When the Connecticut Department of Children and Families (DCF) gets involved in a family situation, the agency’s wheels begin turning quickly. When DCF believes that the child is in danger by staying in the home, they will remove them. Where that child goes next depends on a lot of factors. The court will often appoint a guardian to make decisions for the child. Depending on the circumstances of the case, it’s possible that the grandparents could become the child’s legal guardian.
When DCF Gets Involved
Just about anyone who feels that a child’s safety, welfare, or health is in danger can call DCF in Connecticut. In fact, some professionals are required by law to notify DCF if there are suspected cases of abuse or neglect.
Once notified, DCF has an obligation to investigate the situation promptly. You will likely have a DCF investigator knock on your front door for an unannounced home visit. If the investigator has a reasonable suspicion that your child is not safe, they may also notify the police, who will respond with their own investigation.
Removing a Child from the Home
If DCF does an initial investigation and determines that there is a risk of abuse or neglect, they will attempt to create a plan to address the situation using their protocol and the services they have at their disposal. In many cases, DCF will remove the child from the home until they feel that it is once again a safe environment.
As relatives, grandparents have the legal right to notification if DCF decides to remove a child from the home. In general, DCF has an obligation to try to place the child with the other parent (if the parents are not living together) or with a relative of either parent. In many cases, it is the grandparents who are in the best position to care for and provide a home for the child. If they choose, the grandparents can request such a placement.
What Happens at a DCF Hearing?
Once a child has been removed from the home, there will be a hearing in front of a judge to give the parents a chance to argue their case. If they believe that the removal wasn’t appropriate, this is an opportunity to present such evidence. Unfortunately, many judges will side with DCF unless there has been a gross misunderstanding of facts. If you wish for your child to reside with their grandparents while your DCF case is pending, it would be a good idea to have them attend this hearing and indicate their willingness to become involved.
Filing a Petition for Guardianship
At the initial hearing, the court can grant temporary custody to a grandparent or possibly visitation rights. When there is an ongoing DCF investigation with removal from the home, the agency will move for guardianship. It would be better if you were proactive about guardianship instead of allowing a stranger to take on this role.
The child’s grandparents will need to file a petition for guardianship. This is generally the best way for grandparents to establish their custodial rights. Once guardianship is established, grandparents will have the right to make decisions for the children about healthcare and school. It can also prevent DCF from putting the children up for adoption or severing a parent’s parental rights prematurely.
The Benefits of Grandparent Guardianship
The main benefit of having a child’s grandparents appointed as your child’s legal guardian is the peace of mind you will have, knowing your children will be well cared for by a family member. But there are a few other benefits as well.
Even though a legal guardian has been appointed, parental rights haven’t been severed. Visitation arrangements, even supervised ones, can be much easier to handle when they are kept in the family. Also, there may be a lessened threat of adoption outside the family when your children maintain a close bond with a relative.
In Connecticut, there are different court systems that handle matters related to children. Each of them is different and having an understanding of these differences will help you decide the best course for your family. First, you have the Superior Court for Family Matters. This court hears “cases involving juveniles and family relationships. Typical cases include divorce, child custody, child support, relief from abuse (temporary restraining orders)” (See https://www.jud.ct.gov/external/super/divisions.htm). In this court, grandparents have very limited access to intervention. They may be limited to obtaining visitation with their grandchildren. In this court, it takes extraordinary circumstances to grant grandparent custody.
Secondly, there is the Superior Court for Juvenile Matters. In Juvenile Matters, the court hears matters pertaining to “termination of parental rights; emancipation of a minor; delinquency; neglected or uncared for children and youth; families with service needs.” See https://www.jud.ct.gov/external/super/divisions.htm). As it pertains to child custody, the majority of these matters are a result of DCF filing an order of temporary custody or neglect petitions on behalf of a child or children.
If you are a grandparent who is already caring for your grandchild, or you see that there is a need for you to step in given the parents’ struggle, the best place to go is the Probate Court for your town. The Probate Court is sometimes unofficially referred to as “the people’s court.” The reasoning behind this nickname is that it is far less formal than Family Matters or Juvenile Matters. Individuals can walk in and be assisted by court clerks in filling out the appropriate forms based on their requests. The only parties to the case are the petitioner, the mother, the father, and the child through his or her attorney. DCF’s role is only to complete an investigation and make a recommendation. The grandparents can make a plea for temporary custody, co-guardianship, removal of guardian and termination of parental rights in extreme cases. The Judges listen to all the parties and the setting is usually more relaxed. The rulings have the same weight as in a family or juvenile court, but grandparents caring for children tend to have more sway.
Contact an Experienced Connecticut DCF Defense Attorney
If a grandparent is available to act as your children’s guardian, this is always the best approach when DCF gets involved in your life. You never know what the future holds. While the goal might be fast reunification, DCF can ask the court at any point to sever your parental rights and move toward adoption. If this were to happen, both your and the grandparent’s rights would be lost.
Whenever DCF makes an appearance in your life, there is no time to spare. In Connecticut, relatives generally have just 90 days to intervene and seek custody of a child who has been removed from the home.