is a
Clear necessity (alternatives to removal are unfeasible).
Notice must be provided to parties and foster parents, pre-adoptive parents and relatives caring for the child.
Evidence helpful in determining the question presented may be heard by the court, although not admissible at the adjudication. See (42 Pa. §6341(d)).
“Permanency planning is a concept whereby children are not relegated to the limbo of spending their childhood in foster homes, but instead, dedicated effort is made by the court and the children’s agency to rehabilitate and unite the family in a reasonable time, and failing in this, to free the child for adoption.” (In the Interest of M.B., 1996)
The purpose of the permanency hearing is to determine or review:
The permanency plan of the child;
The date by which the goal of permanency for the child might be achieved; and whether the placement continues to be best suited to the safety, protection and physical, mental and moral welfare of the child.
Required Judicial Determinations:
The continued necessity for and appropriateness of the placement
The appropriateness, feasibility and extent of compliance with the permanency plan developed for the child.
The extent of progress made toward alleviating the circumstances which necessitated the original placement.
The appropriateness and feasibility of the current placement goal for the child.
The likely date by which the placement goal for the child might be achieved.
Whether reasonable efforts were made to finalize the permanency plan in effect.
Whether the child is safe.
If the child has been placed outside of the Commonwealth, whether the placement continues to be best suited to the safety, protection, and physical, mental and moral welfare of the child.
The services needed to assist a child who is 14 years of age or older to make the transition to successful adulthood. If the child has been in placement for at least 15 of the last 22 months or if the court has determined that aggravated circumstances exist and that reasonable efforts are not required, the court must determine whether the county agency has:
Filed or sought a petition to terminate parental rights and
To identify, recruit, process and approve a qualified family to adopt the child unless:
The child is cared for by a relative best suited for the child or
A compelling reason for not terminating parental rights exist.
The family has not been provided necessary services to achieve a safe return of the child within the time frames identified in the permanent plan.
If the child has been placed with a caregiver, whether the child is being provided with regular, ongoing opportunities to participate in age- appropriate or developmentally appropriate activities. In order to make the determination under this paragraph, the county agency shall document the steps it has taken to ensure that:
The caregiver is following the reasonable and prudent parent standard; and
The child has regular, ongoing opportunities to engage in age- appropriate or developmentally appropriate activities. The county agency shall consult with the child regarding opportunities to engage in such activities.
Upon the determination of the above the court must determine if and when the child will be:
Returned home; OR
Placed for adoption and a termination of parental rights petition will be filed; OR
Placed with a legal custodian (PLC); OR
Placed with a fit and willing relative; OR
Placed in another planned permanent living arrangement (APPLA) which is approved by the court where all of the following apply:
The child must be 16 years of age or older.
The county agency shall identify at least 1 significant connection with a supportive adult willing to be involved in the child’s life as the child transitions to adulthood, or document that efforts have been made to identify a supportive adult.
A compelling reason why none of the other goals can be accomplished.
It’s intensive, ongoing, and as of the date of the hearing, unsuccessful efforts to return the child to their parent, guardian or custodian, to be placed for adoption, to be placed with a legal custodian (PLC), or to be placed with a fit and willing relative.
Its efforts to utilize search technology to find biological family members for the child.
Ask the child about the desired permanency goal for the child
Make a judicial determination explaining why, as of the date of the hearing, APPLA is the best permanency plan for the child.
Provide compelling reasons why all of the other goals are still not in the child’s best interest.
Make findings that the significant connection is identified in the permanency plan or that efforts have been made to identify a supportive adult, if not one is currently identified.
Within 6 months of the date of the child’s removal pursuant to a protective custody order or temporary transfer of custody pursuant to an Informal hearing whichever is the earliest. Each previous permanency hearing until the child is returned to the child’s parent, guardian, or custodian or removed from the jurisdiction of the court.
Within 30 days of the date of an adjudication of dependency at which the court determined that aggravated circumstances exist and that reasonable efforts to prevent or eliminate the need to remove the child or preserve or reunify the family need not be made.
The date of the permanency hearing where the above findings regarding aggravated circumstances were made and the permanency plan needs to be revised to be consistent with the court’s ruling.
An allegation that aggravated circumstances exist regarding a child who has been adjudicated dependent.
A petition alleging that the hearing is necessary to protect the safety or physical, mental or moral welfare of a dependent child. The Permanency Review hearings must be held within six months after the child’s placement and every 6 months thereafter. However, if the court did find that “aggravated circumstances” exist then the permanency review hearing will be held within 30 days of the adjudication of dependency and its finding of “aggravated circumstances” and reasonable efforts to prevent or eliminate the need to remove the child from the child’s parent, guardian, or custodian to preserve and reunify the family need not be made or continue to be made.
Identify witnesses and/or documentary evidence to support or inform
The implementation of the permanent plan;
Parent’s cooperation and participation in the plan;
Required permanency judicial determinations discussed above; and
The child’s safety, permanence and well-being.
Testifying that supports or inform the above.
Aggravated circumstances must be proven by clear and convincing evidence.
Evidence regarding the parents’ conduct including use of alcohol and controlled substance that places a risk on the child’s safety or welfare shall be presented to the court at the permanency hearing although it was not the basis for the dependency determination.
When the goal of the child is APPLA, the court shall ask the child about their desired permanency outcome; comments in the court rules clarify that the conversation is to be between the child and the court, not the guardian ad litem answering for the child. In all other circumstances the court shall consult with the child regarding the child’s permanency plan, including the child’s desired permanency goal, in a manner appropriate for the child’s age and maturity or ascertain the child’s views through the guardian ad litem, counsel, if one has been appointed, court-appointed special advocate, or other person designated by the court.
A judge who adjudicated the child dependent or conducted the child’s permanency hearings or other dependency proceedings may be assigned to the orphans’ court division for the purpose of hearing proceedings related to:
Involuntary termination of parental rights.
Petition to adopt the dependent child.
When a goal is being changed from reunification to adoption and termination of parental rights, the hearing must be recorded and transcribed.
Goal change hearings can be appealed.