The Department of Children and Family Services is also called DCFS. Cases from DCFS are sometimes sent to Juvenile Court. DCFS cases go to Juvenile Court for two main reasons:
- To get an order allowing DCFS to remove or keep children from returning to the parent's home
- To provide court supervision over the parenting in a home
DCFS will go to court to make parents do something specific. This can be to allow their child to be interviewed or to release information. This does not happen often.
There are three kinds of issues that DCFS will claim and bring to juvenile court:
Abuse and neglect: these cases can be filed in Illinois if just one parent is accused of abuse or neglect. They may also be filed if the child is at risk of abuse or neglect which is called anticipatory neglect.
Dependency: this means the parent cannot care for the child. Sometimes this happens for reasons that are not the parent's fault.
This guide does not cover juvenile delinquency cases. Although the term juvenile court also applies to delinquency cases. Delinquency cases involve claims that a person under 18 committed a criminal offense.
DCFS and the State have separate lawyers and different job functions. In most counties, the decision of whether the child protection matter goes to court is made by a state's attorney. State's attorneys are the county's official prosecutor. However, the law allows any adult to file a petition. The DCFS lawyer helps arrange for DCFS responses to issues about services and visits. There may also be a lawyer for the child. This lawyer is generally referred to as a Guardian. They are involved in hearings and other matters. In some larger counties, there is a whole court building devoted to juvenile court cases. In smaller counties, juvenile court cases may be heard in the same building as other types of cases.
DCFS cases: What is the timing of court action?
DCFS may have already moved your child to another home under a safety plan agreement. If this has already occurred, read the Responding to Investigations Manual Section V. This section has more information about what you can do about safety plans. (Note: Effective December 6, 2017, DCFS issued a revised Rule 336. This rule governs the process of appealing indicated findings of child abuse or neglect. This revised Rule contains significant changes from the prior version. At this time, the Family Defense Center’s Manuals have not been updated to reflect these changes. This revised Rule 336 can be found on the Illinois General Assembly website.)
Sometimes in the middle of a safety plan, DCFS needs to make a critical decision. This decision is whether they need the additional authority of the court. The court can enforce what DCFS thinks is necessary to guarantee the safety of the child. If so, they engage the State's Attorney to request a petition to bring the family before a judge.
In other cases, DCFS has already determined they need court involvement. They take the child from the parents without any prior agreement. The child will be in protective custody at the time DCFS goes to court to begin a court case. DCFS has to get a court order allowing it to keep your child within 48 hours of taking your child from you. This 48 hour period does not include holidays or weekends.
In either situation, they place the children with family members whenever possible. This is the preference of statute, case law, and science.
My DCFS case is going to juvenile court
Juvenile court cases are serious matters. Statewide statistics show that many children are returned home. Sometimes at the beginning of a case. Juvenile court cases can be long. They can depend on your willingness to jump through a lot of hurdles or effectively prove your innocence. The law requires the State to prove its case of abuse or neglect. In practice, parents are often encouraged not to fight the allegations against them. Juvenile court cases can lead to the complete loss of parental rights if:
- There is a finding of abuse or neglect; and
- A later finding that the parents are unfit, unwilling or unable to care for the child.
Parents should face such a serious proceeding with a lawyer.
DCFS is required to notify you of the first court date. After that, you must:
- Keep track of court dates;
- Keep track of all persons involved; and
- Keep your lawyer and DCFS informed of your whereabouts.
The juvenile court case has different stages where each of these goals might be considered:
- The first hearing, the main issue is whether the child should be removed from your care;
- Later hearing, the question of whether the child is abused or neglected is decided; and
- At another hearing, there is a decision whether the children should be returned to your care. Or if they were home during the case, to remain in your home.
At different times in a case, you may want one or more of these things to happen. The attorney needs to advise you as to how to present your requests at the right stage of the court process.
In Illinois, there is a right to have a lawyer appointed for you if you cannot afford one. The lawyer may be a public defender. Or they may be a private attorney who is told by the court to take the case on a pro bono basis. Bring information about your income to court with you on the first day.
DCFS cases: What can you try to accomplish in court?
