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What is Dependency Court?

Learn more about what Dependency Court is, the processes, and your rights and responsibilities.

Generally, the government does not interfere in family matters. However, the law (RCW Chapter 13.34) allows the state to step in and protect a child from harm in a procedure known as a dependency action.  

A dependency action begins when a petition (a written request) is filed in Superior Court. This petition must allege that the child is "dependent."

A "dependent child has":

  • Been abandoned by his or her parent, guardian, or other custodian.
  • Been abused or neglected by a person legally responsible for his or her care
  • No parent, guardian, or custodian capable of providing adequate care.

For more information, please review the Dependency and Title 13 RCW Guardianship Manual.

The Dependency Court process

  • 72-hour Shelter Care Hearing

    A judge or commissioner decides whether it is safe for the child to remain in the home or whether the child should be placed in out-of-home care. The focus of the 72-hour shelter care hearing is to protect the child and offer ways for the parent to address the issues that led to the state's involvement. At this time, the court also decides an appropriate visitation schedule for children and parents, a service plan for the parents, and whether there is a need for medical, mental health or substance abuse evaluations and treatment for the parents.
  • 30-day Shelter Care Hearing

    After 30 days, the court determines whether conditions have changed for the family and reviews the status of the child. The court may also order additional services for the parent and child. The parties can agree not to have a second hearing. In this case, the court still must approve the agreement in a written order.
  • Dependency Pre-trial Hearing

    The court determines the schedule for trial if the case remains open.
  • Dependency Fact-finding Hearing

    A trial held in front of a judge to determine if the allegations in the dependency petition can be proven. A fact-finding hearing is generally held within 75 days of filing a dependency petition. At this hearing, the parties can present evidence to the court, including witness testimony. The parties may enter an agreed order of dependency, rather than having a fact finding trial.

    After the fact-finding hearing, the court will issue an order. The order will say whether the child will be returned home or remain in the custody of the state and be in foster care or go to relatives of the family. It will also say what services the parents are to complete and what the Children's Administration must do to support parents in completing requirements.

  • Permanency Planning Hearing

    A permanency planning hearing is held between nine and 12 months after the child is placed in out-of-home care. A permanent plan is established for the child. If the child remains in out-of-home care, permanency planning hearings are held every 12 months to decide what is best for the child.
  • Permanency Plans of Care, Termination of Parental Rights, or Fact-Finding Hearing

    If a child is not able to safely return home in a reasonable time, the Children's Administration social worker must find another permanent living environment for the child.

    Federal guidelines require the social worker to file a petition to terminate parental rights after 12 consecutive months of the child being in foster care.

    Other permanent plans include adoption, non-parental custody, or guardianship.

  • Family Treatment Court

    The Family Treatment Court is designed to improve the safety and wellbeing of children in the Dependency process by providing parents access to drug and alcohol treatment, judicial monitoring of their sobriety and individualized services to support the entire family.

In the courtroom

The courtroom environment can be intimidating and families typically enter it during a time of high stress. The goal is to reunite the family as long as the child is safe.

Your rights

  • You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford one, the court will appoint one to you.
  • You have the right to admit or deny the allegations made about you and your family.
  • You have the right to be notified about all court hearings.
  • You have the right to an interpreter if you do not understand English. The court provides interpreters for youth and families in court.
  • You have the right to talk to your social worker and your attorney. If they are unavailable when you call, leave a message with a phone number where you can be reached or try them again. Keep track of the best times to call them. Keep a record of your attempts to make contact with all professionals.

You have a right and a responsibility to visit your child.

Your responsibilities

  • Take this seriously.
  • Attend the court hearings and meetings.
  • Comply with your treatment plan. If you cannot make an appointment, call your social worker and treatment provider ahead of time.
  • Stay in touch with your attorney and social worker. You are responsible for providing them with your current address and phone number.
  • Be aware of your court-ordered services. Keep track of your appointments in writing. Following through with your services increases the likelihood of your child being returned to your care.