Children's Court and Attorneys
In Allegheny County, legal decisions related to juveniles are ultimately determined by a Children's Court judge in the Court of Common Pleas.
Assistant County Solicitor
The assistant county solicitor is an attorney who represents the Allegheny County Department of Human Services Office of Children, Youth and Families (CYF).
Attorneys for Children
Children involved with CYF that appear before Children's Court are represented by an attorney, who serves as Guardian ad Litem and/or counsel. Children are represented regardless of family income by the organization listed below.
437 Grant Street, Suite 700
Pittsburgh, PA 15219
Attorneys for Parents
Parents involved with CYF that appear before Children's Court may be represented by an attorney. Parents whose child(ren) is removed from the home because of alleged abuse or neglect are notified of their right to be represented by an attorney and are referred to the organization listed below to determine eligibility for a parent advocate. Each parent may be represented by a different attorney, if the parents’ interests differ.
Allegheny County Juvenile Court Project
(Parent Advocate Network)
429 Forbes Ave, Suite 300
Pittsburgh, PA 15222
In some circumstances and at the judges discretion, the judge may request a CASA (Court-appointed Special Advocate) to assist in the gathering and review of information related to the case.
The Allegheny County Children’s Court in partnership with Child Watch of Pittsburgh utilize the Video Conferencing Project to provides videoconferencing and teleconferencing capabilities for Children’s Court proceedings.
Shelter hearings are considered informal hearings, scheduled by the CYF caseworker to occur within 72 hours after the child(ren)’s physical removal of custody from the child’s residence. The main purpose of this hearing is for the Court to determine the appropriateness of the removal and the need for continued placement of the child(ren).
In addition to presenting testimony regarding the circumstances that warranted the decision to physically remove the child from the child’s residence, the CYF caseworker must also present evidence that “reasonable efforts” were made to prevent the placement or reunify the family. Testimony is also presented to explain why the child was removed from the parent(s) custody, why the child(ren) were placed in a particular location and whether continued placement or a change in placement is believed to be necessary.
Based on testimony and other evidence that may be presented by the CYF caseworker, the child(ren), the parent(s) and their legal representatives, the Court may:
- Order that the child be returned to the parents;
- Order that CYF initiate or continue to provide supportive services (whether the child remains in placement or not);
- Order CYF to file a Petition for Dependency;
- Schedule a future hearing;
- Order that the child remain in placement in the custody of CYF; and/or
- Terminate court activity.
Dependency Petition Hearings
If CYF is ordered by the Court to do so, a Petition for Dependency is filed within 24 hours of the shelter hearing. Petitions for Dependency are also filed by CYF staff when it is believed that court supervision is needed, but physical custody of the child(ren) has not been removed from the parent(s). Petitions for Dependency can be filed by any citizen and results in a referral to CYF for assessment.
According to the Pennsylvania Juvenile Act (42 Pa.C.S.§ 6302), a person under the age of 18 may be adjudicated “dependent” if he/she:
- is without proper parental care or control, subsistence, education as required by law or other care or control necessary for his/her physical, mental or emotional health or morals. A determination that there is a lack of proper parental care or control may be based upon evidence of conduct by the parent, guardian or other custodian that places the health, safety or welfare of the child at risk, including evidence of the parent’s, guardian’s or other custodian’s use of alcohol or a controlled substance that places the health, safety or welfare of the child at risk;
- has been placed for care or adoption in violation of law;
- has been abandoned by his/her parents, guardian or other custodian;
- is without a parent, guardian or legal custodian;
- while subject to compulsory school attendance is habitually and without justification truant from school
- has committed a specific act or acts of habitual disobedience of the reasonable and lawful commands of his/her parent, guardian or other custodian and who is ungovernable and found to be in need of care, treatment or supervision;
- is under the age of ten years and has committed a delinquent act;
- has been formerly adjudicated dependent and is under the jurisdiction of the court, subject to its conditions or placements and who commits an act which is defined as ungovernable in paragraph (6);
- has been referred pursuant to § 6323 (relating to informal adjustment) and who commits an act which is defined as ungovernable in paragraph (6) or
- is born to a parent whose parental rights with regard to another child have been involuntarily terminated under 23 Pa. C.S.A. §2511 (relating to grounds for involuntary termination) within three years immediately preceding the date of birth of the child and conduct of the parent poses a risk to the health, safety or welfare of the child.
Every children and youth agency must offer a full range of services as an alternative to foster care placement to prevent placement and to reunify child(ren) with their parent(s) (or other legal custodian) once placement has occurred. Pennsylvania law requires every county children and youth agency have counseling, parent education, homemaker, part day service and arrange for the provision of any service that the court orders.
Based on testimony and evidence presented by the assistant county solicitor, the CYF caseworker, the child advocate, parental advocate(s) and any witnesses, the judge determines whether to adjudicate the child(ren) “dependent.”
