Juvenile Law, Child In Need of Assistance, and cases Involving DHS/ HHS in Iowa

Iowa law has special protections for children who may be in unsafe environments. While the laws stated purpose is to, whenever possible, to keep a family intact, the court will act to protect children if abuse or neglect has occurred or is likely to occur. The Iowa Department of Human Services (DHS) will work in conjunction with the county attorneys (representing the state of Iowa), the courts, and other social workers to try and make sure an at-risk child remains safe. One of the ways DHS and the county attorney do this is by filing a petition for a Child in Need of Assistance (CINA) case. The CINA case aims to provide parents and children any resources necessary to provide a safe and stable home environment. The CINA process is long and complicated, but luckily parents can apply for a court-appointed attorney if they are not able to afford one. This article will discuss

A CINA case begins if a child is found by DHS, the county attorney, or a juvenile court officer to have suffered a harm because of the actions or neglect of parents or guardians. It is a process that allows the court and DHS to closely monitor a family, and to order services to the parents or guardians to help them make the home safer for the child. For instance, if drug use is the cause of concern, the court may order the parents to undergo mental health and substance abuse evaluations and counseling. DHS and other social workers will work with the parents to help them follow through with the recommended services, and to recommend new services if necessary. The children may also be given services.  
It is primarily the parent’s responsibility to follow through with the services. Following through will all services is essential because it shows the court the parent has taken responsibility for the factors which led to the CINA case and is serious about improving.  
If the child is removed from a parent’s home for a certain period, and the child cannot be safely returned to the parent’s home, the court may order the state to file a petition for termination of parental rights. This would permanently sever all rights to contact with the child. A parent may be awarded more time to address the concerns, but at that hearing the best evidence is to show they have already worked hard to comply with the recommendations of the court and DHS.  

A child in need of assistance is a child whose parent or guardian has done something, or failed to do something, which has caused the child to suffer some abuse or neglect or put the child at imminent risk of abuse or neglect. A child in need of assistance could also be a child who has been abandoned, or who currently does not have a parent or guardian.  

CINA cases are designed to prevent physical and mental harm to the child in question, or to prevent continued harm to the child. This harm could be because of abuse by the parent or guardian, failure to properly supervise the child, failure to provide them with necessary physical or mental health care, or not providing the child with adequate food, clothing shelter, or other necessities. If a child does not have a parent or guardian a CINA case may also start.  
Common specific instances giving rise to a CINA case include drug use or possession by a parent or member of the child’s household in the presence of the child, the child being allowed to commit a delinquent act by the parent, or sexual abuse (or risk of imminent sexual abuse) by the parent or another member of the household. Serious abuse between the parents may also be grounds for a CINA case. If there is an illegal substance in the child’s body, after they are made to take drug test or when the child is born, a CINA case will almost always be opened.  
A CINA case may also begin if a parent suffers a serious condition which is preventing them from providing the children with adequate care. Examples include an adult being incarcerated, having a very serious mental impairment, or having a severe substance abuse problem.  
This is not an exhaustive list and there are other grounds for a child being found a child in need of assistance

The CINA petition is filed by DHS, a juvenile court officer, or the county attorney. The petition will include personal information regarding the child, parents, or other guardians. Guardian ad litem (GAL), a professional appointed by the court to represent the child’s best interests in the matter, will also be appointed.  
The petition will contain information about the facts of the case, including the allegations leading to the petition. The parents or other person with guardianship will be served notice of the petition.   

The children in question are often removed from the parent’s home. This may happen without a court order if the child is in imminent danger, or there isn’t time to wait for a court order.  The police officer or other person legally allowed to remove the child must immediately notify the court of the removal. The court will decide whether the child will be returned. If not, a petition will be filed for a CINA case within three days after the removal.  
DHS, juvenile court officers, or the county attorney may also file a petition for temporary removal of the child from the home. A hearing will be held within 10 days of the removal to determine whether it should continue. The child will be placed in a foster home or other suitable home if the court finds returning to the parent’s home is not safe. Preserving the child’s safety is the court’s main concern.  

There will be a hearing to determine whether the child is in need of assistance. This hearing is referred to as the “adjudicatory hearing.” At this hearing, the state will need to show that the child is in need of assistance. The state will provide evidence, which may include testimony from the parents, guardians, or DHS worker investigating the case. DHS will also provide a report detailing the facts of the case and interactions with the children and parents, including what its recommendations are for the CINA case. If the court finds the allegations in the petition to be true, the child will be adjudicated a child in need of assistance.  

After the child is adjudicated a child in need of assistance, the court will hold a dispositional hearing. At this hearing, the court will determine what services are necessary for the parents in helping improve the circumstances which led to the CINA petition. The court will ask the parents what services they think are necessary. DHS and social workers will help the parents comply with the recommendations, but it is ultimately the parent’s responsibility to follow through on participating in the services. The child may also be given services.  
The court will also decide who will have custody of the child. The child may be allowed to live in the parent’s home while they receive services, or the child will be removed (or continue to be removed) with legal custody awarded to DHS or another agency. The court may also give legal custody to the other parent, a relative, or other suitable person.  The court should allow the child to remain home with the child’s parent whenever possible. However, the court will only allow this if it is clear the child will be safe returning home.  
The court will hold review hearings, when it will check in on the progress of the parents and decide whether any additional services are necessary.

If a child has been removed, the law requires a hearing on a permanent placement plan for the children within twelve months. Under certain circumstances, such as if parents have not participated in the necessary services despite the best efforts of DHS, the permanency hearing will be held after 6 months. At the permanency hearing, a judge will:

  • Return the child home
  • enter an order to continue the child’s out of home placement for an additional six moths 
  • Order the county attorney to begin proceedings to terminate the parent-child relationship 
  • Enter some other order, including to transfer guardianship and custody to a suitable person, or from one parent to another parent. 
The most serious outcome is the termination of parental rights, which will remove any rights the parent has to the child, including visitation. If a child cannot be safely returned at the time of the permanency hearing, the parent may argue they should be allowed 6 more months to resolve the issues. The parent will need to present evidence that they deserve these additional 6 months, and that the child will likely be returned home after this time. It helps if the parents have been complying with services, and have begun to show improvement, even if they are not quite to the point necessary.   If a petition is filed for termination of parental rights, there will be a trial. Though this is a separate case, the parent will still have the right to an attorney, to assist them with the termination trial.