DCF does two basic type of court cases, "care and protection" cases, which keep your child until age 18 or whenever you convince the agency you are fit, and "adoption", where they permanently terminate your parental rights.
How DCF Does Court Cases
There are basically two types of court cases that DCF pursues. The first is called a "care and protection" case, and the other is "adoption". A case only gets into court when DCF has snatched your children or wants to snatch them and keep them either for a while or permanently. In order to keep a child for more than a day, they have to go to court. Here is the whole process explained:
First, a note about the relationship between the administrative case, described elsewhere, and the court case. Even when a case does go to court, DCF still conducts an administrative case. It just plods along on its own course, as though the court case was not happening. There is often a complete disconnect between the two for some reason. The investigation, assessment, and on-going social work just clunks along, in typical mindless bureaucratic fashion, oblivious to the fact you may not even be seeing your children. Deadlines for various legal court requirements are not coordinated at all with what the administrative case and social worker are doing. Oh, well.
Care And Protection
When a DCF case goes to court, it usually starts as a so-called "care and protection" case. That means that the DCF believes that your child or children are in need of care, and must be protected from you, because you are not providing adequately for their physical, emotional, educational or other needs.
The first thing that happens in a care and protection case is they seize the children, in the manner and for the reasons described in the article about the Snitch Network. and in the article about why DCF can kidnap your child.
Once they have the children, they place them in a foster home until you are able to rescue them via a successful negotiation or court action and get them back. As described in the above-referenced articles, they avoid kinship placement with relatives, because they cannot control your access to the children as well. They would prefer to put them in a stranger's home, where they can drug them, interrogate them, control them, and wean them away from you, your home and your love.
72 Hour Hearing
The next thing that happens after your children are in captivity, is that you are given what is called a "72 hour hearing", which is supposed to happen within 72 hours after the kidnapping. At that hearing, DCF has to show, by a preponderance of the evidence, (meaning more likely than not, basically 51%), that the children have been seriously abused or neglected by you, OR that they are likely to be seriously abused and neglected if not kept out of your home, and that DCF has made reasonable efforts to keep them in your home.
If you are indigent, the court will appoint a lawyer for you for this hearing. Often, the lawyer doesn't even meet you until the hearing, so it is better to get your own lawyer who will stay up all night to prepare if necessary. How can a lawyer possibly be prepared if he sees the file for the first time the morning of court. You need witnesses, documents, and testimony prepared.
72 hour hearings have loads of problems, not the least of which is that they are rarely done within 72 hours. It is also hard to get the needed information from DCF to know what you are being accused of. But, when they ARE done within 72 hours, you have to prepare a whole case in that short period, which is quite a feat.
RED ALERT: The starting point for preparation is to get the secret "affidavit" from the court file which was prepared by the social worker to convince the judge to take your children. It contains the allegations that the judge read and on which he or she based the decision to originally take the children. You MUST know what is in that affidavit if you are going to mount a real defense. Clerks will give you an incredible amount of grief when you try to get this affidavit, but be persistent.
How to do a 72 hour hearing is again far beyond the scope of this article. I will be preparing a "Win Your Own Case" book to explain how you can win at the 72 hour hearing.
Here is the procedural problem with 72 hour hearings. If you win, you and your children walk out of that court free. If you don't, DCF keeps usually keeps them for a year, while the case grinds slowly through the court system. There is no further chance along the way to get them back until a trial. That is a huge flaw in the law.
The next phase of a care and protection case is to do all the things on the service plan so that when you get to trial time, you can show you have been a good girl or boy, and have been "fixed" from the problems that caused the court case to be filed. Also, during this trial prep phase, you want to get your own expert witnesses who can come to trial and opine about how good a parent you are. Your lawyer may not do things that way. If not, you have the wrong lawyer, because if you do not do that, you will lose your case.
During this time, the DCF will allow you to have some visits with your child. You should push the social worker, and if necessary, the court, to have the maximum contact with your child possible. The DCF uses their own delay, and the harming of the parental bond that THEY cause, to argue that you can't be with your child(ren) any more.
If you can push for "kinship" placement, meaning that your children are cared for by a relative while the court case is going on, that is a crucial advantage, and one affirmed by the law. Do anything you can to bring that about, including having the relative go to DCF to push them. They will put the relative through hell, with all kinds of hoops to jump through, but hopefully the relative will endure it for the children's sake.
This discussion cannot teach you to be your own lawyer and put on a court case. It is a description of the procedure, so you can help your lawyer by knowing the important things that happen during the case and be prepared for what should be done. There are many other quirks and procedures that occur during these cases, that cannot all be detailed. There is no substitute for experience in dealing with them.
The next major event in a care and protection case is a "pre-trial conference", where the lawyers write out a list of witnesses and exhibits that they will introduce at the trial, if one is going to happen. Some courts have two types of these conferences, and you will have to check with the requirements of each individual court.
Finally, there is a trial.
Even at this stage, sometimes the DCF will start talking about sending the children home, on a slow, stepped program. It may start with a few hours of supervised or unsupervised visits at home, working up to most of a day, to overnights, to weekends, and so forth. Then, finally, they set the hostages free to return home permanently. If that option is offered, it is usually better than a trial in almost every case. Trials are risky, and even if you win, the judge takes months to decide after it is done. A deal ensures return of your children eventually, maybe as fast or faster than the trial would have.
Trials are ferociously complicated proceedings, with many rules and a lot of special structures that have to be observed. The biggest rule for trials is preparation - preparation of the witnesses, your examination on the witness stand, the cross examination of the social workers and of any shrink the DCF brings in, getting the exhibits all copied and ready, etc.
After the trial, the judge will want the lawyers to do his or her work, and submit a massive set of "findings", with all the facts that were testified about during the whole trial, plus a long legal memorandum with explanations of the legal issues. Then, you wait for a judgment. For months and months usually. If you win, you get your kids back. If you lose, they keep them until age 18, or until you come back again for another hearing and the court turns them loose.
Every six months you are entitled to come back and get a hearing called a "review and redetermination", where you can argue that the situation has changed, and you are now able to provide them adequate care and protection and meet their needs.
That, in a nutshell, is the care and protection case.
Often, during the course of a care and protection case, the social worker gets a bug up her tookus, and decides to change the case from care and protection to "adoption". They then send in a special social worker whose job is to keep you at arm's length, and they reduce your visits to about one a month for an hour. Then, they argue at the trial that your parental rights should be terminated because you don't have much of a bond with your child, which was caused by DCF restricting your time with the child.
An adoption case, and an adoption trial is similar to a care and protection trial during the time the case is in court, and requires a lot of same preparation, and then some. From a layman's point of view, it would look about the same.
The outcome, however, is more critical. In a care and protection case, your parental rights are not terminated, and you can keep trying to get the child back. Here, if you lose, your rights are terminated, the DCF cuts off all contact with your child, and you may never see the child again. They hide their whereabouts, and tell the children horrible things about you.
If you lose, you can appeal to the Appeals Court in Boston, to a panel of three judges. They look for clear legal or factual errors that the judge made in the trial. Appeals take about a year, and are very complicated. They do not overturn many Juvenile cases.