Where the lines cross and transect between Juvenile Court and District Court can often be confusing and frustrating, particularly when a Child-In-Need-of-Assistance (CINA) case is initiated. Indeed, when children are involved, the Juvenile Court and the District Court both address many of the same issues, such as care, custody, and visitation. However, although both courts focus on the “best interests” of the children, they treat the specific issues quite differently.
So, how does a CINA work?
The DHS Assessment
The most common first step in a CINA case is a Department of Human Services (DHS) assessment. This is not actually part of the legal process we would identify as the CINA. However, this is a common precursor, as the DHS assessment is meant to determine if child abuse has occurred.
The process of a DHS assessment is fairly simple and straightforward. Once a concern has been reported to DHS, a worker will be assigned to that assessment to investigate and make an ultimate determination. If this assessment determines that abuse has occurred, then it is likely (but not necessary) that a referral will be made to the County Attorney’s office for a CINA. A DHS assessment finding may be appealed, an administrative process that occurs outside the Juvenile Court and is separate entirely from any potential CINA.
Request to Adjudicate the Child or Children
After having received a referral, the County Attorney may choose to file a Petition asking that a child or children be “adjudicated” as being in need of assistance. This referral may be accompanied by a request for removal of the child(ren) from the parents’ legal care and custody. These emergency requests are made ex parte, meaning that they are made directly to the Court, without input from the accused parent. Then a hearing must be held within 10 days.
At the time of a removal hearing, a parent can either:
- Agree to continue the removal (most frequently, this would be continued until the next phase of the CINA “adjudication”) or
- Present evidence and contest the removal.
If a parent prevails at the removal hearing, the child(ren) will be returned to parental care immediately. This does not, however, end the CINA. Once a CINA Petition has been filed, the Court will set the matter for further hearing. Most often, the first hearing will be a Pretrial Conference to decide whether there needs to be contested hearing or if the parents will stipulate (agree) that the child(ren) are in fact in need of assistance.
If the parents decide at the Pretrial Conference that they would like to have a contested hearing, a future date will be set for all parties to present evidence. If a parent chooses to stipulate to a CINA finding or does not prevail at the time of contested hearing, then there will be an “adjudication,” a judicial finding that the child or children are in fact in need of assistance, and a CINA case will proceed.
The Disposition Phase
At this time, a new DHS worker will be assigned to provide ongoing services to the family. What services will be provided and expectations will be placed in the case to address the concerns and successfully close the CINA case will be ordered at the next phase of the process: “disposition.” The purpose of the disposition is to provide all parties with an understanding and a plan to address the concerns that the Court found.
After disposition, the Court will take on a supervisory role in the CINA. As such, regular review hearings will be set. At the time of these review hearings, updates will be filed with the Court to assess progress and determine if the family needs other services.
Closing the CINA
Eventually, a CINA needs to be closed. While a CINA case can be closed in several ways (including successful return of children), the most alarming is the termination of parents' rights. If the County Attorney chooses to file a Petition to Terminate Parental Rights, this will be handled as a separate case from the CINA but will not end the CINA. Instead, the cases will run concurrently with one another.
The Court will schedule a Pretrial Conference for the termination specifically to determine if a contested hearing will be necessary. If a parent decides that they would like to agree to have their parental rights terminated, the Court will make a record as to this consent. If a parent decides that they would like to contest the Petition to Terminate Parental Rights, the Court will schedule a date and time for parties to present evidence and arguments in support of their position.
Following a contested hearing, if the Juvenile Court decides to terminate a parent’s rights, the parent does have the option to appeal this decision. If the juvenile court declines to terminate the parent’s rights, then the issues will continue to be addressed through the CINA (which remained in place concurrently).
Contact a Lawyer for Your Case
The path through a CINA case is often complex and demanding. It is important that any parent involved with a DHS assessment and/or a CINA seriously and carefully consider obtaining the services of an informed and practiced attorney who focuses or specializes in juvenile law.