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From the Bench: Role of juvenile court in our communities

One facet of the court system in this state that doesn't get a lot of public media coverage is the Juvenile Court. Much of that has to do with the confidentiality of most of the court hearings. The public is restricted from many Juvenile Court proceedings to protect the juvenile and the family in an effort to promote the best interests of the children involved.

Juvenile Court is a busy place. There are three major areas that the Juvenile Court addresses: juvenile delinquency, school truancy and child protection.

Delinquency and truancy cases are probably best known to the public. These address problems associated with child misbehavior in breaking the law or being habitually absent from school. Counseling, substance abuse treatment, community service and out-of-home placement are corrective measures often employed by the Juvenile Court with delinquent or truant children.

Child protection is less known to the public. These cases very commonly consume a majority of the time of the Juvenile Court. A child protection case most frequently starts with a report of a child in a dangerous or abusive situation. The report may come from a teacher noticing a student poorly groomed, in distress, or bearing injuries; a doctor treating a child in the emergency room for an injury suffered at home; a child care provider; or a concerned neighbor to name a few.

The responsible human services agency will investigate the report and if abuse or neglect is substantiated, may file a CHIPS petition in the Juvenile Court. The term "CHIPS" (child in need of protection or services) is used to describe these cases in the court system.

The CHIPS case is filed by the county attorney's office on behalf of the county human services agency. The court may be asked to authorize the county to take protective custody of the children and place them outside the home for alleged abuse or neglect. Drug or alcohol abuse, domestic violence, sexual abuse, physical abuse, chronic neglect, or a combination of some or all of these factors often lead to the CHIPS case being filed.

The child is placed in a foster home, preferably a relative if willing and available. Otherwise, licensed foster homes provide these children a safe and appropriate home environment. In cases where it is not necessary to remove the child from the parents' custody, the human services agency will request "protective supervision" of the child, which means that a social worker will be checking in on the family and reporting back to the Court.

In the CHIPS hearing, one or both parents are asked by the court whether they admit or deny the petition filed by the county alleging that their children are in need of protection and services because of abuse, neglect, or other improper treatment and care. If the parent admits the charges, then a "case plan" is developed by the county human services agency working in conjunction with a guardian ad litem. The guardian ad litem or "GAL" is a person trained in child protection services and the law and is appointed by the court to advocate on behalf of the best interests of the child.

The case plan is designed to assist the parents to address the circumstances underlying the child abuse or neglect. If there is a drug or alcohol problem, the parent is required to go into treatment to address their substance abuse. If the problem is psychological, then the parent will be required to go into counseling.

Each case plan is tailored to address the specific needs of the parent in an attempt to correct the conditions causing the children to be removed from the home. The ultimate goal of the case plan is returning the children to the parents' custody into a safe and nurturing home environment.

The parents must promptly and responsibly work their case plan. Strict time limits are imposed on how long the children can be placed out of the home. In the case of very young children, it is six months. In the case of older children, it is one year.

If the parents cannot demonstrate good faith efforts to correct the reasons for the removal of their children, the county will be required under the law to petition the court for the termination of parental rights to the children and their permanent removal from the home. In such cases, the children are permanently placed with a relative, adopted by the foster parents or placed with the state for adoption.

Some parents voluntarily agree to the permanent placement of their children out of the home. Others oppose it and exercise their right to a hearing before the court, where the state must prove by clear and convincing evidence that the parental rights should be terminated.

If a person has their parental rights terminated involuntarily, they will be deemed under the law to be an unfit parent and automatically lose custody of any future child they may have, unless they can prove their fitness as parents.

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Judge Frank Kundrat is a Minnesota District Court Judge chambered in St. Cloud.