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[Note: The laws and procedures referred to below may change.]

The juvenile justice system, which is under superior court jurisdiction, has authority over children under 18 years of age who become juvenile dependents or juvenile wards.

DEPENDENCY COURT

A judge may declare a child a dependent of the juvenile court when the child's home is unfit because of cruelty, neglect, or abuse, or when the child does not have a competent guardian. In such cases, the court may appoint separate attorneys to represent the parent and the child.

The primary goals of the court are to 1) provide a safe environment for the child; 2) keep families together, when possible; and 3) if the child's family cannot be kept together, try to provide a stable and permanent alternative home for the child. In some cases, this means that the court will terminate parental rights so that the child can be adopted.

If a child is declared a dependent of the court, the court must first consider whether or not it is safe for the child to remain at home or whether the child needs to be put in out-of-home placement. If the court feels it is unsafe to leave the child at home and orders the child placed in a foster or group home, the court may order services for the parents and child to help bring the family back together. With court- ordered services for the family, many children can remain safely at home.

WHEN A CHILD NEEDS THE COURT'S PROTECTION

A child may be taken into "protective custody" when a peace officer or other authorized person reasonably believes that the child's safety is in danger and the protection of the juvenile dependency court is needed. One of the following conditions must

1. a child is in immediate need of medical care, or is in immediate danger of physical or sexual abuse, or a child is left unattended in a manner that poses an immediate threat to the child's health or safety;

2. a child is in a hospital and his or her release to a parent poses an immediate danger to the child's health or safety;

3. a dependent child of the juvenile court has violated an order of the juvenile court; or

4. a child is found in any street or public place suffering from sickness or injury that requires care, medical treatment, hospitalization, or other remedial care.

If you are the parent or guardian of children who have been taken into protective custody, the information below will be helpful.

CHILDREN'S SHELTER/FOSTER HOME

A child who is taken into protective custody may stay in a children's shelter or in a licensed foster home. As the parent or guardian, you will be told where the child is unless the social worker believes that information would be dangerous to the child. If the social worker won't tell you where the child is, you have a right to apply to the juvenile court for review within 24 hours. Generally, the social worker will arrange for you to visit the child while the child is detained.

RELEASING THE CHILD

The social worker assigned to the child's case will review the reports and decide what is safe for the child. The child may be released to you immediately. If not, the child may be temporarily placed in the home of the other parent if the two parents aren't living together, or in the home of a responsible relative, or in a foster home or group home.

If the child is not released: The social worker must file a petition to declare the child a dependent of the court within two court days. The petition is a legal paper giving the reasons why the court should protect the child. Parents will receive a notice of a detention hearing that gives the date, time, and place of the hearing. If you don't attend, the court may go ahead without you and you will miss a chance to be heard.

Getting a lawyer: It is recommended that you get a lawyer, but a lawyer is not required. Parents have a right to have a lawyer advise them and represent them at all court hearings. You may hire your own lawyer. If you can't afford one, you can ask the judge or social worker for a court-appointed lawyer.

What you can do to help your child get released: Usually parents have a right to receive services to help them get back their child. You should work with the social worker to find out which services you need and to develop a plan that will get the child returned to you as soon as possible.

First court hearing: Before the hearing begins, you will be given a chance to read the petition and ask questions about the allegations (statements the social worker believes can be proved by evidence in court).

At the hearing, you will be advised of your legal rights. They are:

* the right to have a lawyer;
* the limited right not to testify against yourself;
* the right to see and ask questions of witnesses and the people who wrote the police and social worker reports;
* the right to see reports filed with the court;
* the right to subpoena witnesses to make them come to court to testify; and
* the right to appeal.

After the court is sure you understand your legal rights and the allegations against you, you will be asked whether you admit the petition is true or whether you deny it. You may postpone entering a plea until a later hearing date. In some counties, the case may have a pretrial hearing.

The case may be settled at this first hearing. The petition may be amended to state facts that you believe are true and that you are willing to admit. The case then will be set for a disposition hearing.

Another possibility at the first hearing is that the social worker may feel, after further investigation, that the petition is not true or that, with some help, you can protect and care for your child. In that case, there may be an agreement to dismiss the petition or to place the child's family on informal supervision for a certain period of time.

