When Vermont DCF gets involved with your family, it can be nerve-racking for everyone. If DCF starts a court case involving you and your family, you can become incredibly uncertain about what will happen next.
You always have a right to consult with an attorney. If you have any questions, you should give us a call.
A court case involving DCF is complex and has many stages. However, below is a good run down of what to expect in such a case.
Vermont DCF Court Case Phases
A DCF investigator or family support worker writes up an affidavit and provides it to the State’s Attorney’s Office for review. The affidavit is a sworn statement of allegations and concerns that DCF has that rises to the level of requesting court involvement.
The State’s Attorney’s Office files this affidavit with a petition requesting a CHINS (child in need of care or supervision) proceeding.
See our FAQs answered about DCF and CHINS Cases in Vermont for more info.
This is the first hearing in court. This is the start of the court case. At this hearing, the court will be focused on establishing where the juvenile(s) will be living while the court case is ongoing, and what the parent-child contact will be like for the next few weeks.
This hearing is all about whether the parties have reached an agreement to move the case forward, or whether one party is requesting a contested hearing on the petition and affidavit.
The parties can reach an agreement – called a ‘merits stipulation.’ Or one party can request a contested evidentiary hearing – called a ‘merits hearing’ to determine whether the allegations made by DCF and the actions DCF took prior to the court case were justified.
A merits hearing is a contested court hearing with evidence and witnesses. This hearing is only before the Family Court Judge. There is no jury in this (or any) family court proceeding.
A “merits” finding is the court deciding that DCF and the State acted appropriately prior to and leading up to the filing of the petition. No information or evidence after the date the petition was filed is considered by the court.
The sole focus of this hearing is to determine if by a preponderance of the evidence, a child was in need of care or supervision (think: intervention by the government) due to a risk of harm to that child. This is a backward-looking hearing. This means that the sole focus of the hearing is to determine whether DCF’s intervention into your family prior to the court process starting was justified and reasonable.
The State’s Attorney’s Office prosecutes the case with witnesses and evidence from DCF’s investigation. You and your attorney are allowed to present witnesses and evidence as well. The Judge ultimately decides whether the State has met its burden using the legal standard of preponderance of the evidence (“more likely than not”).
If the Court finds merits – whether through an agreement of the parties or after a contested hearing, the next hearing is called a Disposition Hearing. This hearing is usually 35-45 days after the merits hearing.
Prior to this hearing, DCF is responsible for writing up a Disposition Case Plan. This case plan is DCF’s perspective on the case and its recommendations for reunifying the family and closing the court case.
DCF’s Disposition Case Plan includes recommendations for each party (mother, father, juvenile, DCF) to engage in to get the court case closed. These recommendations are called ‘Action Steps.’
The Disposition Case Plan and DCF’s recommendations (Action Steps) are the focus of the Disposition hearing. You have the right to object to the case plan and even request a full evidentiary hearing on the case plan.
This hearing follows the disposition hearing. This is usually scheduled 60-75 days after the disposition hearing.
This is a check in hearing to see how all the parties are doing and if the disposition case plan needs to be modified in any way.
At this hearing, the court is provided an update as to how each party is doing complying with the Disposition Case Plan.
This hearing usually takes place a year or so after the original petition was filed.
The purpose of this hearing is to determine an appropriate plan to achieve permanency for the juvenile. That plan could include reunification with the parents, APPLA (another planned permanent living arrangement), or termination of parental rights hearing.
DCF is required to create a permanency case plan and provide it to the parties and the court. You and your attorney can request an evidentiary hearing on this permanency case plan. The court will then decide whether the permanency case plan is reasonable and can achieve permanency for the juvenile.
Permanency is a legal term of art that refers to the juvenile living in a nurturing family setting which offers legal commitment and continuity of relationships.
Throughout this process the court will also schedule many status conferences to get updates on the case and how the juveniles are doing.
You and your attorney have a right to access the DCF case file and all records related to your family’s CHINS case.
No family and no court case are the same. Sometimes it may be appropriate to work collaboratively with DCF and the court to achieve an agreed upon goal. Sometimes a contested, evidentiary hearing is required to further the case and advocate for you and your family.
You should talk to a lawyer with DCF experience to learn more about your options and the rights that you have.
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