Child Protection | Court Processes
In Pennsylvania, the court responsible for hearing cases in which a child is alleged
to be neglected or abused is the Children's Court of the Family Division. Family
Division is one branch of a county's Court of Common Pleas. These types of cases
are known generally as "dependency" cases.
It is important to note that each dependency case is unique and is adjudicated based
upon the merits of the case. Although, the Court strives to reunite children who
have been removed and placed outside of their homes in a timely manner, sometimes
reunification is not possible. In these instances, the Court seeks to place the
child in a permanent setting that meets the needs of the child. Examples of permanent
placement for children include: permanent legal custodianship (PLC), independent
living arrangements, placements with a willing relative, and adoption.
There are three parties in dependency cases and they are Allegheny County Children
Youth and Families, the children and the parents. All parties have the right to
legal representation at each stage of dependency proceedings.
Allegheny County Children Youth and Families is represented by an Assistant County
Solicitor from the Allegheny County Solicitor’s Office. This person is the attorney
representing the agency and the agency caseworker in each stage of dependency proceedings.
Children have the right to be represented at each stage of dependency proceedings
and an attorney is appointed by the court for that purpose. Ordinarily, the attorneys
who are appointed to represent children in dependency proceedings are members of
the organization known as Kidsvoice. In certain situations, however, Kidsvoice attorneys
will not be able to represent a child because a conflict of interest exists. In
those circumstances, the court will appoint an attorney, known as a child conflict
attorney, to provide independent representation for the child. The child conflict
attorneys who serve in this capacity provide their services under a contract with
A person's rights as a parent are potentially affected by a dependency proceeding,
therefore, a parent has a right to an attorney in each stage of a dependency proceeding.
If a person qualifies financially, he/she may be entitled to free representation.
To receive such free representation, a person must contact the Juvenile Court Project
at 11th Floor, Koppers Building, 436 Seventh Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15219 (phone
is 412-391-4467) to set up an appointment to apply for legal representation. A person
must bring with them income information for every adult in that person's household.
If a person qualifies, an attorney will be assigned to the case. This attorney may
be from the Juvenile Court Project or, if a conflict of interest exists, from an
independently contracted attorney. This right to an attorney exists for the dependency
hearings and the termination of parental rights hearings.
The balance of this section provides a basic chronological outline of dependency
case processes at the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas, Family Division, Children's
Court, from shelter care hearings all the way through to adoption proceedings.
- A shelter care hearing is the juvenile court proceeding at which the court determines
whether it is necessary to keep the child out of the home prior to the adjudicatory
hearing. Shelter care hearings are triggered by a child's detention in protective
custody pursuant to 42 Pa. C.S.A. §6325 or 23 Pa. C.S.A. §6315(a). The Juvenile
Act authorizes continued custody if it is required to protect the child. The Act
also provides for the situation in which a parent or guardian fails to appear for
the hearing or is incapacitated, authorizing continued custody if the child has
no parent, guardian, or custodian or other person able to provide supervision and
care. The Child Protective Services Law authorizes continued custody if it is determined
that protective custody shall be continued and the child is alleged to be without
proper care or control or is alleged to be a dependent child. Shelter care hearings
must occur within 72 hours of the child being taken into protective custody. If
the court finds that the child should remain in protective custody pending an adjudicatory
hearing on the merits of the dependency case, the court may place the child in a
licensed foster home, a home of a relative, a facility operated by a licensed child
welfare agency, or any other suitable place or facility as designated by the court
and approved by the Department of Public Welfare. If the court finds that continued
protective custody of the child is not necessary, the Court may return the child
to the home, pending a hearing on the merits of the case.
- In Pennsylvania, a dependent child is defined as a child who:(1) is without proper
parental care or control, subsistence, education as required by law, or other care
or control necessary for his physical, mental, or emotional health, or morals. A
determination that there is a lack of proper parental care or control may be based
upon evidence of conduct by the parent, guardian or other custodian that places
the health, safety or welfare of the child at risk, including evidence of the parent's,
guardian's or other custodian's use of alcohol or a controlled substance that places
the health, safety or welfare of the child at risk;(2) has been placed for care
or adoption in violation of law; (3) has been abandoned by his parents, guardian,
or other custodian; (4) is without a parent, guardian, or legal custodian; (5) while
subject to compulsory school attendance is habitually and without justification
truant from school; (6) has committed a specific act or acts of habitual disobedience
of the reasonable and lawful commands of his parent, guardian or other custodian
and who is ungovernable and found to be in need of care, treatment or supervision;
(7) is under the age of ten years and has committed a delinquent act; (8) has been
formerly adjudicated dependent, and is under the jurisdiction of the court, subject
to its conditions or placements and who commits an act which is defined as ungovernable
in paragraph (6); (9) has been referred pursuant to section 6323 (relating to informal
adjustment), and who commits an act which is defined as ungovernable in paragraph
(6); or (10) is born to a parent whose parental rights with regard to another child
have been involuntarily terminated under 23 Pa.C.S. § 2511 (relating to grounds
for involuntary termination) within three years immediately preceding the date of
birth of the child and conduct of the parent poses a risk to the health, safety
or welfare of the child.
