What You Need to Know About Expanded Dependent Parent Protections in Juvenile Proceedings
In the fall of 2015, the California Legislature passed two bills that broaden the support and services provided to parents who are themselves dependents of the court. Although these changes may only affect a small percentage of the parents in the dependency court system, foster youth overall have a higher rate of pregnancy than youth not in the foster care system. These changes provide additional protections for a population that is already at risk.
Note, in this article the term “dependent parent” includes both parents who are minors (under 18 years old) and non-minors (over 18 years old) who have been declared dependents of the juvenile court. Neither the code nor this article creates any distinction between services for dependent mothers versus services for dependent fathers.
In September 2015, Welfare and Institutions Code1 section 366.21(f) was amended to require the court to take into account the particular barriers of a dependent parent. The statue itself literally only says that the court is to take into account “the particular barriers” facing dependent parents. It does not give example of what those barriers might be. Counsel for dependent parents can tailor this change in law to argue the particular barriers their own client faces gaining access to services and completing his or her case plan.
The same senate bill also amended section 366.22(b) to authorize the courts to extend services to a dependent parent who is making “significant and consistent progress” in establishing a safe home for the child’s return at a subsequent review hearing. This amendment authorizes the court to extend reunification services to a dependent parent for up to 24 months.
“Consistent and significant progress” needs to include consistent visitation and significant progress in the past 18 months towards resolving the problems that led to the child’s removal. The dependent parents must have demonstrated the ability to complete any court ordered substance abuse treatment plans and the capacity to provide for the child’s safety, protection, physical and emotional well-being, and any special needs.2
Prior to October 2015, existing California law stated that a dependent parent’s status as a dependent of the court could not, in and of itself, be a basis to find that the child of the dependent parent was at risk of abuse or neglect.3 In October 2015, Assembly Bill 260 added that a dependent parent’s child shall not be considered at risk of abuse or neglect solely on the basis of information about the dependent parent’s placement history, past behaviors while a dependent or mental health diagnosis prior to the birth of the child.4
Section 361.8 was also amended to include the requirement that prior to a dependent parent’s child being placed in foster care and prior to termination of the dependent parent’s parental rights, it must be shown that reasonable efforts were made to provide services to prevent the removal of the child.
In the case of a dependent parent, “reasonable services” must include utilizing the available resources of the dependent parents, including his or her parents, extended family, social services agencies, caregivers and other services providers. “Other services providers” should include resources such as First 5, Nurse Family Partnership, home visitation programs and pregnant and parenting teen conferences.
AB 260 also amended Section 361.8 to prevent denial of reunification services to a dependent parent under section 361.5(10) (prior denial of reunification services for a child’s sibling and the parent has not taken steps to treat the problem’s leading to the sibling’s removal) or section 361.5(11) (prior termination of parental rights for a child’s sibling and the parent has not taken steps to treat the problem’s leading to the sibling’s removal) unless there are additional bypass provisions that may be applicable.
Prior to October 2015, the clerk of the superior court was required to maintain separate court files for non-minor dependents under the delinquency, dependency, and transition jurisdiction of the court. AB 260 expanded the protection for dependent parents by requiring the clerk of the superior court maintain a dependent parent’s court file completely separate from the court file for the child of the dependent parent.
Information from a dependent parent’s court file may be disclosed to the county and the court in the child’s dependency.5 Evidence from a dependent parent’s case file may not be entered into evidence in the child’s proceeding pursuant to a court order finding that the material in the dependent parent’s court file is materially relevant.6 Any party to the proceeding may request that the admittance of records concerning a dependent parent as evidence at any stage of the child’s proceeding.
Finally, AB 260 amended section 16002.5 to include a provision requiring foster care placements of dependent parent’s and his or her child to support the family unit. The foster placement has a duty, whenever possible, to refer dependent parents to services to prevent the filing of a petition to declare the child a dependent of the juvenile court.7 The foster placement is required to refer the dependent parent to preventive services to address any concerns regarding the safety, health or well-being of the child.
On a final note, even prior to the above amendments, section 16002.5 included provisions for the department of social services to hold specialized conferences to support dependent parents with planning for healthy parenting and identifying resources to support him or her and the child.
The goal of the prior provisions of the section 16002.5, and the updated amendments discussed above, are to promote family unity among parents who are dependents of the juvenile court by working with the dependent parents, their supportive family and extended family members, and individuals with specialized knowledge about resources available to the dependent parent to promote.