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If you need to consult with an attorney or would like more information on dependent child proceedings, please contact the Erie County Bar Association's Lawyer Referral Service.

Dependent Child Proceedings

The removal of a child from the home may be accomplished on a voluntary, cooperative basis or may be met with great resistance by the family. Dependent Child proceedings are governed by the Juvenile Act and the Rules of Juvenile Court Procedure. There are several ways in which children may enter care. The primary means of entry pursuant to Pa.R.J.C.P. 1200 include:

1. the filing of a dependency petition;
2. the submission of an emergency custody application;
3. the taking of the child into protective custody pursuant to a court order or statutory authority;
4. the court accepting jurisdiction of a resident child from another state; or
5. the court accepting supervision of a child pursuant to another state’s order.

A Standard Dependency Petition is typically filed by the agency but may be filed by others through application (PA.R.J.C.P. 1320). A case may be a non-placement case or the children may already be in a “placement” in these cases a Standard Dependency Petition is filed and the case proceeds to adjudication and disposition.

A case may come into the system through an application for a court order of protective custody. Typically, this happens in emergency situations via a written or oral request of the agency solicitor to the on-call Judge, in which, the court determines that removal is necessary for the welfare and best interests of the child. The order may be oral, but must be reduced to writing within 24 hours or the next court business day (PA.R.J.C.P. 1210).

Once the child is removed from the home in an emergency situation, a shelter care hearing must be conducted by a judge or a court-appointed hearing master within 72 hours of taking custody. This is a statutory “informal hearing”. The primary purpose of the shelter care hearing is to evaluate the agency’s contention that allowing the child to remain in the home would be detrimental to the child’s welfare and best interest. Under Pennsylvania law, parental rights are secondary to the basic interests of the child. Hearsay evidence is admissible at shelter care hearings. The parents/guardians can either challenge the continued placement and a hearing will immediately commence or they can stipulate to the child remaining in care without any admission or finding pending the adjudication hearing. All parties are entitled to their right to counsel. A guardian ad litem is always present to represent the best interests of the children and an on-call parent’s attorney is present to represent parents before they have the opportunity to complete an application for counsel.

The adjudication hearing is a bench trial before a judge or hearing officer in which a determination is made whether the child is in fact “dependent” within the meaning of the Juvenile Act. This is the most formal of the hearings in a dependency case, with respect to both the admission of evidence and the agency’s burden of proof.

If a child is in protective custody a Dependency Petition must be filed within 24 hours or the next court business day after the shelter care hearing. The Statutory definition of “dependent child” is found at 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 6302. Specifically, a dependent child is defined as:

1. A child without proper parental care, control, subsistence, education as required by law, or other care or control necessary for his physical, mental or emotional health or morals; or,
2. A child who has been placed for care or adoption in violation of the law; or,
3. A child who has been abandoned by his/her parent, guardian or legal custodian; or,
4. A child who is without a parent, guardian or legal custodian; or,
5. A child who is habitually and without justification truant from compulsory school attendance; or,
6. A child who has committed a specific act or acts of habitual disobedience of the reasonable and the lawful commands of his parent, guardian, or other custodian and who is ungovernable and found to be in need of care, treatment or supervision; or,
7. A child who is under the age of ten (10) years and has committed a delinquent act; or,
8. A child born to a parent whose parental rights were involuntarily terminated to another child within three (3) years of the birth of the subject child, and where the conduct of the parent places the newborn at risk.

Grounds 1, 2, 3, 4, and 10 are considered categories of neglect (including failure to thrive, parental incapacity), abuse (physical, sexual, emotional), while the remainder of the grounds are status offenses (truancy, incorrigibility, ungovernability). For the neglect and abuse grounds a child is represented by a guardian ad litem, for the status offenses the child is represented by an attorney.

An adjudication hearing must be held within 10 days of the filing of the Dependency Petition. It can be heard by the Hearing Officer by consent of all parties. Any party can withhold consent and the matter would then be heard by a Juvenile Court Judge. At the time of the adjudication hearing the parties can stipulate to all or some of the allegations set forth in the Dependency Petition. A full hearing may be held on either all the allegations or those not stipulated to by the parties. After a hearing the Court will make specific findings as to the underlying allegations and facts that cause the child to be adjudicated dependent. In most cases, the dispositional hearing occurs immediately following the adjudication hearing. If it is not held consecutive to the adjudication hearing it must be held within 20 days thereafter if the child is in emergency custody. Disposition is the stage at which the court determines who shall have custody of the child in question, as well as what services should be provided to the child and the family. In the interest of protecting the child from further neglect or abuse, the court must decide whether to continue out-of-home placement or return the child to the home. A permanency goal and a treatment plan is also determined at the time of the dispositional hearing. 

At the time of the Shelter Care Hearing a case is assigned to an Erie County Juvenile Court Judge. The assigned Judge accepts or rejects the Hearing Officer Recommendations at the time of the adjudication and dispositional hearings. Thereafter, a permanency hearing is scheduled and is held in front of the assigned Judge. This hearing is usually held within 90 days of the adjudication/dispositional hearing. The general purpose of any permanency hearing is to make progress toward finding a permanent placement for the child. The Court may also assess the status of the case, re-examine long-term goals, or refine or update the case plan. Permanency Hearings must be held every six (6) months however, the Court may schedule the hearings much more frequently.  2/18