- The court dependency process can be initiated in several different ways. One way
is for an interested party, usually CYF, to request a Shelter Hearing. If the court
finds that there is good cause and grants the Shelter request, CYF will then place
the child with a relative, with a foster parent or in a group home setting, depending
on the needs of the child and circumstances of the case. CYF then files a dependency
petition formally alleging dependency of the child. The Court prefers to place children
with relatives, if possible.
- The case then proceeds to an adjudicatory hearing. At the adjudicatory hearing,
the parties can either settle the case or have a trial in front of the assigned
judge. The standard of proof in dependency cases is that of clear and convincing
evidence, the highest standard of proof in a non-criminal case. If the child is
adjudicated dependent, the court issues a dispositional order.
- The dispositional order provides for the placement of the child in question and
sets a review hearing in order to monitor the case. The parent or parents of the
child in question are provided with a Family Service Plan (FSP) by CYF. The FSP
is a detailed set of requirements that the family must successfully complete in
order to be reunified or to end CYF in-home supervision of the family. For more
information regarding the Allegheny County Office of Children, Youth and Families
please visit this website:
- The Court then reviews dependency cases every three months to monitor the progress
that the family is making on the FSP. The Court is required to obtain permanency
for every child within certain federally mandated timelines provided by the Adoption
and Safe Families Act of 1997. (ASFA) For more information on ASFA, please visit
the following websites: http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/cb/laws_policies/cblaws/public_law/pl105_89/pl105_89.htm
- If the family successfully completes the requirements of the FSP then Court and
CYF involvement ends. Return of the child to his/her family is considered permanency
under ASFA. If however, the family does not complete the requirements of the FSP
and they have not otherwise removed the barriers to the child returning home, then
the case must proceed to permanency for the child.
- Permanency can also occur for a child in the following ways: (1) the child can be
placed in a Permanent Legal Custodianship, (2) the child can be placed in an independent
living program, if the child is old enough and is willing, (3) placement with a
willing relative, and (4) Termination of Parental Rights/Adoption.
- For more information in regard to statutes, judicial decisions and recommended practices
in cases involving dependent children in Pennsylvania please visit the following
website which provides a comprehensive discussion of court dependency practice in
TERMINATION OF PARENTAL RIGHTS (TPR)
- In the event that a family fails to meet the goals of the FSP in a timely manner
and cannot be reunified or the child cannot be placed with a relative, in a Permanent
Legal Custodianship, or in an Independent Living Program, the dependency case then
moves to Termination of Parental Rights (TPR).
- To initiate a TPR, the CYF agency requests a change of goal in the dependency case
from return to own home to adoption. Once the Court approves the goal change, a
TPR petition can be filed.
- The Court then schedules the matter for a “show up” hearing. If one or both of the
parents appear to contest the case, the Court then schedules the matter for a full
evidentiary hearing on the TPR petition. Parties are permitted to engage in discovery.
If the parents fail to appear at the “show up” hearing, the Court enters a termination
- At the full evidentiary hearing, the Court takes evidence from all interested parties.
After the hearing, the Court renders its decision. If a party appeals the decision
of the Court, the Court then prepares findings of fact and conclusions of law.
- The matter is then transferred to the Superior Court for appellate proceedings.
- If the Termination of Parental Rights is affirmed by the Superior Court, then the
Court may proceed to an Adoption Hearing.
- If a TPR case is uncontested or is contested, then affirmed on appeal, the Court
can proceed to an adoption at the end of any relevant appeal periods.
- CYF then files an adoption petition and the matter is scheduled in front of the
assigned judge for an adoption hearing.
- It is important to note that the Children's Court of the Family Court hears only
those adoption cases that arise from dependency cases that result in a Termination
of Parental Rights. All private adoptions occur in the Orphans’ Court Division
of the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas.
- The Allegheny County Children's Court conducts an adoption day every month and each
November the Court takes part in the celebration of National Adoption Day. For more
information on National Adoption Day, please visit the following website: www.nationaladoptionday.org.