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Abuse, Neglect and Dependency in North Carolina


What is juvenile court?

Juvenile court is part of the District Court division of the North Carolina state court system. When Child Protective Services seeks court action to protect a child because of suspected abuse, neglect, or dependency the case is resolved in juvenile court. “Juvenile court” may also refer to the court that resolves complaints against children who have engaged in conduct considered a crime if committed by an adult. See the Juvenile Delinquency Help Topic for more information.

What are DSS and CPS?

The Department of Social Services, or DSS, is an agency in each North Carolina county that provides programs and social services including Medicaid, food and housing assistance, child care subsidies, services for seniors and disabled adults, and job search assistance. Each DSS agency also provides child welfare services through Child Protective Services, or CPS. Each county’s CPS receives and screens reports of suspected child abuse and neglect and seeks court action to protect children when necessary. CPS provides in-home, foster care, and adoption services as needed.

When do the laws on child abuse, neglect and dependency apply?

North Carolina’s laws on abuse, neglect, and dependency protect “juveniles,” meaning anyone under 18 years old who is not married, emancipated or in the military. A case can be opened with CPS or in juvenile court if a parent, guardian, custodian, or caretaker of a child is allegedly responsible for the abuse, neglect or dependency of that child. A juvenile case will not be opened against a third party, such as a teacher or babysitter, though these people can be charged with a crime for abusing a child.

What is abuse?

A child is considered abused if his or her parent, guardian, custodian, or caretaker does any of the following:

  • Causes serious physical injury to the child that does not happen by accident, or allows another to do so.
  • Creates a substantial risk of serious physical injury to the child, other than by accident, or allows another to do so.
  • Uses cruel or grossly inappropriate discipline on the child, or allows another to do so.
  • Commits certain sex crimes against the child, or permits or encourages the child to commit sex crimes or participate in sex crimes.
  • Causes serious emotional damage to the child, or allows another to do so.
  • Commits a crime of human trafficking, involuntary servitude, or sexual servitude against the child, or allows another to do so.
  • Encourages or approves of delinquent behavior that involves immoral acts by the child.

What is neglect?

A child is neglected if the child does not receive proper care, supervision, or discipline, from the child’s parent, guardian, custodian, or caretaker; or the child has been abandoned. A child is neglected if the child lives in an environment injurious to the child’s welfare. A child is also neglected if the child is not provided necessary medical or remedial care or is unlawfully placed for adoption.

What is dependency?

A dependent child is one who needs assistance or placement because the child does not have a parent, guardian, or custodian who is taking responsibility for the child’s care or supervision. A dependent child is also one whose parent, guardian, or custodian is unable to provide for the child’s care or supervision and does not have an alternative care arrangement for the child.

Is leaving children at home alone neglect?

Leaving children home alone may or may not be neglect, depending on the circumstances, including the age of the child, the amount of time the child is left alone, and any safety risks in the home, among other factors.

Does a CPS report or a juvenile court finding of abuse, neglect or dependency appear on criminal records?

No, a CPS report or juvenile court finding of abuse, neglect, or dependency does not appear on a criminal record. However, if criminal charges are also brought against the person subject to the CPS report, a criminal record may result from the criminal charges.

Child Protective Services

Who can make a report to Child Protective Services (CPS)?

Under North Carolina law, anyone who suspects that a child is abused, neglected or dependent or who suspects that a child has died as a result of maltreatment is required to report their suspicion to Child Protective Services.

How can I make a report?

You can make a report by contacting the DSS agency in the county where the child lives or is located. You can make a report either in person, by phone, or in writing. You can find your county’s Department of Social Services contact information here. You should provide as much information as possible, including identifying information about the child and the child’s parents or caretakers, the circumstances of the suspected abuse, neglect, or dependency, and the child’s current location.

Am I required to give my name when making a report?

You do not have to provide your name when making a report.

What happens after CPS receives a report?

CPS first reviews the report to decide whether the facts reported fall within the legal definitions of abuse, neglect, or dependency. If not, the agency will take no further action and will not contact the parents or caretakers. If the facts reported fall within the legal definitions, CPS must investigate the case to determine whether there is abuse, neglect, or dependency and what is needed to ensure the child’s safety.

What is the time period for a CPS investigation?

CPS must begin its investigation within 24 hours of a report of abuse, or 72 hours of a report of neglect or dependency. CPS must complete an assessment within 45 days of receiving the report.

What does CPS consider in its assessment?

In making the assessment, CPS considers various factors, including whether the child was harmed; whether there is a risk of future harm; the strengths and needs of the family; prior CPS history; and whether services are needed to address safety issues or the needs of the family.

