Missouri Child Abuse and Neglect
What are Child Abuse/Neglect cases?
Child Abuse/Neglect ("CAN") cases are civil lawsuits that are filed in order to bring children and families under the supervision of the courts due to safety concerns within the home. Safety concerns can include, among other things:
child physical abuse;
substance abuse issues;
lack of mental health care; and
various other types of child neglect.
The children involved in these cases are often removed from the parents' home and placed with other family members or foster parents. After the cases are filed, the families are offered various services through the Missouri Children's Division in an effort to, hopefully, return the children to the home or otherwise ensure that the safety concerns which prompted the case have been addressed.
Refer to RSMo. § 211.031.1(1)
Who are the parties?
Juvenile Officer - The prosecutor. Attorneys representing the Juvenile Officer are referred to as "AJOs"
Parents/Legal Guardians - Any natural or legal parent of the children, including adoptive parents, or any person with legal authority to make decisions for the children
Guardian Ad Litem ("GAL") - A person or agency appointed to represent the best interests of the children. Court Appointed Special Advocates ("CASA") and the Jackson County Office of the Guardian Ad Litem ("OGAL") are examples of agencies that fill this role. Private attorneys are often appointed as well.
Children's Division - A division of the Missouri Department of Social Services that works directly with the families to monitor progress and achieve the "permanency goal" ordered by the courts
Who is not a party?
Grandparents - Grandparents are not automatically parties to these cases, though they may be allowed to intervene depending on whether it is against the best interests of the children. See RSMo. § 211.177.
Foster Parents/Caretakers - Despite playing a crucial role in CAN cases, foster parents are not actual parties to the case. They do, however, have the right to be notified of hearings, and they have the ability to participate in proceedings to the extent allowed by the court. See RSMo. § 211.171.3.
Is this a criminal case?
No. Although criminal child abuse or endangerment charges can be filed by a local prosecuting attorney, CAN cases are not criminal cases. The rules of civil procedure and those affecting juvenile courts are followed.
What is the court process in Child Abuse/Neglect cases?
First, the Juvenile Officer files a petition containing specific factual allegations that a child has been abused and/or neglected. It may be confusing, but each child in a multi-child family will usually be assigned his or her own case number, even if all the children share the same parents and the allegations against the parents are the same. It is around this time that the child may be removed from the parents' home.
Within 3 days, the court will hold a Protective Custody Hearing to determine whether the child can be safely returned to the home. If return is not possible, the court will enter an order of protective custody. Often at these hearings, the court may also appoint an attorney to represent the parties.
Following the PC Hearing, the Court may hold Case Management Conferences to determine the status of any pre-trial issues in the case. The substantive allegations in the Juvenile Officer's petition, however, are not usually brought up at Case Management.
Within 60 days of the child's removal, the court will hold an Adjudication Hearing. This is the "trial" where the Juvenile Officer puts on evidence to prove the abuse and/or neglect allegations.
If the Juvenile Officer proves the allegations at Adjudication, the court will hold a Dispositional Hearing. This may occur immediately after Adjudication, but at the latest, it is to be held within 90 days of the child's removal. At Disposition, the court will establish the permanency goal, determine issues of the child's custody, and order the family to participate in services.
Dispositional Review Hearings (or "Case Review" Hearings) will be held every 90 to 120 days after Disposition for the first year of the case. The purpose of these hearings is for the court to assess whether its prior orders relating to the permanency goal, child custody, and services are still necessary to help the family.
Within 12 months of the child's removal, the Court will hold a Permanency Hearing where it again enters orders concerning the permanency goal, child custody, and services. This hearing, however, can sometimes be the turning point in a CAN case. If a child remains placed outside of the parents' home, options other than family reunification might need to be considered to ensure the child can be placed in his permanent home as soon as possible.
If the case remains open, the court will alternate Permanency Review Hearings and Permanency Hearings every six months to assess progress towards the established permanency goal. An example timeline is in the next section.
How long will a Child Abuse/Neglect case last?
Depending on the circumstances, a CAN case can last anywhere from a few months to several years. An example case trajectory based on the process outlined above is as follows:
May 1, 2017 - Petition is filed and child removed from the home
May 3, 2017 - Protective Custody
June 30, 2017 - Adjudication/Disposition
October 13, 2017 - Case Review
January 12, 2018 - Case Review
April 30, 2018 - Permanency Hearing
October 29, 2018 - Permanency Review
April 29, 2019 - Permanency Hearing
October 28, 2019 - Permanency Review
What actually happens at a Child Abuse/Neglect Adjudication?
As mentioned above, Adjudication is essentially the "trial" for a CAN case. The Juvenile Officer has the burden of proving the alleged abuse or neglect. The Attorney for the Juvenile Officer ("AJO") will call witnesses and provide the court with other evidence, such as medical records, to try and prove her case. The other parties will then have the opportunity to question the AJO's witnesses, call their own witnesses to testify, and provide any other evidence to the court. Once all the parties have taken their turns, the court will make its decision.
Do Child Abuse/Neglect cases have to go to trial?
Not necessarily. In rare circumstances, a CAN case might be dismissed outright. In other circumstances, the evidence might be so overwhelming that negotiating a stipulation to certain facts might make more sense. In essence, it's like pleading to a less severe offense in a criminal case. Stipulating to alternative factual language might place a parent in a better position in the future, and it might save the family (the children especially) from having to relive traumatic events. The downside, however, is that the parents will not have the ability to confront witnesses, call witnesses on their behalf, or appeal the court's decision. Furthermore, if the permanency goal in the case ultimately changes to termination of parental rights ("TPR") and adoption, the stipulated language may be used against the parent at a TPR or adoption trial.
What services are families ordered to participate in, and why should I participate?
The services ordered by the court usually correlate with the reasons the child was removed from the home. For example, drug testing might be ordered if the parent's substance abuse led to the child's removal, or Batterer's Intervention therapy might be ordered if there were allegations of physical abuse or domestic violence. Other services may include:
Services of a Parent Aid - People designated to supervise visitations, provide transportation, teach parenting techniques, and help families in-home with reunification efforts
Psychological and Psychiatric Evaluations
Individual and Family Therapy
Urinalyses, Hair Testing, and Substance Abuse Treatment
The full extent of court-ordered services might be overwhelming at times, but it is imperative that a parent participates as consistently and meaningfully as possible. Only through participation in those services can the court adequately assess the parent's progress in addressing the reasons the child was removed from the home.
What is a Permanency Goal?
Since CAN cases often involve a child being removed from a parent's home, the court is required to establish a plan so that, when all is said and done, the child can be placed in his or her permanent home. Unless circumstances dictate otherwise, the default permanency goal for the first year of a CAN case is "reunification," or the return of the child to the parent's custody. If the court determines that reunification is not possible in the reasonably foreseeable future, other options include:
Placement with a fit and willing relative
Guardianship - in short, legal authority granted to another person because the parents are unfit, unwilling, or unable to carry out their parental duties
TPR/Adoption - Permanent legal severance of the biological parents' rights so that others can assume full responsibility of raising the child
Another Planned Permanent Living Arrangement - Used for youths 16 years of age or older when the other permanency goals are not appropriate under the circumstances
What do I do if my family is involved in a Child Abuse/Neglect case?
The bottom line is that these cases are very serious and can ultimately lead to your children being placed in a permanent home that is not yours. To lessen the chances of that happening, you need an attorney who knows the process and how to work with the social services system. Mike Herrin is a former AJO who knows all too well what happens when things go wrong in CAN cases.
Section 211, Revised Statutes of Missouri (Juvenile Courts)
Jackson County, MO Resources