The following FAQs and Glossary are reprinted with permission from the American Bar Association Bar-Youth Empowerment Project with Florida’s Children’s First, Inc., courtesy of Casey Family Programs.
Why was I removed from my home?
The law requires parents to take care of children. (Many children are cared for by people other than a parent. In this section, we use the term "parent" to refer to whoever was legally responsible for caring for you when the state took you from your home. We mean the word to include parent, relative, legal guardian, custodian or anyone else with whom you were living.) This responsibility includes protecting you from harm, providing you with enough food, making sure you have clothing, taking you to the doctor and making sure your home is safe. If your parent has not provided you with what the law requires or has not properly supervised you, you may be removed from your home until your parent can properly care for you. If you are removed from your home, you will have a child protective investigator, and later a caseworker, to help you.
What happens after I am removed from my home?
Within 24 hours after you are removed from your home your parent will be asked to appear in court. At the first hearing, the judge decides if you can safely be returned home or must stay somewhere else for a time while your parent learns how to adequately care for you and keep you safe. In most instances, your parent will have a lawyer to help him or her while the case is in court. In some cases, the judge will appoint a Guardian ad Litem (GAL) to help the court understand what is in your best interests, what you need and whatever you may have told the GAL you want. Sometimes, the judge may also appoint an attorney to represent you. If you don't have your own lawyer, there will also be a lawyer from Children's Legal Services, who represents the state. You can also ask that lawyer questions about what is happening in your case.
Where will I live now?
If a relative, such as your grandparent or aunt/uncle, or a family friend can take care of you, you may be able to live with them. If you know a responsible relative or other adult who might let you stay with them, tell your caseworker, the child protective investigator or the judge. If that's not possible, another place will be found for you to live.
What is a Guardian ad Litem (GAL)?
The court may appoint a person called a Guardian ad Litem (GAL) for you to help the judge understand how to keep you safe, meet your needs and decide what is best for your future. If you have a GAL, that person will meet with you, read your records and talk with others to learn about you and make recommendations to the court. GALs can work to get help you may need. Your GAL is a good person to talk to about how your placement is going and how school is going. If you are having any problems at your placement or at school, let them know and ask for help. You should know that they do not have to keep what you say private. They may have to share what you tell them with others in the case. The GAL must tell the court your wishes, so make sure you tell the GAL what you want. If you and the GAL disagree about what should happen in your case, you can ask the judge to also appoint a lawyer to represent you and advocate for your wishes.
Will I get to see my parent?
In most cases you can have contact with your parent. Sometimes your parent must do certain things before you can have contact with him or her. The judge will decide when, where and how often you get to see your parent. These visits may be alone, or other people may also be there. As things get better in your case, you may get to see your parent more often.
Will I get to see my siblings?
In most cases you will be able to have contact with your brothers and sisters, and in most cases you should be in the same placement with them. The exception is if one of you has hurt the other. Always be sure to let your caseworker, GAL, attorney, or if you don't have an attorney, the Children's Legal Services (CLS) lawyer know that contact with your siblings is important to you so they can tell the judge. If there is some reason why you cannot see your brothers and sisters, think about asking whether you can contact them another way, like on the phone or through e-mail. The judge will consider your wishes when making his or her decision on visits or contacts.
Will I get to stay in my same school?
Your education is very important and everyone involved with your case needs to know how much it matters to you. Make sure to tell your caseworker, GAL and the judge if you want to stay in your same school. Also, if for some reason you must change schools, and haven't been enrolled yet, you need to let the judge know right away. If you are having any problems at school, be sure to tell the people involved in your case so they can get you any help you might need. If the problems continue, you may want to ask the judge to appoint an attorney to help you get things worked out with the school.
Why do we keep going to court?
The judge wants to help you return home as soon as possible. If that is not possible, the judge wants to help you find a permanent home. The law requires the judge to hold regular court hearings so he or she can check on everyone's progress on the case plan and especially encourage your parents to make progress.
What are the different court hearings?
There are several different kinds of court hearings and it is important for you to know what happens at each one. Always try to attend the different hearings, and make sure you tell the judge what you want. Talk with your caseworker about how to get to court - your caseworker is responsible for making sure you have a way to get there. You are supposed to be given a GAL to help look out for your best interests, so make sure to request one if you don't have one already. Also, you are always allowed to request an attorney to help you, but you may not always be given one.
Who is in court?