If you deny the statements in the petition, your case will be set for a jurisdiction hearing.

If you admit the petition or enter a plea of "no contest" (discuss this with a lawyer, because the juvenile court will treat this plea the same way it would if you admitted the petition), the case usually will be continued for a disposition hearing.

At the disposition hearing, the court will decide whether to declare the child a dependent. It also will decide where to place the child.

California law requires the court to review the child's case within six months if the child has been declared a dependent of the court.

If the court decides that the child needs the court's protection, a social worker will be assigned to the child's case. If you have not met your social worker within two weeks of the child's court hearing, you should call your local child welfare agency. If you are unable to attend a hearing or keep an appointment required by the court or by the social worker, you should call the social worker immediately.

JUVENILE WARDSHIPS

The juvenile court intervenes in children's lives when necessary to protect the public and to help rehabilitate the minor. Most youth under age 18 who become wards of juvenile court have committed criminal acts and are deemed delinquents.

Once juvenile court has jurisdiction over a delinquent minor, its jurisdiction may be extended until the youth's 21st birthday, or, in a small number of cases, until age 23.

When the court decides that it is necessary to remove the delinquent minor from the custody of parents, the court works to provide the care, treatment, and guidance the minor needs--keeping in mind the best interests of both the minor and the community. The court also works toward reunifying the minor with the family when that seems possible and appropriate.

HOW A DELINQUENCY CASE BEGINS

Almost all delinquency cases begin with a police investigation or the arrest of a minor. The police officer must decide whether:

* to release the minor;
* to refer the minor to a community agency that can provide shelter, care, diversion, or counseling; or
* to take the minor into custody and to the attention of the probation officer of the juvenile court.

When chosing one of these options, the police officer must first consider public safety along with the best interests of the delinquent minor.

IF THE MINOR IS TAKEN INTO CUSTODY

If the police officer takes the minor into custody, the officer must provide the probation officer of the juvenile court with a concise written statement that explains why the minor is in custody. The police officer also must take immediate steps to notify the minor's parents, or a responsible relative, that the minor is in custody and let them know where the youth is being held.

The probation officer must explain to the minor what his or her constitutional rights are. These include the right to an attorney--and that the court will appoint an attorney if the juvenile cannot afford one. The juvenile also has the right to a trial to determine the reasons for the charges, but does not have the right to bail or to have a jury decide the case.

A minor who is in custody has the right to make at least two phone calls--to a responsible relative, employer, and/or attorney --from the place where he or she is being held.

While awaiting juvenile court proceedings, a minor will be returned to the custody of parents or a responsible relative unless the minor:

* cannot be controlled by the parents; * has no responsible parent or guardian, or suitable home; * is a danger to the community or to him or herself; * has already violated an order of the juvenile court; or * is considered likely to flee the jurisdiction of the court.

After the arresting officer files an affidavit, which is a description of the offense that the minor is alleged to have committed, the probation officer starts an investigation to decide whether court proceedings should begin. However, if the minor is 16 years or older and is alleged to have committed certain types of serious offenses, the probation officer must refer the case to the district attorney immediately.

The probation officer will file a petition with the clerk of the juvenile court, who will set a date for a court hearing. A copy of the petition will be given to the minor and to the parents if they can be found. The petition will give the time and place of the hearing.

If the court finds the juvenile to be delinquent, the juvenile can be put on probation, or sent to a halfway home or other program, or sent to a state institution for juvenile offenders. The juvenile also can be required to pay a fine or perform community service. In certain cases, the judge may transfer a juvenile matter to the adult court for trial.

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A JURISDICTION HEARING AND A DISPOSITION HEARING

The jurisdiction hearing is the parent's trial. The court will decide if some or all of the statements in the petition are true. If the court finds the petition not true, the case will be dismissed and the child will be ordered returned to you, the parent. If the court finds the petition true, the case will be set for a disposition hearing.

At the disposition hearing, the court will consider a written social worker's report and any other evidence and argument offered by any party. Parents are entitled to receive and read the written report before the hearing is conducted. The court will decide whether the child should be placed in your home, the home of the other parent, a foster home, a group home, or a home providing special help.

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