The courts play a central role in making decisions regarding the protection of children who have been maltreated. In child abuse and neglect cases, courts must determine whether and when a child should be removed from the home, placed in out-of-home care, or returned home. In addition, depending on State law, judges may oversee child welfare agency decisions about whether, how often, and under what conditions family visitation will occur; what if any efforts will be made to reunite the family after removal; and what support services will be offered to meet the needs of the child and family.
Juvenile and family courts have the responsibility to protect the rights of all parties involved in legal proceedings while ensuring safe, timely permanency for maltreated children. Understanding the judicial process is important for child protection staff at all levels. By having a thorough knowledge of court processes and partnering with the courts, child protective services caseworkers and other legal and nonlegal professionals can work together to better serve children and families.
If you’re a child welfare worker interested in collaborating with the courts and learning about the role of the courts in responding to child abuse and neglect, use the resources on this page. These materials also include State and local examples.
CIP Talk: Judge Ernestine Gray: Uprooted and Traumatized Avoiding Unnecessary Removals [Video]
American Bar Association, Center on Children and the Law (2021)
Shares a video discussion with Judge Ernestine Gray on how to minimize harm to children who are facing removal from their homes during a child protection investigation. View additional videos featuring legal and child welfare experts on court improvement efforts.
Collaborating to Build Multidisciplinary, Family-Centered, Strengths-Based Courts
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Children's Bureau (2020)
Children's Bureau Express, 21(4)
Explains how courts, child welfare agencies, and other partners can collaborate using multidisciplinary approaches so that children can spend less time in out-of-home care and achieve permanency, reunification, or guardianship more quickly.
Engaging Parents in Child Abuse and Neglect Hearings: Lessons Learned From Judicial Leaders (PDF - 10,875 KB)
Gatowski & Gueller (2019)
National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges
Discusses the importance of engaging children, youth, and families in child welfare court proceedings, particularly at the beginning of a case when a child has recently been removed from their parents’ custody.
Enhanced Resource Guidelines: Improving Court Practice in Child Abuse and Neglect Cases (PDF - 14,858 KB)
National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (2016)
Presents best practices for child abuse and neglect court cases and describes the need for systems-wide collaboration to truly improve outcomes for abused and neglected children and their families.
How Can We Ensure That Separating Children From Their Families Is an Intervention of Last Resort?
Casey Family Programs (2019)
Presents the results of a study that shows removal decisions are based on inconsistent standards across the country and there are wide differences in the legal standard for emergency removal; how quickly courts must review emergency removals; when legal counsel is appointed; and more.
Judicial Leadership and Improving Child Protection Outcomes
National Center for State Courts
Lists seven strategies for creating an outcome-oriented court and describes a child protection environment where collaboration with social services, attorneys, and others results in better services to families and a reduction of the number of children in out-of-home care.
Multidisciplinary Teams Improve Legal Resolution, Family Preservation in Child Welfare Cases
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Children's Bureau (2019)
Children's Bureau Express, 19(10)
Examines a project of the National Quality Improvement Center on the Representation of Children in the Child Welfare System that found using a multidisciplinary team (MDT) approach to representing children in child protection cases results in quicker resolution of cases and better family preservation than a non-MDT approach.
Using a Trauma-Informed Approach With Parents of Color in Family Court
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Children's Bureau (2021)
Children's Bureau Express, 22(3)
Provides information on the importance of using a trauma-informed approach when working with child welfare-involved parents, especially families of color, who may have had negative experiences with courts that resulted in distrust.
Child Abuse and Neglect
Describes court processes around cases of suspected child abuse and neglect and what happens during these types of court cases.
Child Protective Proceedings (Abused or Neglected Children)
New York City Family Court
Explains the process for child protective court proceedings in New York and explains how court cases begin and what happens at various types of hearings.
Child Protective Proceedings Benchbook: A Guide to Abuse & Neglect (PDF - 5,407 KB)
Michigan Judicial Institute (2021)
Provides an overview of child protective proceedings and includes information on court processes related to cases of child abuse and neglect.
Children’s Justice Initiative
Minnesota Judicial Branch
Presents information on the Children’s Justice Initiative, a collaboration between Minnesota courts and the Department of Human Services that aims to find safe, stable homes for abused and neglected children.
South Dakota Guidelines for Judicial Process in Child Abuse and Neglect Cases (PDF - 1,321 KB)
State of South Dakota Supreme Court (2019)
Offers an overview of the court process in South Dakota for cases of child abuse and neglect.