What does it mean to say that a report is “substantiated” or “unsubstantiated”?

A report is “substantiated” if CPS finds that a child is abused, neglected, or dependent. A report is “unsubstantiated” if there is not enough evidence for CPS to find abuse, neglect, or dependency.

What happens if CPS finds no evidence of abuse or neglect?

If the CPS assessment does not find abuse, neglect, or dependency the case will generally be closed after 45 days.

re there services that CPS can provide to assist families without removing children from the home?

CPS can provide in-home services that include things like mental health treatment, substance abuse assessments and treatment, and referrals for other services, such as domestic violence or parenting education services. If the services are enough to address the family’s needs and the parents or caretakers cooperate with CPS recommendations, the situation can be addressed without seeking court involvement or the removal of the children from the home.

My relative has a CPS case. What can I do to help the family?

You can assist by helping your relative address the problems that led to CPS involvement. You can also contact the CPS caseworker to offer help. In some circumstances, children are placed with relatives for safety, or relatives act as supervisors for contact between the parents and children.

Foster Care

What is foster care?

Foster care is most commonly defined as placing a child outside of the child’s home for the child’s safety. A child may be placed with a certified foster parent or in a group home.

What is a voluntary placement agreement?

A voluntary placement agreement, or VPA, is an agreement between a child’s parent or guardian and DSS for a child to be placed in foster care.

What are the qualifications for foster parents?

Foster parents must be at least 21 years old, have a stable home and income, and maintain a drug-free environment. Foster parents go through an application process, including fingerprinting and a criminal record check, and must complete training classes to be licensed as foster parents. Anyone who wants to become a foster parent can apply with their local Department of Social Services or through a private agency.

What are “day one conferences” or “child planning conferences”?

These are conferences usually held before the first court hearing when CPS files a petition alleging that a child is abused, neglected, or dependent. These conferences are led by a neutral party who is not involved in the case.  Parents, family members, attorneys, CPS workers and the guardian ad litem attend the conferences. These conferences provide an opportunity for all parties to share information and discuss available resources and options on subjects including the child’s placement, visitation, education and health.

Are parents allowed to see their child when the child is in foster care?

A visitation schedule is typically arranged. The parents or caretakers may reach an agreement with CPS before the first court hearing. The judge can set up a visitation schedule in court, or can accept or change the schedule agreed to by the parties. Visitation is commonly supervised by the agency or an individual before unsupervised visitation is allowed.

What if I have concerns about a child’s welfare in foster care?

You should report any concerns to the foster care social worker involved, or to CPS in the child’s county if you do not know which foster care worker is handling the case. You may also share your concerns with your attorney so that the attorney can bring the concerns to the judge’s attention.

Court Process

What is an abuse, neglect, or dependency petition?

A “petition” is the document that CPS files alleging abuse, neglect, or dependency, to begin the court’s involvement in a child’s situation.

What is “nonsecure custody”?

“Nonsecure custody” is the placement of a child in the home of a relative, nonrelative kin, in foster care or in a facility operated by DSS.

If the child is adjudicated abused, neglected, or dependent, is the child always removed from the home?

No. This depends on the family’s situation and whether the parents or caretakers are able to provide a safe home for the child. However, if a child is removed from the home with a court order, parents must correct the situation (such as by going through drug treatment, taking parenting classes, establishing a safe home, etc.) before the court will permit the child to return home. In general, the goal of the juvenile court process is to “reunify” families, which means returning children to their parents if they will be safe and cared for at home.

What is a guardian ad litem (GAL)?

A guardian ad litem (GAL) is a court-appointed volunteer who is responsible for protecting and promoting the best interests of the child. Guardians ad litem meet with the children and parents outside of court to learn more about the children’s needs and living situation. Guardians ad litem appear in court on the court dates to share information about the children and make recommendations about the children’s needs and best interests with the judge. A GAL will be appointed for all petitions claiming abuse or neglect, and the judge may also choose to appoint a GAL for petitions claiming only dependency. When the GAL is not an attorney, and most guardian ad litem volunteers are not, a guardian ad litem attorney advocate will be appointed with the guardian ad litem to protect the child’s legal rights. You can read more about the GAL program here.

Are parents entitled to an attorney when an abuse, neglect, or dependency petition is filed?

Parents who cannot afford to hire their own attorney have the right to a court-appointed attorney to represent them in juvenile court once a petition is filed. Court-appointed attorneys are paid by the state, however, parents are sometimes ordered to reimburse the state for the costs of their attorney if a judge determines that the parent has the ability to do so.

What if I am unhappy with my court-appointed attorney?

