You learn your child is involved in a court case because of suspected abuse or neglect. Even if you weren't your child's caretaker, or don't see your child often, there are many things you can do in court to help keep your child safe and ensure he or she is reunited with family quickly. A good relationship with your attorney is key to helping your child through this process and protecting your rights to your child.
You Have a Right to be Represented by an Attorney
In a dependency proceeding, you have certain rights as the parent, legal guardian, or custodian of the child. This includes:
- The right to have an attorney represent you in ALL stages of the dependency proceeding. If you cannot afford an attorney, the court will appoint one to represent you.
- The right to view and get copies of any child welfare records about you and your children. A copy of any records you are legally entitled to will be provided at no expense to you or your attorney in accordance with Washington State law.
- The right to attend all hearings regarding your child, to hear evidence against you and to introduce evidence and be heard on your behalf, to examine witnesses, and to receive a decision based solely on the evidence presented to the judge. If you do not attend the hearing, the judge will not hear what you have to say.
Working with Your Attorney
Your attorney will be the best resource that you have and can answer your questions. Your attorney can look at the files in your case, talk to child protective services and other agencies, tell you about the law, help you understand your rights, help you at hearings, and provide you legal advice and develop legal strategy throughout your case.
- Be honest: Your attorney cannot tell anyone what you share with him or her unless you agree. Don't be afraid to be open and honest with your attorney. Tell your attorney everything that happened in your case, good and bad. This helps your attorney give you the right advice and make the best case for you.
- Be prepared. Take notes on the events that brought your child into the system and what happens during your case. Share them with your attorney so he or she knows what is happening and can advocate for you. Each time before you meet with your attorney, write down questions or issues you want to discuss. This helps your attorney understand what is going on and what you want. Your attorney is busy, so writing things down before you meet ensures you cover everything.
- Tell your attorney what you want. Your attorney's job is to help you get what you want from the court and agency. This can include:
- Who you want your child to live with
- How often you want to visit your child
- What help your child needs
Think about what you want for you and your child. Share these goals with your attorney. Your attorney will ask about your goals and tell you how to achieve them. She or he will also tell you whether your goals can be met and, if not, what else you should try.
- Ask questions. Ask your attorney if you don't understand something. The court and child welfare systems can be confusing. It is important that you understand these systems so you can get the result you want for you and your child.
- Discuss options. Your attorney will analyze the law and the information you provide to give you legal advice on what you should do in your case. Listen carefully and decide if you want to follow this advice. Your attorney has your best interests in mind but if you don't agree with his or her advice then tell your attorney why, so you can talk about your options
- Keep in touch.
- Write down your attorney's name, phone number, and address.
- Contact your attorney when there are new developments in your case, or when you have questions or concerns.
- Try to meet with your attorney before each court hearing to update him or her on your case, your case plan progress, and what you want to happen during the court hearing.
- Share documents you have received from other parties since your last meeting.
- Make sure your attorney has your contact information (address, cell phone, e-mail address), and let him or her know of any changes.
- Keep your own file and share key documents. Keep copies of all papers you get from anyone involved in your case. These include:
- Court orders
- Papers from your attorney
- Documents from the agency or service providers (e.g., substance abuse program, parenting class, or job training program). Get a written record of your progress in classes or programs and share it with your attorney.
What to Bring When Meeting with Your Attorney
- List of questions or issues.
- Your notes about the case since you last spoke with your attorney (these may cover progress in finding housing, contact with your children, attendance at agency meetings and treatment sessions, and other case activities).
- Case documents you have received since you last met with your attorney (e.g., parenting class certificate, letter from caseworker, etc.)
- Calendar to confirm upcoming meetings and court hearings.
What to Expect from Your Attorney
As your advocate, your attorney should:
- Work quickly to protect your rights. These cases have tight timelines. Within a year, the judge will ask where your child should live permanently and if he or she should remain with family or be adopted. You and your attorney will have to work quickly to ensure you keep your rights to and maintain a relationship with your child.
- Help you achieve your goals. If you are seeking custody of your child, you will have to assure the caseworker and court that you can take on this responsibility. You need to have a good relationship with your attorney to achieve your goals.
- Provide effective legal representation. Your attorney needs to know what is happening in your case so he or she can advocate for what you want. During this process, you should expect your attorney will:
- Respond to your calls and requests for assistance and information within a reasonable amount of time
- Be on time and prepared for every court hearing
- Promptly file all documents and motions in support of your position
- Be available to advocate for your positions in out-of-court meetings
- Make arguments and statements in court that support what you want
If your attorney is not meeting your expectations, discuss your concerns with him or her. If your concerns are not resolved, contact the Office of Public Defense by phone at (360) 586-3164 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org; or the Washington State Bar Association.
Adapted for Washington State use from the American Humane Association's, Fatherhood Toolkit
Review this information before you attend a court hearing or meeting and use it to help you prepare.This information provides general information, not legal advice. If you have case-specific or legal questions, ask your attorney or caseworker.