By: Susan Block
This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Lawyer.
The phone rings. I answer.
“They took my grandson and put him in foster care,” the caller reports. “What can you do to help?”
And so the case begins (after the required conflict check and engagement documents). Grandparents often find themselves in family situations that compel them to come to juvenile court, now a division of the family court of most counties. In the City of St. Louis and St. Charles County, the juvenile courts are in separate buildings.
In St. Louis County, with the expansion of the courthouse, the juvenile court now is on the south side of the courthouse on the first level. There are two judges and two family court commissioners. All are very experienced in juvenile law.
Going to juvenile court is not for sissies. You should not go alone.
It is a very specialized court with its own practices, procedures and personnel. Be armed with a lawyer who has experience in this field and be prepared for many gyrations that do not occur in any other court arena. A review of Section 211 RSMo will be helpful in understanding these unique rules. But often custom and usage are even more critical to know.
When a child, alleged to be in need of care and treatment pursuant to Missouri statutes, is taken into custody, the juvenile court has a duty to notify the parties (parents, guardian or person caring for the child) of their right to have a protective custody hearing. Such notification shall be in writing.
Upon request from any party, the court must hold a protective custody hearing. That hearing shall be held within three days, excluding Saturdays, Sundays and legal holidays. The singular purpose of this mandated and expedited hearing is to determine if the child shall continue in the protective custody of the court, or can be returned to the parents or placed elsewhere, based on all the circumstances.
This is a very emotional and traumatic time for all involved. The child may have been placed in a foster home, with essentially strangers, little or none of his or her personal belongings and without a real sense of what will follow. Think how terrifying that must be to a child.
Judges take these matters very seriously, but often are hesitant to return a child to parents or a guardian until a thorough investigation has been done to assure the safety and welfare of the child pending hearing of the full case.
Generally, grandparents find out about the removal of their grandchild after the protective custody hearing has already occurred. Their daughter may have been abusing drugs while caring for the child, their son may be accused of having molested a child or the children were simply abandoned.
The good news is that under Missouri law, grandparents have a right to intervene in a juvenile case unless it is determined that such would not be in the best interest of the child or children.
What steps do they have to take to be a part of their grandchild’s case? They may want to have the child placed with them, or at the very least, to have full knowledge of the court proceedings.
First, you are required to file a motion to intervene and set it on the court’s schedule. Notice must be provided to all parties in accordance with the Missouri Rules of Civil Procedure. In this case, it would be the Children’s Division attorney, the legal counsel for the Deputy Juvenile Officer, counsel for the parents or guardian. The parents have been served summons to appear, along with receiving a copy of the petition that will set forth the allegations pending against them. You need to send them copies of the notice.
The hearing of your motion to intervene may be continued to another date by the parents’ needing time to be appointed lawyers and to consult with them. If so, the judge will set it on another court date.
Delay is a frequent hazard in the juvenile court. Everything takes longer than you would like. Several cases are set every 30 minutes to stagger the docket, but still, you should expect to be there for a substantial period of time. Why?
It is difficult for a judge to assess how long each case will take. An example is a review hearing, which, by law, must be scheduled every 90 days if a child is out of his home. These hearings often involve reports from the Children’s Division, the Deputy Juvenile Office, a Voices for Children advocate and the Department of Mental Health. Then each party and the Guardian ad Litem has an opportunity to state their positions on the recommendations before the court.
On the brighter side, it is a good time to talk to other counsel who are also there about possible resolution of issues or review the reports carefully with your client, as they often are long and detailed.
Having served as a juvenile judge for seven years, I look forward to having cases there.
It feels like going home. As a grandparent, I know how important being a party in a juvenile case would be to me. That is another reason I urge you to be prepared for this unique judicial forum.