The Juvenile Court has exclusive jurisdiction over and is the sole court for initiating dependency proceedings. The purpose of dependency proceedings is to assist and protect children whose physical or mental health and welfare is substantially at risk of harm from abuse, neglect, or exploitation.
The primary factor in a determination of dependency is the child’s need, and not the parent’s circumstances nor who is responsible for the circumstances that the child is in. Dependency proceedings are subject to strict timelines and other rules to ensure expeditious resolution and to provide the greatest protection as promptly as possible for children.
Similarly, although due process is an important aspect of every legal proceeding, the due process requirements that parents and litigants be given reasonable notice, an opportunity to be heard, and an opportunity to present his or her claim or defense are particularly important based upon the serious nature of dependency proceedings and the potential to affect a parent’s rights to their child. A petition alleging dependency may be filed by an employee of the Department of Family and Children Services (“DFCS” or “DFACS”), a law enforcement officer, and any person who has actual knowledge or information of the abuse, neglect, or abandonment of a child. There are several hearings held for the protection of the child involved, including a preliminary protective hearing (“72-hour hearing”), a dependency adjudication hearing, a dispositional hearing, and a permanency plan hearing.
Importantly, in dependency cases, an attorney or a Court Appointed Special Advocate (“CASA”), or both, may be appointed as the child’s Guardian ad Litem, and the child is treated as a party to the litigation, in comparison to Superior Court custody cases.
Mediation has and can resolve the case and bring months or years of litigation and financial and emotional expense to an end, even when the parties had previously felt there was no hope for settlement. Mediation has been successfully utilized in a wide variety of situations and cases that one would not generally think would be receptive to such a process, such as disputes involving aging parents, same gender relationships, congregational conflicts, health care issues, complex employment matters and a myriad of other cases.
The benefits of mediation are numerous. It can be cost effective; it allows for flexibility and creativity in developing a resolution; it’s efficient; and it is confidential. It also gives the parties the opportunity, if necessary, to express their emotions and it sometimes changes wrong perceptions or provides an opportunity for new information to be exchanged. Mediation may give a party the opportunity to be heard directly by the other side; it can help parties heal from hurt feelings and enable them to walk away from all the emotions that surround fault; it can help parties evaluate options; and it can preserve or terminate relationships more amicably. Mediation can also help the parties get a realistic understanding of their case. Parties to a mediated agreement are more likely to adhere to the terms of the agreement since they are the ones that developed the agreement.
The mediator will seek to assist the parties in reaching a mutually satisfying resolution to their conflict by facilitating the discussions and/or negotiations between the parties. The mediator focuses on the interests and needs of each party, as opposed to their positions, rights or desires. The final outcome is one agreed upon by the parties. In many cases, the parties will feel their voices have been heard and understood, and they have found a way to move forward.
As Supreme Court Justice, Sandra Day O’Connor so eloquently stated:
“The courts of this country should not be the places where resolution of disputes begins. They should be the places where the disputes end after alternative methods of resolving the disputes have been considered and tried.”
There may come a time when a loved one is no longer able to make decisions about their care or finances and someone else needs to step in and ask a Court to appoint another person to be that decision maker.
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