Naturally, I cannot include every potential issue that may exist in a case as each case is unique and presents different facts and circumstances. I will, however, attempt to briefly explain reoccurring issues in the context of the various stages of a DCFS case.
Even if your children have not been removed by DCFS, the DCFS investigator can indicate you for neglecting them. What's that mean? It means that he or she conducted and investigation and found that there was credible evidence to believe that you neglected a child. And, it also means that your name will appear on the State Central Register for a number of years (typically 5 years) unless you successfully appeal the finding. If you receive notice that you were indicated for neglect, you have the right to appeal or challenge that finding and have a hearing set within 90 days or 35 days if you work with children. If successful in the appeal, then your name will be removed or expunged from the list. If your name remains on the list it can have devastating consequences on your employment especially if you work with children because some employers that require licensing from the state have access to that list. I have appealed indicated findings of neglect and abuse. These appeals almost always proceed to hearing and are rarely negotiated. It is important that you have counsel that is willing and able to defend your case as it will almost certainly be contested before an administrative law judge.
This is a hearing to determine whether or not there is probable cause for the judge to believe the allegations of neglect, abuse or dependency. And, whether the judge believes there is an immediate and urgent reason to remove the children. In some cases, there may be probable cause but not an immediate and urged necessity to remove. Could a safety plan be implemented to prevent removal? Could other services be put in place to prevent removal? Was a safety plan explored or considered prior to removal? A safety plan is a contract between DCFS and parent that attempts to remove the risk of the children being harmed. If shelter care is granted, your children will remain in the temporary custody and guardianship of DCFS until another hearing can take place called an adjudicatory hearing and disposition. It is important that you provide any and all potential relative placement options to DCFS. Per DCFS policy, a relative or sibling placement is preferred over traditional foster care. DCFS cannot, however, know of potential placements without you giving them accurate and comprehensive information including their full name, address, phone, etc.
This hearing involves similar issues as the shelter care hearing but the rules of evidence increase to the respondent mother and father's benefit. For example, hearsay is not going to be allowed as it is in shelter care hearings. In addition, your attorney will have received DCFS's investigation which was not available at shelter care. The burden is on the state to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the allegations are true. You have a right to a bench trial in front of a judge on these issues. If the judge finds that the state has proven their case, you will be given a minimum of 9 months to correct the conditions that lead to the removal of the children and you will also be required to make reasonable efforts and progress on your service plan that was given to you by DCFS. A dispositional or sentencing hearing will be scheduled after the adjudication in which your attorney may request the case be closed, the agency be given the right to place the child back with their parent, or the removal of specific services. The prosecutor, the GAL (attorney for the child) and defense counsel for any parents will be able to weigh in on a host of issues such as those mentioned at the dispositional hearing. If the judge does not agree that the state has proven their case at the adjudicatory hearing, then the child is returned home and the case is closed. You will likely, however, still have an indicated finding of abuse or neglect on the State Central Register. An appeal process can be taken of that finding but strict time lines apply and your court appointed counsel will not be be appointed in that matter. Indicated findings can impact employment especially if you work with children in any capacity. After deposition, assuming the case proceeds past adjudication, their will be regularly scheduled hearings called permanency reviews. Their will be a goal assigned to your case, most likely being Return Home within 12 months. During this time, you are required to cooperate with the agency providing services to your family. If you do not cooperate and make reasonable efforts and progress on your service plan, your parental rights can be terminated. Remember, that after the adjudication, there is a 9 month clock that requires you to cooperate and if you do not make sufficient progress during 9 months after the adjudication, the state can ask the judge to terminate your parental rights and place your children for adoption. It is critical that you understand the significance of this first 9 month period and that you do everything you can to cooperate with any recommended services, which may include drug and alcohol treatment, parenting classes, domestic violence classes, counseling, employment, housing, etc. If their is a service you don't understand or don't believe is necessary then you need to discuss that with your lawyer and caseworker.
If you can successfully prove a substantial level of cooperation, your attorney can request the right to place be granted with the agency which will allow the agency to increase visitation and potentially place the children in your care before returning to court. Typically, a child will need to remain home for at least 6 months before a case is completely closed but there is nothing prohibiting the court from closing it earlier than that or extending it out longer.
If you have not made progress on your services, then the state will ask the judge to change the goal from return home to substitute care pending court determination of your parental rights. If allowed, this will decrease visits and your case will be set for a termination hearing. The issues at that hearing will include a fitness hearing and a best interests hearing. The state must first prove that you are an unfit parent by clear and convincing evidence. Most often, they point to a lack of progress or cooperation on your service plan. If the judge finds that you are unfit, the next hearing is a best interests hearing to determine whether or not it is in the best interests of the child to terminate your parental rights. If their is a strong bond between the child and parent and depending on whether the child is ready to be adopted, these hearings can be heavily litigated. The opinion and recommendation of the Guardian Ad Litem (attorney for child) will be heavily considered by the judge in deciding to grant the state's motion to terminate. In addition, if the parent is making progress enough to potentially have the children returned in the near future, that may also impact the judge's decision. It is important to continue with services throughout the entirety of the case.
In some cases, parents choose to surrender their rights. If the children are placed with a relative who is committed to adopting them and DCFS is in agreement along with the state prosecutor and the GAL, then you should be allowed to surrender your rights with a directed consent that a specific person adopt the child within one year. This only works if both parents are in agreement. The other option is a blanket surrender with no guarantee who may adopt.
Greg W. Sronce
725 S 4th St, Springfield, IL 62703, USA