In Polk County, Iowa, attorneys are appointed to juvenile child welfare cases at the time the Child in Need of Assistance (“CINA”) Petition is filed. Depending on the age of the kids, they may have one attorney who serves as both the Guardian ad litem (“GAL”) and attorney for the child, or they may have two separate attorneys, one for each role. Attorneys for each parent are also appointed. While private pay attorneys can represent parents, they rarely have the financial resources to do so, and a court-appointed attorney is assigned, typically contingent upon the filing of a financial affidavit demonstrating need.
Court-appointed attorneys in juvenile court must be approved to be on the State Public Defender’s list and must attend at least three hours of annual Continuing Legal Education specific to juvenile court in order to remain on the list. Juvenile child welfare court is pretty different from other areas of law, so even if you are a parent who can afford to hire your own attorney, you may want to hire one from the court-appointed list.
GALs advocate for the “best interest of the child,” while attorneys for the child(ren) advocate for the child’s position (which may or may not be the same as what the GAL thinks is best for them). While there is no “magic age” at which we would bifurcate these roles (the child has both an attorney who serves as GAL and an attorney who serves as their attorney), it tends to be when kids are older and can articulate and support a particular position. GALs also typically prepare a report for the court, whereas the attorney does not. GALs can talk to schools, therapists, and other medical personnel without a Release of Information (“ROI”), but the attorney needs an ROI signed by the parent to speak to these people.
Kids are also allowed to attend hearings, though many choose not to, especially younger kids. Even if kids attend, however, that doesn’t mean they get to stay for the whole thing. There are some things that are just for adults to talk about; at that point, kids either need to go outside the courtroom (with an adult) or jump off the Go-To-Meeting call if the hearing is being held virtually.
The first hearing is typically a Removal Hearing, which is held within 10 days of the removal. The court must decide whether the removal was appropriate/legal, and also whether removal is still appropriate.
The next hearing is Adjudication. At this point, the court determines, based upon the evidence, whether the state has proved the allegations of the CINA Petition by “clear and convincing evidence.” This is a lower threshold than a criminal case (“reasonable doubt”), but higher than a civil case (“preponderance of the evidence”). The parties can also decide not to contest (challenge) the adjudication, which they often do when they know the evidence is clearly going to support adjudication.
After adjudication, the Department of Human Services (“DHS”) will meet with the family and do a social history. This is a thorough report that looks into the family’s background, including parents’ own history of trauma, substance abuse, domestic violence, etc. They ask questions about the mother’s pregnancy (including any substance use or health issues), whether either parent has a criminal history, and questions about the child’s current medical, dental, vision, and mental health, including immunizations.
With this information, the DHS worker prepares the Case Plan and Report to the Court. This is the “road map” for the case, and includes DHS’ recommendations for services, etc. Some recommendations are pretty specific, while others are more vague. For example, “Have a mental health evaluation” is pretty specific, but the subsequent line “and follow all recommendations” is vague, because it depends on what the evaluation says.
The attorneys can agree with the recommendations in part or whole; this is usually what happens, but on occasion, certain recommendations may be contested. After the judge considers the recommendations and any objections, s/he will adopt the recommendations (again, in whole or part), and they will then become a part of the Dispositional order.
The next hearing is a Review Hearing, and it is typically held about three-six months after Dispo. It is just what it sounds like—a check-in to see how things are going.
The next hearing, Permanency, is held six months after removal for kids aged three and under, and twelve months after removal for kids four and older. Ideally at this point, most issues will have resolved, visits have progressed to unsupervised, and include weekends and overnights. At Permanency, the court has three primary options: reunification (if everything is going well), directing the assistant county attorney to file a Petition for the Termination of Parental Rights (“TPR”) if things are not (i.e., the child cannot safely be returned home at the time of Permanency), or an extension. Extensions are six months; they are not a “second chance,” but instead are for situations where the parent may have recently begun doing well, but there’s not enough history for the court to feel comfortable returning the child to parents’ care. The extension is designed to allow them to build some good history, and are to be used when the evidence supports the court’s belief that at the end of the six months, the child could safely return home.
There are other options depending on the child’s age and situation, but these three are the primary ones.
If the court directs that a TPR Petition be filed, the assistant county attorney will file that within 30 days. This is a separate petition/case and has new case numbers. Usually the court will “pull forward” all the exhibits and evidence from the CINA case, but the TPR is a separate case. The case is set for a TPR Hearing shortly after that, and then the court, after hearing the evidence, will issue a written opinion. This opinion is typically longer than other orders, and therefore takes longer to issue. This is because the judge is writing the opinion with an eye towards supporting its decision if the decision is appealed. That means the court needs to thoroughly explain its decisions and the evidence it relied upon.
The court will continue to have Permanency Review and/or TPR Review hearings until the CINA and TPR cases are completely resolved. If there was an appeal, there will need to be a ruling (which can sometimes take several months), and then the time to appeal that decision has to lapse, at which point the court will issue a Procedendo order permitting any adoption of the children in the case to go forward (assuming the other parent’s rights were also terminated). After the adoption, the case will officially close.