Unlike the typical custody dispute between parents, Child In Need of Assistance (CINA) matters arise when a child has been abused or neglected and the local Department of Social Services (DSS) removes that child from his or her home. The following is a review of the basic framework of CINA matters for the family law practitioner.
Child In Need of Assistance matters begin with an emergency shelter hearing, which must occur within one business day of the removal of the child by DSS. At the shelter hearing, the court must determine whether it is “contrary to the welfare” of the child to remain in the home.
Following the shelter hearing, the court schedules a bench trial on DSS’s allegations within thirty days. This short timeline is meant to avoid a long stay in foster care for the child. Before the trial, most courts in Maryland require the parties to participation in mediation to attempt to reach an agreement. If mediation fails and the case proceeds to trial, the Rules of Evidence strictly apply and DSS has the burden of proving, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the child has been abused or neglected and the parents are unwilling and/or unable to provide proper care to the child.
If DSS meets its burden and the child is found to be a CINA, the court will continue to review the case at a minimum every six months until the child is returned home or another permanent placement is achieved.
Venue and Parties
CINA matters are heard exclusively by the Circuit Court, sitting as a Juvenile Court. In certain jurisdictions, Masters hear adjudicatory hearings. Proper venue lies in the county in which the child resides or where the alleged abuse or neglect occurs.
Unlike typical custody cases in which DSS may simply conduct an investigation and provide a written report to the court, in CINA matters the local DSS is the Petitioner and remains a party for all purposes. Each of the parents of the alleged CINA is a party (generally represented by separate counsel to avoid a potential conflict), and the Child is a party with his or her own attorney. Child’s counsel’s function differs from a Best Interest Attorney in a typical family matter in that the attorney is tasked with advocating independently for the child’s position, if he or she is advanced enough to have “considered judgment”. If the child does not possess considered judgment, child’s counsel advocates for the child’s best interest.
Following the adjudication of the child as a CINA, the focus of the case becomes the progress made by the parents to remedy whatever circumstances brought the family to DSS’s attention. The court will order the parents to participate in services--including, for example, substance abuse treatment; urinalysis testing; mental health evaluation and services; anger management, and parenting education--as well as setting out a supervised visitation schedule. At each review hearing (typically every six months), DSS will provide a report to the court at to the status of these services.
At the same time, the court must determine whether DSS has made “reasonable efforts” to reunify the child with his or her parents. Failure by DSS to make such efforts has both substantive implications for the case as well as potential penalties with respect to federal funding for foster care (See the federal Adoption and Safe Families Act and Title IV-E of the Social Security Act).
Twelve months after the child was initially removed from the home, the court will consider the best “permanency plan” for the child at a Permanency Planning Hearing. If the family has made progress, the court will continue the plan of reunification; however if reunification appears unlikely within a reasonable period of time, the court may change the plan to (in order of preference): placement with a relative for adoption or custody and guardianship, adoption by a non-relative, or long-term foster care.
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