You may ask the court to appoint a different attorney to represent you, but you are not entitled to the court-appointed attorney of your choice. You will need to explain to the court why you are unable to work with the attorney appointed to represent you.

What happens on the day of court?

You should appear in court at the time that you were noticed to attend. Your case may not be heard at the exact time listed on your notice, but you are required to be in court at the beginning of the court session so that you may answer when the court calendar is called. Many cases will typically be scheduled at the same time. The judge or the attorney representing CPS will typically begin court by calling out the list of everyone who has a case scheduled for that session of court.

Will the child be told about the case or come to court?

Children ages 12 and older receive legal notice of certain types of hearings, and children of any age can appear in court if they choose to do so.

What if a parent or caretaker does not attend court?

In certain instances, judges may make rulings or decisions without parents, guardians, custodians or other caretakers being present in court. A judge may release a parent’s attorney from representing him or her if the parent does not appear in court.

What are the parents’ or caretakers’ rights?

Parents have the right to be properly served with court paperwork and to receive advance notice of court dates. Court documents filed after an attorney is appointed may be served on the parent by delivering them to his or her attorney. Parents generally have the right to participate in court hearings, to have a court-appointed attorney if they cannot afford to hire an attorney, and to testify and present evidence. Guardians, custodians, and caretakers have the right to be served with court documents and to testify and present evidence if they are listed as parties on the petition.

If the child is Native American, how does this affect the juvenile court case?

There are specific federal and state laws that apply to Native American children. North Carolina law enables children who are members of tribes that are recognized solely by the State of North Carolina to be placed with members of those tribes, if no biological relatives are willing and able to care for the children. Federal laws provide additional protections for children who are members of or eligible for membership in federally recognized Native American tribes. You can view federal laws concerning the adoption of Native American children here, or consult an attorney for more information about how this applies to your case.

When does the court process end?

The court process ends if CPS dismisses the petition before a judge determines that the child is abused, neglected, or dependent. If a judge determines that CPS has not proven that the child is abused, neglected, or dependent, the case is dismissed. If the child is adjudicated abused, neglected, or dependent, court involvement continues until the child is either reunited with a parent or adopted. In some cases, court involvement ends after guardianship or custody has been granted.

Can the district court judge’s decision in the juvenile case be appealed?

You have the right to appeal certain decisions made by the district court judge. An appeal is not a new trial.  Appellate courts determine whether an error was made by the trial court. Parents who cannot afford to hire an attorney for an appeal may have an attorney appointed to represent them. However, the court may require the parent to reimburse the state for the costs of the attorney’s services.

Termination of Parental Rights

What is a termination of parental rights (TPR)?

A termination of parental rights (TPR) is a court decision that permanently ends the legal rights and responsibilities a parent has toward his or her child. Once a parent’s rights are terminated, the parent no longer has the right to seek custody or visitation with the child or make decisions about the child. After the parent’s rights have been terminated, DSS can place the child for adoption, and the parent does not have the right to be heard in the adoption case.

Who can file for termination of parental rights?

A parent, guardian, CPS, or the guardian ad litem may file an action to terminate a parent’s parental rights. In addition, a person with whom the child has lived with continuously for two years or more may file an action to terminate parental rights.

When can CPS file to terminate parental rights?

CPS generally files to terminate parental rights within 60 days after adoption becomes the primary plan for the child. In most cases, CPS will try to reunify parents and children for a year before adoption is made the permanent plan, but this is not always required.

What does DSS need to prove before a judge can terminate a parent’s rights?

A judge can terminate a parent’s rights if the judge finds both that “grounds” (circumstances) allowing for a TPR exist and that a TPR is in the best interests of the child. You can view the law regarding termination of parental rights here.

May a parent voluntarily give up parental rights if the parent believes that is in the best interest of a child?

A parent may sign a “relinquishment” form provided by CPS agreeing to give up his or her parental rights. A parent may obtain information from CPS concerning the parent’s ability to revoke the relinquishment.

What happens to a child after the parents’ rights are terminated?

The child will be placed for adoption when the parents’ rights are terminated or voluntarily relinquished.

Can rights be terminated for one parent and not the other?

Yes, but DSS will generally seek to terminate the parental rights of both parents if the plan for the child is adoption. 

How can I appeal if the court terminates my parental rights?

If your parental rights are terminated, you have the right to appeal the district court decision. An appeal is not a new trial. Appellate courts determine whether an error was made by the trial court. Parents who cannot afford to hire an attorney for an appeal may have an attorney appointed to represent them. However, the court may require the parent to reimburse the state for the costs of the attorney’s services.

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