A “dependency” case is a juvenile court case where someone, almost always the state through Child Protective Services (CPS), petitions the court for removal of the child from the parents and asks that the court make a finding that the child is “dependent” under Washington State law. A dependent child is one who the court has found, either through trial or agreed order, to be either abandoned, abused or neglected, or who has no parent capable of adequately caring for them such that the child is in substantial danger without court intervention and oversight (see RCW 13.34.030 for a more detailed and technical description of “dependent”).
A common misconception is that termination of parental rights occurs during or shortly after removal and/or a finding of dependency. This is not the case, as in the vast majority of dependency cases, the initial court-ordered plan for the child is return home to the parents. However, when the court makes a dependency finding, it also orders remedial services the parent or parents must complete in order to reunify with their child. It also sets out what their court-ordered visitation will be. For parental rights to be terminated, the court must first find the child dependent, and the parents must fail to make sufficient progress in services and visits for a substantial period of time (usually, a minimum of six months, but typically more than that). See RCW 13.34.180 for what the Department must allege and prove in a termination case.
The most common questions parents have in these cases involve the “when” or “how” of getting their children home to them. The answer to the "how" in theory is simple, but in practice can be quite complicated. In theory, a parent must complete their court-ordered services and maintain good, consistent visits under their dependency order. Progress in services leads to the parent's visits being “liberalized,” usually from supervised, to monitored, to unsupervised, to unsupervised overnights, to a return home. Once a dependent child is returned home, the court maintains supervision over the case for at least six months before dismissing the case (this period is known as a "trial return home"). This is much easier said than done, however, as parents face many barriers to doing this, such as (1) Department inaction or slow action in providing services or visits or otherwise moving their case forward, (2) not being properly advised about what they must do in their case for reunification or the implications of non-engagement in services or visits, (3) other life events and stressors such as homelessness, domestic violence, mental illness, or substance abuse preventing them from adequately engaging in their case. Because even the most motivated parents can face a variety of barriers to reunification, it is important they have a competent and proactive attorney that they keep in consistent communication with. They must also be willing to put in the work needed to complete their court-ordered requirements. Working toward reunification in a dependency case can be a full-time job.
If you have questions as to a dependency case regarding your or a loved one, email us at [email protected] or call at 206-926-9848 to schedule a consultation. Please note, however, that if you are currently represented by another attorney, we may not be able to speak with you about your case.