While the parents retain parental rights once a dependent ruling is made, the Court may override a parent’s decision or respond in the absence of a parent’s decision regarding the care of a child. The Court has the authority to determine where the child lives; order medical, drug and alcohol or behavioral health evaluations, treatment or other support services; change permanency goals; sign for medical and school needs of the child(ren); and order the family to participate with evaluations or other services provided by CYF.
Petition for Aggravated Circumstances
Aggravated circumstances are considered any of the following circumstances: (from the Juvenile Act 42 PA CS § 6302)
- The child is in the custody of a county agency and either:
- the identity or whereabouts of the parents is unknown and cannot be ascertained and the parent does not claim the child within three months of the date the child was taken into custody; or
- the identity or whereabouts of the parents is known and the parents have failed to maintain substantial and continuing contact with the child for a period of six months.
- The child or another child of the parent has been the victim of physical abuse resulting in serious bodily injury, sexual violence or aggravated physical neglect by the parent. [Note that a criminal conviction is not required to allege the existence of aggravated physical neglect, physical abuse resulting in serious bodily injury or sexual violence committed by the parent, “clear and convincing” evidence is sufficient.]
- The parent of the child has been convicted of any of the following offenses where the victim was a child (or the attempt, solicitation or conspiracy to commit any of these offenses).
- criminal homicide under 18 Pa.C.S. Ch. 25 (relating to criminal homicide);
- a felony under 18 Pa.C.S. §2702 (relating to aggravated assault);
- 3121(relating to rape), 3122.1 (relating to statutory sexual assault), 3123 (relating to involuntary deviate sexual intercourse), 3124.1 (relating to sexual assault) or 3125 (relating to aggravated indecent assault);
- a misdemeanor under 18 Pa.C.S. §3126 (relating to indecent assault); or
- an equivalent crime in another jurisdiction.
- The parental rights of the parent have been involuntarily terminated with respect to a child of the parent.
The Juvenile Act removes discretion from the county agencies regarding cases in which aggravated circumstances exist. The agency must request a finding of aggravated circumstances in cases identified as meeting the definition of aggravated circumstances as defined above. Because the agency is not permitted to determine which cases are believed to be viable reunification cases, the court must review every case.
When there is finding of Aggravated Circumstances, the Court may eliminate the requirement that services be provided to reunite the family, though the finding does not compel the judge to do so.
Permanency hearings (sometimes referred to as “review” hearings) are generally held every three months or may be heard more or less frequently at the Court’s discretion. These hearings allow the Court to determine whether the child is safe at his/her current residence, evaluate the progress the family has made toward the family’s goals for child permanency and whether the services that CYF has provided are appropriate. The Family Plan is reviewed and adjustments are made if necessary. Each permanency hearing ends with a recommendation for future action.
Permanent Placement Goals (also known as Permanent Placement Objectives) are mandated by Pennsylvania’s Juvenile Act, pursuant to the Federal Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) of 1997. If a child cannot remain with a parent, these five placement goals must each be ruled out in turn by the Court before the next goal can be considered.
- Return home -- If a child cannot remain home; this is the primary permanent goal. In order to achieve this goal, services must be such that the child can return home safely. Completion of the goal to return home is time-limited by law.
- Adoption -- The second most desirable permanency goal. It reflects the mandated premise that children need a permanent home. There must be a compelling, thoroughly documented reason that the goal of adoption does not serve the child’s “physical, mental or emotional health, safety or morals” in order for the Court to rule out this goal.
- Permanent Legal Custodianship -- The third most desirable permanency goal. This goal entails awarding legal custody of a child to an individual whom the Court finds in the child’s best interest.
- Placement with a fit and willing relative -- The fourth most desirable permanency goal. It can only be considered when a child cannot return home safely in a timely manner and each of the first three permanency goals have been ruled out by the Court. This goal emphasizes the importance of prior positive and ongoing relationships children have with extended family members and reflects the necessity of preserving families whenever possible. A relative can be considered a placement resource for a child if they meet all the background and safety requirements for providing foster care.
- Other planned placement that is intended to be permanent -- The least desirable permanency goal. The Court must rule out each of the other goals before this goal can be considered.
CYF will make a recommendation to the court of whether changing a child’s permanency goal to adoption is appropriate, but CYF is required to file for an Involuntary Termination of Parental Rights if a child is in out-of-home placement for 15 out of the last 22 months, unless there are “compelling reasons” not to do so.
Petition for Involuntary Termination of Parental Rights Hearing (TPR)
The decision to terminate parental rights is determined in the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas by a Juvenile Court Judge who serves as an Orphans Court judge for this proceeding.
