How can a judge’s decision in juvenile dependency court affect my rights as a parent?

A judge’s decision could either take away or limit your rights as a parent. Unless the case is dismissed, meaning the allegations of child abuse or neglect are found to be untrue, your parental rights will be affected in dependency court. Keep reading for more information on different kinds of judge’s orders. If your child is part of a CPS case in juvenile dependency court, the judge could make orders that:

    Place your child with relatives, foster parents, or a court-appointed legal guardian; and/or
    Give you visitation rights; and/or
    Give you a case plan that requires you to attending parenting classes, counseling, or other programs, and/or
    End your parental rights if you are unable to successfully complete your case plan within 18 months.[2416]

Just like any court’s decisions about the custody of a child, a dependency court judge must decide what is in the “best interest of the child.” This means the judge will make decisions that affect your parental rights to care for, live with, see, and make decisions for your child—and can even reduce or take away some of these rights completely. Most of the time, you will have a year to complete your requirements if you keep making progress. But if your child is under three years old, you will have only six months to show that you are committed to finishing up everything.[2417]

Below we briefly describe some of the caregiving arrangements that a judge can order through a case in juvenile dependency court:

    Long-Term Guardianship: This is where the court places the child with a relative if family reunification services are unsuccessful. The child will stay with the guardian until he or she is 18.[2418] See more on PG. 743. Guardianships can also be set up through probate court if CPS is not involved. See more on Guardianships on PG. 743.
    Foster case: This is where a child is placed with one or two “foster parents”—people who the State has licensed, trained and approved to care for children in their home. However, foster parents have fewer rights than legal guardians or biological parents, so the judge and Child Protective Services (CPS) will continue to be legally responsible for making decisions about the child.
    See more on PG. 753.
    De Facto Parent: This is where a non-parent who has been taking care of a child can get parental legal rights IF ALL OF THE FOLLOWING ARE TRUE:
    The child is a “dependent” or “ward” of the juvenile dependency court (meaning the dependency court has an open case about that child); AND
    You are currently or have been taking care of the child every day; AND
    You have been acting as the child’s parent; AND
    You are meeting or have met the child’s needs for food, shelter, clothing, as well as care and affection.[2419]

PLEASE NOTE: No law says exactly what a “de facto parent” needs to do for this arrangement to be approved by a judge in court. Judges make this decision based on other court cases and their own court rules![2420] For more information on “de facto parent” status, see Appendix D, PG. 793.

    Adoption: This is where a non-parent adopts a child because the dependency court has ended the rights of the parents. This is different from a guardianship, which puts parental rights on hold. For more information on adoption, see PG. 759.

To learn more about how a judge makes this decision about where to place a child, see below on PG. 749. For more information on the difference between guardianship, adoption and foster care see PG. 742.

How will a dependency court judge decide where to place a child?

TO PLACE BACK WITH THE PARENT(S): The judge will decide whether or not to let the child return home with the parents if, given the situation presented to the judge by CPS and the parents, it is safe for the child to return home with the parents.[2421] This is a case-by-case analysis.

TO NOT PLACE WITH THE PARENT(S): If the child returning home with one or both parents is not an option, then the judge in dependency court will decide where to place a child based on what is in the best interest of that child (learn more about this legal standard “best interest of the child” on PG. 728).

The judge can place the child in a legal guardianship so long as:

    The parent and child (if old enough to meaningfully comment) agree; AND
    The judge finds that the guardianship is in the child’s best interest; AND
    The guardian meets the same basic requirements as a guardian has to meet in probate court (see PG. 743) for the requirements for guardians)[2422]—BUT! A guardian in dependency court has to go through criminal background checks as a foster parent.[2423]

However, if the judge decides not to place the child in a legal guardianship or there are no family or friends to ask the judge and CPS to care for the child, then the child will be considered a “dependent” or “ward” of the court and placed in foster care.[2424] Keep reading this section for more information on foster care.

  1. 2416

    California Courts, The Jurisdiction/Disposition Hearing,

  2. 2417

    See Judicial Council of Cal., Guide to Dependency Court for Parents, (2016).

  3. 2418

    See SUPERIOR COURT OF CAL., County of San Francisco, Guardianship of Children,, (2016).

  4. 2419

    See Cal. Rules of Court, Rule 5.502(10); Judicial Council of Cal., Defacto Parents, (2015).

  5. 2420

    See Cal. Rules of Court, Rule 5.502(10); Judicial Council of Cal., Defacto Parents, (2015).

  6. 2421

    See Judicial Council of Cal., Guide to Dependency Court for Parents, (2016). See also Cal. Welf. & Inst. Code § 300. (A child will be declared a dependency of the court if “The child has suffered, or there is a substantial risk that the child will suffer, serious physical harm inflicted nonaccidentally upon the child by the child's parent or guardian.)

  7. 2422

    Cal. Welf. & Inst. Code § 360(a).

  8. 2423

    In re Summer H. (2006) 139 Cal. App. 4th 1315, 1333–1334 (“the inquiry under section 360 is “not whether the proposed guardian meets licensing requirements imposed on foster placements, but whether a plan for guardianship either developed or approved by the parent is in the child’s best interest.”).

  9. 2424

    “Preferential consideration must be given to a relative’s request for placement, meaning that such placements shall be considered and investigated first. Only grandparents and adult aunts, uncles, and siblings are entitled to preferential consideration for placement. (§ 361.3(c).) The preference continues to apply any time the child needs to be again placed after disposition, so long as reunification services continue. (§§ 361.3(a) & (c); 366.26(k); see Cesar V. v. Superior Court (2001) 91 Cal.App.4th 1023.) Although they do not receive preference for placement, nonrelative extended family members are generally treated the same as relative caregivers under the statutes controlling placement. (§ 362.7.)” (Administration Office of the Courts, Center for Families, Children & the Courts, “A Dogbook for Attorneys Representing Children and Parents (2 ed.)” (2007, 2011) (pg. H-96) available at