Most parents who have juvenile court cases want to have their children returned to them as soon as possible. Sometimes, parents are not asking for custody for themselves. They want to make sure another parent who is abusive does not gain custody. Some parents want to assert that they did not abuse or neglect the child. They want to show they are fully capable of caring for the child. Other parents genuinely need some help to be full-time parents for their children.
The court may order the children to return to only one parent for a limited period. The other parent completes evaluations and/or services during this time. The county may also order the children to remain with someone else while both parents do services. Parents want to make sure they have visits and other ways to stay involved in their child's life. This is true even if the child is living with another person. Parents want to make sure that the Court and DCFS know about relatives who could care for the child. This is important if the parents cannot do so.
You should tell your attorney what your goals are. Here are a few questions to help you decide what you want to accomplish in court:
- Are you trying to get a child that DCFS took away from you?
- Are you seeking to keep a child from living with another parent who is abusive?
- Are you trying to keep children in your care?
- Are you asking to be relieved of all parental duties so that the child can be adopted?
- Are you claiming whether the child was not abused? For example, is DCFS claiming that your child was abused, but you believe they are wrong?
- Are you trying to make sure that your children, who are in the DCFS system, get the best care and services they can?
- Do you think the court's involvement is helping you or a family member? This could be help for a problem in your family, such as addiction?
- Are you trying to get more visitation or other rights to contact your child that have been denied to you?
- Are you trying to make sure that a particular relative can care for your child if you cannot?
- Is the help DCFS is supposed to provide working or even being offered?
Different judges have different processes for you to make decisions related to your goals. Judges who have received proper training will often say that visits are an issue to address at every single court day. Some judges will press to return children home by asking the State why a child cannot return today. But other judges will be more hands off and not question DCFS decisions. You should discuss how to approach your goals through the court case with your lawyers.
Sometimes you change your mind about what you would like to happen. You may want one thing at one point in a case and something very different later on. That's OK, but it is essential to communicate your goals with your lawyer. You must develop a plan for how to accomplish those goals through the court action. Your lawyer should advise you on the steps you will need to follow to achieve your goals.
Goals in a DCFS juvenile court case
In juvenile court cases, your actions before and after the court case impact the outcome of the case. Your actions can make a big difference in the outcome. You almost certainly will be ordered to have assessments and services. These are used to establish your ability to care for the child safely. Your level of cooperation will be judged, even if you are claiming you did not abuse or neglect the child. Sometimes you may face hard decisions about the steps you need to agree to take to have your child returned.
These cases are unlike other court cases. For example, criminal cases mainly focus on a single specific event from the past. Here:
- Cases involving child abuse or neglect can have an ongoing review of past, present, and future events. The parties and the judges will be considering risks. Judges are less likely to return children home if they do not receive favorable reports from service providers. They are also less likely if they do not receive favorable testimony from caseworkers; and
- Ultimately, at some point, you must convince the judge you are trustworthy and can provide a safe home for your children.
This means you can help your case by working to fix problems such as addiction. When children are taken away because of these problems, fixing them helps your chances. You can change the outcome of your case by showing that you have fixed the problem.
You may not want to, or believe it is unfair for you to be required to comply with court orders. You should discuss how to handle this with your attorney. Sometimes orders can be challenged, but orders must be followed unless the court rules in your favor. You also have a right to discuss the services you are ordered to receive. There are some issues regarding services or visits the judge cannot help you with. These must be addressed through DCFS internal administrative procedures.
DFCS cases: Do I need a lawyer?
The simple answer is Yes.
Juvenile court cases have different stages. Different evidence is considered in each stage. This makes it essential to have a lawyer during the court case. Cases involving DCFS are often very different than other types of cases. Hearings in these cases have different names and many unique rules. An experienced lawyer can help you sort out what you want to accomplish. They can help decide how to get to that point. Most court-appointed lawyers have experience and training in understanding the different stages. They can also advise you on how to put your best foot forward.
