Juvenile and family courts, and many general trial courts, have jurisdiction in child abuse and neglect cases. These courts decide questions such as whether or not a child was abused or neglected, who should provide temporary care for a maltreated child, and who should receive permanent custody of a child who has been placed in out-of-home care.
Courts make these decisions based on State civil laws, which vary significantly among the States. State laws and practice must conform to Federal laws, which primarily govern eligibility for Federal funding for child welfare programs and services.
Serious forms of child abuse and neglect also may be addressed in a State's criminal laws. In these cases, the alleged perpetrator may be tried in criminal court.
Juvenile or family court involvement in child abuse and neglect cases generally begins with the filing of a petition based on information from a child welfare professional. While courts and State laws vary, the following hearings are fairly common steps in the process:
- Shelter care or temporary custody hearing—The court decides if the child needs to be placed away from his or her parents or caretakers temporarily to ensure safety until a disposition is made.
- Adjudicatory or dependency hearing—A fact-finding hearing in which the court hears evidence and decides if a child was abused or neglected based on State law.
- Dispositional hearing—If a child has been found to have been abused or neglected, the court makes decisions about custodial placement of the child (e.g., remaining with the parent or placement in out-of-home care), contact between the parent and child, and services for the parent and child.
- Review hearings—Held every 6 months to ensure progress is being made on the case plan.
- Permanency hearing—Must be held within 12 months of a child's placement in out-of-home care to determine a firm plan for the child's permanent placement upon exiting from out-of-home care. This time frame can be extended to 18 months with good cause.
- Termination of parental rights hearing—If a court determines that a child in out-of-home care cannot be safely reunited with his or her parent, a termination of parental rights hearing may be held to free the child for adoption.
Cases can be dismissed at any point in the process.
Courts and child welfare agencies must work closely together as they are both responsible for protecting children and strengthening families experiencing child abuse and neglect.
Center on Children and the Law
American Bar Association
A full-service technical assistance, training, and research program addressing a broad spectrum of law and court-related topics affecting children. Operates the Children's Bureau's Center on Children and the Law: National Court Projects.
The Family First Prevention Services Act of 2018: A Guide for the Legal Community (PDF - 1,925 KB)
American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law (2020)
Provides an overview of the Family First Prevention Services Act of 2018 for judges, magistrates, and court personnel. The guide reviews how the act affects Federal child welfare law, identifies opportunities to use it in legal advocacy and decision-making, and describes how members of the legal community can support implementation of the act.
National Association of Counsel for Children (NACC)
A nonprofit child advocacy and professional membership association dedicated to providing high quality legal representation for children. NACC provides training and technical assistance to attorneys and other professionals, serves as a public information and professional referral center, and engages in public policy and legislative advocacy.
National Center for State Courts (NCSC)
Through research, consulting services, publications, and national educational programs, NCSC helps to enhance court operations, collect and interpret data on court operations, and provide information on "best practices.".
National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ)
Provides training, technical assistance, and research to help courts, judges, and others in the areas of child abuse and neglect, adoption and foster care, family violence, and alcohol and drug abuse.