Engaging Fathers in the Juvenile Court Process

Bruce BoyerProf. Bruce A. Boyer
Director, Civitas ChildLaw Clinic, Loyola School of Law, Chicago

Summary: Illinois’ laws, rules and procedures around parental notification may serve as a model for the development of practices designed to safeguard the best interests of at-risk children.

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When children are exposed to abuse or neglect, the early engagement of family members may be critical to the development of a successful plan for helping a child transition out of care. Many children exposed to the child welfare system come from single-parent homes, and as a consequence the early location and involvement of noncustodial parents is often the linchpin to a successful outcome when the state intervenes on behalf of a maltreated child. Finding missing parents early in the case allows court and child welfare officials to ascertain parents' intentions regarding their children, facilitates the search for relatives and possible placement resources as well as allows children to remain in contact with siblings and other extended family members. For these reasons, judges, lawyers, caseworkers, guardian ad litem and CASA volunteers carry a significant burden with respect to the location of noncustodial parents and the development of placement and other resources for children in need of care.

In Illinois, several provisions of the Juvenile Court Act are aimed at ensuring that noncustodial parents are promptly identified, located, informed of their rights and encouraged to engage with their children. All parents, including noncustodial parents, are entitled to notice of an initial shelter care hearing. The reach of Illinois’ notice requirement is expansive and includes not only individuals with court-established parentage but also anyone who has either registered with the state's putative father registry or is entitled under law to the protections that arise out of a presumption of paternity. The latter category includes not only married fathers but also fathers who have signed a voluntary acknowledgment of paternity. If a parent does not receive prior notice, the juvenile court may still proceed with an initial hearing in the absence of a parent to ensure the safety and welfare of the child. However, simply by filing an affidavit, an established or presumed parent who did not have actual notice of the initial hearing, or who was not present on the first court date, has an automatic right to a prompt rehearing to determine whether or not a child is actually in need of immediate substitute care. As well, before the state can proceed to trial on an abuse or neglect petition, it must serve a summons on every parent or presumed parent legally entitled to notice of the court proceedings. The state must make every reasonable effort to serve individual parents in person and may publish notice in a newspaper only if every other reasonable method of serving a respondent in person has failed.

The efforts of the court to ensure the early identification and engagement of noncustodial fathers are complemented by the requirements of the state’s Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS). By rule, DCFS’s permanency planning process must begin when the first contact is made with the child and family. If the identity or whereabouts of a parent are unknown, DCFS must promptly conduct a diligent search for the missing parent, with the term “biological father” defined broadly to include anyone with an established or potential claim of paternity. Within the first 48 hours after taking protective custody, investigative workers must talk with the current caregiver and any other known relatives; physically visit the missing parent’s last known address; review automated systems and databases for current information; and contact other caseworkers or the Interstate Compact Office for assistance in locating parents believed to be living in other counties or states.

Caseworkers carry additional follow-up responsibilities relative to the search for missing parents that include: communicating with the investigative worker; interviewing additional relatives; reviewing all existing files, including records related to siblings or other family members; contacting school personnel; communicating with the parent’s most recent employer; and sending out certified and regular mail letters to the last known address of a missing parent. Moreover, the department’s responsibility to seek out missing parents is an ongoing one. Judges in many Illinois counties require DCFS to conduct a diligent search for missing parents at least once every six months as well as at critical junctures of a court case (such as prior to the filing of a petition to terminate parental rights).

All of these obligations are supported by DCFS’s Diligent Search Center, which offers assistance to caseworkers seeking to locate missing parents. The Search Center has the capacity to access a broad range of databases and online information that may contain information about missing parents, including:

  • Federal and state departments of corrections in Illinois and 29 other states with online inmate search engines
  • County jail records
  • Voter registration records
  • Illinois’ Secretary of State and Department of Motor Vehicles
  • Illinois’ Putative Father Registry
  • Military Locator Service
  • Multi-State Sex Offender Registry (linking sex offender registries in 30 states)
  • National Death Locator (Social Security Death Index)
  • World Page Locator (US and Canadian white and yellow page listings)
  • Directory assistance look-up
  • Federal Parent Locator System (a secure computerized network of information from the Office of Child Support Enforcement, the IRS, the Social Security Administration, the Department of Defense, the National Personnel Records Center, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the State Employment Security Agencies)
  • Credit trace reports

Once engaged with the court and child welfare services, all parents must be advised of their rights and responsibilities as well as encouraged to participate actively in the process of family restoration. Noncustodial parents in particular, once involved, may face substantial obstacles to pursuing custody of children taken into foster care. However, the goal of maximizing the prospects of successful outcomes for children taken into foster care demands early and aggressive efforts to locate missing parents and inform them of the circumstances of their children. To that end, Illinois’ laws, rules and procedures around parental notification may serve as a model for the development of practices designed to safeguard the best interests of at-risk children.

References

Illinois Juvenile Court Act, 705 ILCS §§ 405/1-3(11), 405/1-5(1), 405/1-5(1.5), 405/2-10(3), 405/2-10(9), 405/2-15, & 405/2-16

Illinois Department of Children and Family Services Rules and Procedures, 89 Ill. Admin. Code §§ 301.20, 305.100, 315.80, and Administrative Procedure # 22 (Diligent Searches)

L. Edwards, “Engaging Fathers in the Child Protection Process: The Judicial Role,” Juvenile and Family Court Journal 60, no. 2, p. 1 (Spring 2009)

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