Guardian Ad Litem Proceedings
The child welfare system is a large, complex system with many stakeholders that work to improve the lives of children and families. The focus of the county child welfare agency is to protect children and strengthen families. Numerous families receive voluntary services from the agency and as a result the large majority of cases served by the agency will never be seen by the court system. Only a small percentage of cases require court oversight and supervision. This court oversight and supervision may apply to children within their homes or children who have been removed from their home.
The removal of a child from a home may be accomplished on a voluntary, cooperative basis or may be met with great resistance by the family. Although ideally a contested removal should occur after a court hearing as to the need for such action, the circumstances usually require immediate action by the agency, before a preliminary protective hearing can be arranged. As such, there are several ways in which children may enter care. The primary means of entry pursuant to Pa.R.J.C.P. 1200 include:
- the filing of a dependency petition;
- the submission of an emergency custody application;
- the taking of the child into protective custody pursuant to a court order or statutory authority;
- the court accepting jurisdiction of a resident child from another state;
- the court accepting supervision of a child pursuant to another state’s order or;
- the filing of a motion for resumption of jurisdiction pursuant to Pa.R.J.C.P 1634.
Once the child is removed from the home in an emergency situation, a shelter care hearing must be conducted by a judge or a hearing officer within 72 hours of taking custody (42 Pa.C.S. § 6332; 23 Pa.C.S. § 6315(d)). This is a statutory “informal hearing.”
Upon application or the filing of a dependency petition, a shelter care hearing must be conducted in those cases where removal of a child is planned but has not yet occurred, or where a voluntary agreement is revoked by the parent and the agency intends to seek to keep the child in care. (Pennsylvania Dependency Benchbook, 3rd Edition, Rev 2019, Office of Children and Families in the Courts, pp. 6-1, 6-5)
The adjudication hearing is the bench trial before a judge or hearing officer in which a determination is made as to whether the child is in fact “dependent” within the meaning of the Juvenile Act. This is the most formal of the hearings in a dependency case, with respect to both the admission of evidence and the child welfare agency’s burden of proof.
The adjudication acts as the official entry point of a child into the dependency system and provides the basis for court-ordered agency services and interventions. A prompt and fully developed adjudication hearing can be instrumental in setting the stage for planning for the child’s needs and achieving permanency. Judicial diligence, oversight and concern are key components if the court proceedings are to meet these goals while safeguarding the constitutional and due process rights of the parties. (Pennsylvania Dependency Benchbook, 3rd Edition, Rev 2019, Office of Children and Families in the Courts, pp. 7-1)
After a child has been adjudicated dependent and the court has issued a disposition order under 42 Pa.C.S. § 6351(a), Pennsylvania’s Juvenile Act requires the court continue its oversight of the case by holding a series of subsequent hearings “for the purpose of determining or reviewing the permanency plan of the child, the date by which the goal of permanency for the child might be achieved and whether placement continues to be best suited to the safety, protection and physical, mental and moral welfare of the child” (42 Pa.C.S. § 6351(e)). All such post-dispositional hearings, whenever they occur, are denominated “permanency hearings” in Pennsylvania. Moreover, the Juvenile Act specifies a long list of determinations that must be made at all permanency hearings — again, whenever they occur.