The attorney in my DCFS case isn't helping me
Sometimes attorneys in juvenile courts have very high caseloads and many demands on their time. If you genuinely believe your attorney is not working with you or listening to your concerns you should take the following steps. First, discuss your concerns with that attorney. Next, discuss with their supervisor if they have one. Put your concerns in writing. Provide the attorney with any documents you can get and names of people who can help in court. This may help if they are refusing to ask for something you need. Sometimes attorneys have a good reason for not following your requests or suggesting a different strategy. But you are entitled to know what your attorney thinks about your case and concerns.
It is possible to ask the court to appoint a different attorney or hire your own.
If you hired your attorney privately and are not satisfied, you have the right to change attorneys.
Getting children back from DFCS
You should always talk with your attorney about the steps you are taking to get your child back. Here are some general rules to follow:
- First, try to visit with your child as much as is possible. You should be able to visit with your child once a week. This unless there is a court order limiting the visitation. Or unless the goal of the case is no longer for the child to return home. Also, you can ask for and should receive unsupervised visits before you have the child returned to you.
- Second, you should follow through with the services DCFS or the Court has asked you to complete. This is true whether your children remains in your home or not. These services often include:
- parenting classes;
- domestic violence and substance abuse services;
- locating adequate housing (DCFS can help through the Norman fund if you are unable to find housing without assistance); and
- ending a relationship with someone who is abusive.
People who work with you in these services may be required to report to the court or DCFS on your progress. They may also have to report what you say to them. You can keep track of and have proof of your actions to have your children returned to your care if you:
- Help your attorney get records showing you are complying with your services; and
- Keep the records of your contacts with service providers and the caseworkers.
Parents are sometimes put into difficult choices during juvenile court cases. For example, a therapist wants them to admit that they have abused a child so they can admit their problem. But the parents fear that if they admit abusing a child, this will hurt their court case or lead to criminal charges. Or, the parent may truthfully deny abuse occurred but be told that admission will speed up the court case. Or, a parent who did not hurt the child may be told that the only way to get the children returned is to agree that the other parent will not live in the home. Even if the first parent wants to give the benefit of the doubt to the other parent. There are no simple answers to many of the choices parents are given during juvenile court cases. But discussing these matters with your lawyer is essential. Remember you can talk to your lawyer in confidence. This means the lawyer cannot tell anyone else what you tell them in confidence.
Do work with and discuss your services and concerns with your caseworker. Be aware that the caseworker should not be viewed as a friend or confidant. They should be viewed as someone who is required to provide objective information to the court.
Sometimes moving a child to a relative's home during the pending case will allow for more contact with the parent. Relatives who are interested in playing a bigger role in the child's care should come to court and support the parent. Judges are more likely to favor parents who they see have a secure support network in place. However, parents who have children in relative care still need to work on their service plans for the return of the children. Parents who have not been actively working on their service plans may lose extensive visitation. This can happen if something disrupts care relatives provide. They may even lose any parental rights. For this reason, parents must continue to show interest and engagement with their children. Even if children are placed with relatives and the parents don't mind the living arrangements.
Just because a case is in juvenile court, don't assume DCFS findings against you are being addressed. DCFS registers decisions about abuse and neglect after investigations. DCFS will not change its abuse or neglect registry automatically if the parent wins the juvenile court case. Parents have the right to file an appeal from a registry if they win their case. Winning the case means the case closed without abuse or neglect findings against the parent. The appeal must be filed within 60 days of a juvenile court case closing. See Family Defense Center Pro Se Manual for more information about filing appeals from indicated findings.
Domestic Violence and DCFS toolkit for advocates
The family defense center offers a Toolkit for domestic violence advocates. The purpose of the Toolkit is to achieve safety and stability for children and families during DCFS investigations related to domestic violence. The Toolkit equips domestic violence service providers with the knowledge, strategies, and tools to effectively advocate on behalf of their clients. (Note: Effective December 6, 2017, DCFS issued a revised Rule 336. This rule governs the process of appealing indicated findings of child abuse or neglect. This revised Rule contains significant changes from the prior version. At this time, the Family Defense Center’s Manuals have not been updated to reflect these changes. This revised Rule 336 can be found on the Illinois General Assembly website.)
Updated: May 2018