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abuse and neglect court


Abuse, Neglect and Dependency Courts

Dependency is a legal term that means a child lacks a parent or guardian, or that parent is missing, deceased, or otherwise unable to care for the child, and childcare arrangements have not been made. The best way to describe the A/N/D courts is to contrast them with traditional child custody or family courts.  There are always exceptions to the rule, but below is a “big picture” and brief sketch of the typical cases.


The public policy of our state law is to preserve families, by doing what is necessary to assist families and make efforts to get the children back into their homes with their parents. Sadly, based on my experience, abuse, neglect or dependency cases are often a result of parents struggling with substance abuse. The consequences of substance can be severe, including incarceration, unemployment, homelessness, and other conditions that hinder parents in their efforts to regain custody of their children after their child was taken from them.

Who Are the Players?

After Child Protective Services screens a report of child abuse, neglect of dependency, and determines it is necessary, they will file a petition asking the court to intervene and enter court orders concerning the child or children.  In A/N/D court, there are at least three “parties” who have an active role in the case.  Parents are parties, and they usually have separate attorneys, appointed by the court to protect their constitutional rights as parents.  The Department of Social Services is also a party to the case, and also has an attorney who represents it, as well as the social workers who are key witnesses.  A Guardian Ad Litem volunteer visits with the child, and is also represented by an attorney in court, who advocates exclusively for the child.  If a child is in foster care, the foster parents become important witnesses and will sometimes hire an attorney to represent them if they have decided to seek custody and/or adoption of the child.

The A/N/D Court System

In A/N/D cases, there are parents and third parties, so the burden of proof is much higher (clear and convincing evidence of petition allegations, which is a high standard just beneath reasonable doubt).  A/N/D courts are different from the courts that rule in juvenile delinquency cases. The A/N/D court may also award guardianship, in addition to child custody.  When Social Services is awarded custody, they have the right to determine “placement” of the child, such as foster care, group homes, next of kin, etc.  Relatives of the child are preferred, but are sometimes unable to care for the child, or they have a criminal or Child Protective Services history.  The court files in A/N/D cases are permanently sealed in order to protect the child, much like adoption records.

A/N/D cases have a myriad of deadlines and hearings to navigate for at least a year, reviewing the circumstances in court hearings as time passes.  There must be an “adjudication” determining the facts of what happened, a “disposition hearing” to order parents to take certain actions, and many periodic hearings to monitor the case. If parents can’t correct the problems, the court will eventually rule on whether adoption is the best alternative, or awarding child custody or guardianship to a non-parents.  Social Services tends to remain involved with the families on a long-term basis.  Because the system is overloaded, and there can be fewer social workers than needed, visitation between a parent and child can be minimal, especially when supervised visitation is required. It is not unusual to arrange for supervised visitation for an hour or two a few days each month.

Further Reading:

Child Abuse by the “Good” Parent

Abuse & Neglect

Safe Surrender Law in NC

Substance Abuse & Serious Parenting Concerns


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