However, as a practical matter, the primary focus and issues emphasized at these hearings will vary substantially, depending on the posture of the dependency case involved. In general, early permanency hearings often serve as status review hearings, in which the primary concerns are with issues of compliance with the initial permanency plan, progress being made towards plan goals, minor plan adjustments that may be necessary in view of changes in circumstances and ensuring reasonable efforts are made by the agency to finalize the court ordered permanency plan. In later permanency hearings, on the other hand, the focus is likely to emphasize the remaining steps that are needed to finalize permanency — and whether the original goal still appears to be appropriate and feasible. In some cases, it is necessary to hold a permanency hearing to choose a new goal. (Pennsylvania Dependency Benchbook, 3rd Edition, Rev 2019, Office of Children and Families in the Courts, pp. 13-1)
One of the most important ongoing issues in a dependency matter is that of parent-child visitation. In cases where the goal is family reunification, parents enjoy a qualified right to visit their children regularly. Moreover, in such cases frequent visitation is essential to preserving vital parent-child bonds that, once broken, cannot easily be restored. Visitation may also serve to reduce the child’s separation trauma during the time of out-of-home placement. It may help the parent stay motivated and focused on achieving reunification. And even when some other permanency goal has replaced reunification, regular visitation may nevertheless be in the best interests of the child. It is known from research that the long-term emotional well-being of the child improves when biological roots are integrated and honored, in some manner, even after adoption. There is improvement of the long-term emotional well-being children when visitation is thought of in the broader sense of “maintaining connections” with their biological family roots. Visitation planning works best when approached from primarily the child’s needs and secondarily the parent’s needs.
For all of these reasons, it is important that courts exercise oversight of visitation arrangements, and not leave this responsibility solely to the agency. The court should determine initially whether visitation can be done safely, and if so, ensure that it begins promptly and occurs as frequently as possible. Visitation progress should always be assessed at court reviews, and reports and testimony regarding visitation should be presented at every hearing to inform the court’s orders regarding continued visitation. (Pennsylvania Dependency Benchbook, 3rd Edition, Rev 2019, Office of Children and Families in the Courts, pp. 8-1)
One of the most significant laws impacting Pennsylvania’s child dependency system is Act 55 of 2013 (62 P.S. § 3101 et seq.). Act 55: Family Finding, became law in July 2013. The law mandates that county child welfare agencies initiate family finding when a case is “accepted for service”. A case is “accepted for service” when the county agency decides on the basis of the needs and problems of an individual to admit or receive the individual as a client of the county agency or as required by a court order entered under 42 Pa.C.S. Ch. 63 (relating to juvenile matters).
At its core, family finding is about ensuring meaningful, life-long supportive relationships for children and youth. Family finding helps identify caring adults who support children and older youth in a variety of ways including writing letters, sending birthday cards, including the child or older youth in holiday events, mentoring, attending sporting events and other activities that demonstrate unconditional love and acceptance of the child or older youth. Family finding is much more than a placement. Family finding connects a child or youth to their heritage and to loving, supportive adults.
Family finding identifies relatives and kin (teachers, coaches, neighbors, etc…), including those estranged from or unknown to the child, who are willing to become permanent connections or supports for the child or the parent(s) receiving services from the child welfare agency. Family finding is intended to provide children and their parents a range of committed adults who are able to provide permanency, sustainable relationships and a network of support. Through family finding safe family or kin can be identified. These individuals, in turn, may be able to assist with visitation, age & developmentally appropriate activities, transportation, respite and a number of other resources children and families need. Family finding is vital to all permanency options courts are required to consider. (Pennsylvania Dependency Benchbook, 3rd Edition, Rev 2019, Office of Children and Families in the Courts, pp. 2-1, 2-2)
Trauma-informed judicial practice is paramount in dependency cases. Based on the life experiences and events bringing families into dependency court, one can easily conclude that most of the individuals that come before the judge or hearing officer experienced some form of trauma or traumatic stress. According to the Enhanced Resource Guidelines trauma-informed judicial practice recognizes the impact that trauma has the lives of children and their families, trauma triggers that may evoke a trauma reaction and vulnerabilities of trauma survivors (NCJFCJ, 2016, p. 144). This requires all those working within a system to possess the knowledge of both trauma and people’s reactions to trauma. Beyond this understanding, trauma-informed practice requires courts, from judges to maintenance staff, knowing how to effectively interact with traumatized individuals. Simple changes to the way one approaches people and the manner in which one speaks to them can make a huge difference in the responses people have. Just as trauma can pervade every area of a person’s life, so too can trauma-informed practice. (Pennsylvania Dependency Benchbook, 3rd Edition, Rev 2019, Office of Children and Families in the Courts, pp. 20-39)