Court is not exactly like you see on television, but there are lawyers and witnesses and a judge. The lawyer for the state presents the facts and leads the discussion about the case. Their job is to keep children safe and get them home or to a permanent place as soon as possible. They "represent the state" or the government's interest in seeking justice and doing what is in your best interests. Your parent likely has a lawyer--one will be appointed if your family cannot afford one. The GAL program has a lawyer who works with your GAL to advocate for your best interests in court. If you have a lawyer, he or she will advocate for what you want to see happen in your case. There is a judge, usually a court clerk, and a bailiff (a police officer) to assist the judge. Sometimes there are also caseworkers, therapists and foster or group home parents. It can get to be a real crowd, all working to find what is in your best interests! It is important to remember that it is the judge who finally decides what is in your best interests.
Can I go to court?
Yes! You have the right to attend your court hearings, and you should be notified of your hearings. If you want to talk to the judge, tell your caseworker and your GAL. If you do not want to go to court for some reason, you can write a letter to the judge and give it to your caseworker or GAL. They will give it to the judge for you. You might want to ask your caseworker, GAL, attorney or the CLS lawyer if you could talk to the judge by telephone during the hearing if you are not able to take the time away from school or your job to attend the hearing in person.
You know yourself best. You know what you need and want. You are the expert on yourself and can help the judge understand you and your needs, so going to court and speaking to the judge is always a good thing for you to do for yourself.
Remember: You might not get exactly what you want from the judge, but the judge will consider what you have to say in determining what is in your best interests.
Can I schedule a court hearing if I want to talk to the judge?
Yes. You have the right to schedule a court hearing if you want to talk to the judge. If you have a GAL or attorney, they can schedule a court hearing for you. You can also call the judge's office and ask the judge's assistant to please schedule a court hearing in your case. The judge's assistant will be able to give you a date and time when the judge is available. Ask the judge's assistant to please help you contact the other people involved in your case, as they need to know about the court hearing you schedule. If you do not know the name or contact information for your judge, then you can call your local GAL program or the office of your local court clerk. Let them know that you are a foster youth, give them your name and date of birth, and ask them to please give you the contact information for the juvenile court judge for your dependency case.
What should I say and how should I act in court?
Dress for court. Everyone in court will be dressed up. Lawyers wear suits to court, so you may feel more comfortable if you dress up a bit. School clothes are ok, but try to look as neat as possible.
It's ok to be nervous. Everyone gets nervous the first time they go to court. Think about what you want to say in advance. Write down your questions to remind yourself what worries you or what you want to say.
Be on your best behavior. Court is very formal and no one speaks unless the judge gives permission (like a strict teacher!) If you do not have your own lawyer, you should talk to your GAL, caseworker or the CLS lawyer about when you can speak. If you have something to say and are afraid the judge won't get to it, ask for permission to speak or raise your hand.
Speak respectfully. When speaking to the judge, people say "Your Honor" as a symbol of respect. Court is not the time to call people names or punish those people who have made you angry. Always be respectful!
Don't be afraid to ask for what you want. You can also ask about anything that is bothering you and about what is happening in your case.
Tell the truth. When you are called on to talk, the judge may ask if you know the difference between the truth and a lie. He or she may ask you to promise to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. The truth is always important, and never more important than when you are in court. So help yourself and everyone in court by sticking to facts. Don't exaggerate the good or the bad. Tell what you know, not what someone else has told you.
Stick to what you know. No one expects you to know everything! If you are asked a question and do not know an answer, just say "I don't know."
Make sure you understand what happened in court. After you are done with court, if you do not have your own lawyer, ask your caseworker or GAL about what happened. You can also ask the GAL lawyer or CLS lawyer for his or her phone number, to ask that lawyer questions. Make sure you understand everything, especially everything in the court order. Do not be afraid to ask questions so you understand what is going on and what the judge decided.
How does everyone know what the judge decides?
Judges write down their opinions, complete with the reasons for a decision, and give them to everyone in the case. (You can have a copy, just ask.) When a judge decides someone has to do something and writes it down, it is called an order. It will say what has to be done, who will do it and when it has to be done. If someone named in an order does not do as the court said, they can get in trouble. So, if a judge orders you to do something, be sure to do it. If someone is supposed to do something for you in an order and it is not being done, tell your attorney, GAL, the CLS attorney or the judge.
How does the judge decide if I should go home?
The judge's job is to decide what is in your best interests and make sure you are always safe. Before making a decision, the judge will listen to what your caseworker has to say. The judge will also listen to and read the reports from your GAL, your parent, your parent's attorney, your relatives and many other people who care about you. The judge will also listen to what you have to say. After hearing from everyone, the judge will decide where you should live. Remember, the judge will make a decision based on what everyone says and what is in your best interests.
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