The following is for information purposes only. It does not, and should not be construed as constituting legal advice. If you have questions, please call.
A dependency case is a remedial Superior Court civil legal action which may be brought against parents, guardians, and/or legal custodians by the Department of Social and Health Services (“DSHS”) on abandonment, child abuse, or neglect allegations. Dependencies generally involve the child(ren) being removed from the family home and placed with relatives, with other suitable persons, or in foster care.
The “typical” dependency case may involve, for example, abandonment, unresolved mental health, unresolved substance abuse, unresolved domestic violence, child abuse, and/or child neglect issues, alone or in combination. Absentee parents, homelessness, and criminal activity are also common elements, although homelessness is not a per sé basis for the state to file.
Dependency cases are often complex, and may also have associated administrative and criminal law aspects to consider.
DSHS’ Child Protective Services (“CPS”) division investigates referrals regarding child abandonment, abuse, or neglect allegations, and in those cases where it finds court supervision to be necessary to prevent abuse or neglect, it will file a dependency petition in county Superior Court. At the same time, it typically also files an ex-parté (meaning without notice to the parents) motion to have the alleged-at risk child removed from the family home (although in some cases it will file an “in-home” dependency petition), pending a “shelter care” hearing within 72 hours. In some cases, law enforcement places the child in protective custody pending the same 72-hour shelter care hearing.
Because dependency cases involve state interference with fundamental Constitutional rights, parents have a right to counsel; court-appointed if they cannot afford one.
The state’s burden at the shelter care hearing is “reasonable cause,” which is a very low burden since the goal is to prevent child abuse and neglect. The Rules of Evidence don’t apply; hearsay is allowed. Typically the shelter care hearing, if contested, involves the testimony of parents and the DSHS social worker, possibly with other witnesses such as police officers and medical professionals, teachers, family members, etc. If the court finds reasonable cause to believe that the health, safety, or welfare of the child would be jeopardized if the child returned home, shelter care is established.
After shelter care is established, either by agreement, or if the court orders out-of-home or in-home with conditions, the case next proceeds to trial on the dependency petition allegations within 75 days, generally, of the child being placed in care.
The dependency factfinding is like the shelter care hearing except that the Rules of Evidence apply and hearsay is not allowed. The state’s burden of proof at the dependency trial is a preponderance of the evidence (more probable than not), which is higher than the “reasonable cause” standard at shelter care, but significantly lower than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” criminal law standard.
Under Washington law, the state need not prove or allege actual abuse or neglect to establish dependency. A risk of abuse or neglect may be sufficient, based upon the family’s individual circumstances, if the court finds that the level of threat sufficiently high that it constitutes a danger of substantial damage to the child’s psychological or physical development. If a dependency is established by agreement or following a bench trial (before a judge, not a jury), then the court will order
The “typical” dependency case may involve abandonment, unresolved mental health, substance abuse, domestic violence, child abuse, and/or child neglect issues, alone or in combination. Absentee parents, homelessness, and criminal activity are also common elements, although homelessness is not a per sé basis for the state to file. Dependency cases are often complex, and may also have administrative and criminal law aspects to consider.
Dependency cases do not typically resolve overnight, and may take months or in many cases, years to resolve. The court’s goal at the outset of every dependency case is family reunification, with limited exception. However, under applicable state and federal laws, the parent, guardian, or custodian does not have unlimited amounts of time to remedy their parenting “deficits.”
If parenting issues are not resolved in 12 to 15 months, the court can change the permanency plan for your child into third-party custody, guardianship, or adoption. This doesn’t happen immediately, but it is a possible result if the parent, guardian or legal custodian is unable to remedy their parenting issues in a timely manner.
McKell Graff, PLLC represents parents in all phases of juvenile dependency court actions.
McKell Graff has over 20 years of combined practical experience in dependency and dependency-related practice, and can help you. Please contact us for an appointment.