When the permanency goal for a child under the care of CYF is changed to adoption; CYF staff gathers evidence and documentation to facilitate the filing of a termination petition by Allegheny County’s Law Department.
If any parents’ whereabouts are unknown, CYF will conduct a diligent search to locate the parent. If no paternity has been established, CYF will seek to involuntarily terminate rights on all alleged, legal and unknown fathers.
If a parent does not attend the hearing, the involuntary termination of parental rights hearing will normally proceed without the parent. If a parent comes to the hearing to contest, a second hearing may be scheduled.
First, the judge listens to testimony and evidence gathered by CYF and its legal representatives, probation officers and service providers; and will hear testimony from the parents’ and child(ren) and their witnesses. If the judge determines that the evidence is sufficient to prove the grounds alleged by CYF, the judge will determine whether Involuntary Termination of Parental Rights best meets the needs and welfare of the child(ren).
If the judge grants the Involuntary Termination of Parental Rights, the child is free to be adopted. By this stage, the child(ren) is generally living with a family willing to adopt and a home study is completed. An adoption hearing is scheduled generally 30 days after the hearing to allow parents a 30 day period during which they may appeal the judge’s decision.
Grounds for Involuntary Termination of Parental Rights (from the Adoption Act 23 PA C.S. §2511)
General rule – The rights of a parent in regard to a child may be terminated after a petition filed on any of the following grounds:
- The parent by conduct continuing for a period of at least six months immediately preceding the filing of the petition either has evidenced a settled purpose of relinquishing parental claim to a child or has refused or failed to perform parental duties.
- The repeated and continued incapacity, abuse, neglect or refusal of the parent has caused the child to be without essential parental care, control or subsistence necessary for his/her physical or mental well-being and the conditions and causes of the incapacity, abuse, neglect or refusal cannot or will not be remedied by the parent.
- The parent is the presumptive but not the natural father of the child.
- The child is in the custody of an agency, having been found under such circumstances that the identity or whereabouts of the parent is unknown and cannot be ascertained by diligent search and the parent does not claim the child within three months after the child is found.
- The child has been removed from the care of the parent by the court or under a voluntary agreement with an agency for a period of at least six months, the conditions which led to the removal or placement of the child continue to exist, the parent cannot or will not remedy those conditions within a reasonable period of time, the services or assistance reasonably available to the parent are not likely to remedy the conditions which led to the removal or placement of the child within a reasonable period of time and termination of the parental rights would best serve the needs and welfare of the child.
- In the case of a newborn child, the parent knows or has reason to know of the child's birth, does not reside with the child, has not married the child's other parent, has failed for a period of four months immediately preceding the filing of the petition to make reasonable efforts to maintain substantial and continuing contact with the child and has failed during the same four-month period to provide substantial financial support for the child.
- The parent is the father of a child conceived as a result of a rape or incest.
- The child has been removed from the care of the parent by the court or under a voluntary agreement with an agency, 12 months or more have elapsed from the date of removal or placement, the conditions which led to the removal or placement of the child continue to exist and termination of parental rights would best serve the needs and welfare of the child.
Other considerations – The court in terminating the rights of a parent shall give primary consideration to the developmental, physical and emotional needs and welfare of the child. The rights of a parent shall not be terminated solely on the basis of environmental factors such as inadequate housing, furnishings, income, clothing and medical care if found to be beyond the control of the parent. With respect to any petition filed pursuant to subsection (a)(1), (6) or (8), the court shall not consider any efforts by the parent to remedy the conditions described therein which are first initiated subsequent to the giving of notice of the filing of the petition.
Right to file personal and medical history information – At the time the decree of termination is transmitted to the parent whose rights have been terminated, the court shall advise the parent, in writing, of his or her continuing right to place and update personal and medical history information, whether or not the medical condition is in existence or discoverable at the time of adoption, on file with the court and with the Department of Public Welfare pursuant to section 2905(d) (relating to impounding of proceedings and access to records).
Voluntary Relinquishment of Parental Rights
When parents voluntarily consent to terminate their parental rights, the father may revoke his consent to the adoption of the child within 30 days after the birth of the child or the date the consent was executed, whichever occurs later. The mother may also revoke the consent to the adoption within 30 days after the date the consent was executed.
At the adoption hearing, information is presented about the adoptive home study; and the adoptive parent(s) answer questions and affirm their wish to adopt the child(ren). Children 12 years of age or older are represented by an attorney (Guardian ad Litem) and must consent to the adoption. Once the judge issues an adoption decree, CYF will keep the case open for 30 days to allow for the appeal period. If there is no appeal, court activity is over and CYF may close the case.
Adoptions can not be reversed. If an adoptive parent becomes unwilling or unable to care for the child, CYF will follow the same procedures for Involuntary Termination of Parental Rights of birth families. In both cases, the best interest of the child, as determined by a judge, is the deciding factor.