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A child protection case (also called a PC case) usually begins when the Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Child and Family Services (the Department) files papers in District Court in connection with a serious concern about a child's safety or welfare. In a child protection case, the Department seeks a Child Protection Order from the court.
In some cases, if the Department believes the child is at serious risk of immediate harm, the Department will file a Request for a Preliminary Protection Order (PPO). If the court grants a PPO, the child may be placed in a safe, temporary home until a hearing can be held within 7-14 days.
In some cases, the Department will file a Petition for a Child Protection Order without a Request for a PPO (sometimes called a “straight petition”). In these cases, the child may remain at home until the court holds a Jeopardy Hearing or the case is resolved.
The goal of PC cases is to keep children safe, keep families together, or reunite children with their parents if they were removed for a time. A PC case is not meant to punish parents. In most cases, the Department has worked with the family to address safety or welfare concerns before filing a case in court.
All PC cases are confidential and are heard by a judge without a jury.
Legal help for parents in all PC cases
Each parent involved in a PC case is assigned his or her own lawyer early in the case. Parents: stay in touch with your lawyer and make sure your lawyer knows how to reach you throughout the case.
What happens in a PC case, step by step
A PC case may involve going to court on several occasions. Cases may differ, depending upon the facts. It is important for parents to attend and participate in all court appearances.
1. Filing a Petition
If the Department believes the child’s safety or welfare is at risk, it may file a Petition for a Child Protection Order.
2. Request for a Preliminary Protection Order (PPO (some cases)
In some cases, if the Department believes the child is at immediate risk of serious harm, the Department will also file a Request for a PPO.
- If the Department requests a PPO, the court usually rules on the request right away.
- If the court grants the PPO, the Department may immediately remove the child from parents’ care or take other steps to keep the child safe.
- If the court grants a PPO, it must schedule a hearing within 7-14 days.
- Parents will get copies of the court papers from the clerk’s office before the hearing date. Papers will include contact information for the lawyer who has been assigned to represent each parent.
- It is important for each parent to contact his or her lawyer immediately.
3. Case Management Conference
- In many cases, the court holds a Case Management Conference within a few weeks after the start of the case. In cases where the Department has requested a PPO, the Case Management Conference may be held at the same time as the hearing on the PPO.
- The purpose is for parents and the Department to discuss with the court how much time is needed for the Jeopardy Hearing, and how many witnesses will be called to testify at that hearing.
- The Case Management Conference is not a hearing where evidence is presented. No one will testify.
- Parents, parents’ lawyer(s), the Department, an Assistant Attorney General (representing the Department), and a Guardian ad Litem (assigned by the court to look out for the child’s best interest) all attend.
4. Jeopardy Hearing
At the Jeopardy Hearing, the court hears evidence and decides if the child is in “circumstances of jeopardy” to his or her health or welfare. Unless there are special circumstances, the Jeopardy Order must be issued within 120 days (approximately four months) after the date the Petition was filed.
Before the hearing, a draft of a Jeopardy Order is often prepared by the Assistant Attorney General and given to parents and their lawyers to review. The draft Order will state:
- The reasons for the finding of jeopardy; and
- The services that each parent must engage in to successfully reunify with the child.
- If parents agree with the Order, the court will enter the Order by agreement. If parents do not agree, the court will hold the Jeopardy Hearing.
- If the court decides, after listening to all of the evidence, that the child is not in jeopardy, the case is over.
- If the court decides that the child is in jeopardy, it will enter a Jeopardy Order. The Order can require the family to get help or take specific actions.
- In most cases, the Department must develop a Reunification Plan to attempt to reunify the family. The plan may include services and supports to reduce the causes of jeopardy.
- The court may also order that the child be placed in the care of an approved relative or in foster care until it is safe for the child to return home, or until another safe permanent living arrangement can be made for the child.
5. The Reunification Plan
The Reunification Plan is developed by the Department and may be included in the court’s Jeopardy Order. The plan sets out what parents must do and what the Department must do in order for parents to be reunited with their children.
Every plan is developed specifically for individual parents and may require that one or both parents:
- Be evaluated and participate in recommended services and supports;
- Participate in and graduate from a parenting education program; and/or
- Keep the child from having contact with certain people.
6. Judicial Review Hearing(s) and Permanency Planning
If the court issues a Jeopardy Order, it must review the order at least once every six (6) months. Parents, the Department, or the child’s Guardian ad Litem may ask that the court hold a Judicial Review hearing more frequently. At the hearing, the court:
- Reviews what has happened in the case since the last court date;
- Decides if the issues that parents were required to work on in the Jeopardy Order and Reunification Plan have been addressed; and
- Decides what should happen next.
Based on the information presented at the hearing, the court may make changes in what parents or the Department must do. The court may decide that:
- The case should be dismissed and the child returned to his or her parents’ custody; or
- Reunification efforts should continue; or
- The Department may discontinue reunification. A decision to discontinue reunification is usually made only after repeated efforts to reunify have failed over a period of time.
The court will probably hold more than one Judicial Review.
The court also is required to hold a Permanency Planning Hearing. At this hearing, the court’s focus is what is in the long-term best interest of the child. A Permanency Planning Hearing may be held at the same time as a Judicial Review.
Termination of Parental Rights
In some cases, the Department may decide that it must take the additional, serious step of filing a Petition to Terminate Parental Rights. Maine law requires a high level of proof-- clear and convincing evidence-- in order to terminate parental rights. As in a child protection case, each parent involved in a termination of parental rights case is assigned his or her own lawyer.
Before a hearing on a Petition to Terminate Parental Rights, the court will hold a Case Management Conference similar to the Case Management Conference held in a Petition for a Child Protection Order case.
What the Department must prove to terminate parental rights
The Department must prove by clear and convincing evidence that one or more of the following factors exist:
- The parent who is named in the Petition is unwilling or unable to protect the child from jeopardy, and these circumstances are unlikely to change within a time that is reasonably calculated to meet the child’s needs; or
- The parent has been unwilling or unable to take responsibility for the child within a time that is reasonably calculated to meet the child’s needs; or
- The child has been abandoned; or
- The parent has failed to make a good faith effort to rehabilitate and reunify with the child.
In addition, the court must also find that the termination of parental rights is in the best interest of the child.
Parents, your lawyer can explain what termination of parental rights may mean in your case, and help you prepare for the hearing.
- At the hearing, the Department and the child’s GAL will testify, present evidence, and call and/or cross-examine witnesses.
- The GAL will submit a report to the court with recommendations concerning the child.
- Parents may also testify, present evidence, and call and/or cross-examine witnesses.
Termination of parental rights is a last resort after significant efforts have been made to reunite the family and protect the child’s safety and welfare.
The Judicial Branch has published a Guide for Families in Child Protection Cases, available online. Paper copies are available from any district court clerk’s office.