First, a family court judge has to agree that you should be placed in foster care. If it’s decided that you will remain in foster care for now, the next step is to create a plan to find a permanent living situation for when you leave care. This is called permanency planning. Your plan might be to move back in with your birth parent/s, to be adopted or permanently placed with a relative or other guardian, or to prepare to transition out and live on your own. You will have a permanency hearing in family court roughly every six months, so the judge can check up on how your plan is going. Make sure to ask your lawyer when your next hearing is, and try to attend if possible.
For more information on the permanency process and your rights, check out the booklet "It's Your Life," written by teens at the Youth Justice Board. It includes information on your rights in court, how to work with people in court, and how to communicate what you want.
Can I Be Present in the Courtroom? Who Decides?
There's no law that says a child can't be present in the courtroom. But you're not required to be there unless you're accused of juvenile delinquency. In foster care cases, where it's the parent who's being accused of something, the young person is often not invited in.
I wanted to know why that is, since what's decided in court affects our lives in so many ways. So I spoke to some lawyers at Manhattan Family Court. They offered three main reasons why judges and lawyers often assume it's best to keep us out.
1. They said a big reason is that what goes on in court may be too much for us to bear. For example,if a father is charged with sexually abusing his child, but in court he condemns that child as a liar, that could be very painful to hear. It might make us cry or scream in court. It might depress us for a long time. So for our sakes, they decide it's best to keep us out.
2. Our lawyers represent our interests and speak for us, so we don't need to be in court ourselves. Part of the job of our lawyers (or of the social workers or volunteers helping them) is to talk to us to make sure they understand what we want and we understand the consequences of our choices.
Once they've done that, they believe they're better able to convince the judge to get us what we want than we would be, because they understand the law.
3. A third reason is that in cases of abuse or neglect, the parent/guardian, who's the one on trial, has some rights to privacy. Parents might not want their children to know things about their lives that they might be required to say in court, so they can request that the judge keep us from being there.
After thinking through all their reasons, though, I'm still not convinced that kids shouldn't be in court. I believe that our lawyers and the judges should always ask us if we want to be there, and give us the opportunity to say yes or no, rather than assuming that we don't.
For me, not being allowed in court was absolutely unhealthy, unhelpful and painful. I imagine that's true for some other young people as well. Too often and in too many ways, the doors are shut to our pain and anger. We are silenced, by our families and by the system, and labeled as children who know nothing.
Even if they mean well, the courts should not make us feel that they're doing the same. If we choose, we should have the right to speak from our hearts and face those who have hurt us.
The lawyers I spoke with told me that, if we do want to be in court, we should speak up. Then it will be up to the judge to decide.
Which Family Court Do I Go To?
There is a court for every borough. The court you go to is determined by the borough your parent/s lived in when you were taken into care.
You can also go to www.nycourts.gov/courts/nyc/family/index.shtml for directions and building directories.
What Does My Lawyer Do?
If you’re in foster care, you have a lawyer whose job is to represent you in court. In New York, your lawyer is called the "attorney for the child," although you may know them by the term law guardian. He or she has to protect your legal interests and advocate for what you want (as long as you’re capable of making that decision).
Your lawyer should explain his or her role and the court proceedings to you, tell you what your rights are and find out what you want. Your lawyer is required to express your wishes to the court.
He or she should investigate placement options for you, which includes doing work like reviewing your case file, getting your school and medical records, and interviewing people who know you. Then your lawyer will request an appropriate placement and whatever services you need from the court.
Remember, this is your lawyer, not the lawyer for your parents, your agency or anyone else. Your lawyer should not tell anyone what you talk about, unless you are in danger. If you feel that your lawyer is not listening, not explaining things in a way that you can understand, or violating confidentiality, speak up! Tell them how you feel and see if the problem can be fixed.
If you still feel that he or she is not fighting for you (not returning your phone calls or not telling the judge what you want), then you should ask to speak to the judge at your next court appearance. If you need to, you can ask the judge for a new attorney. But judges don’t give kids new lawyers very often, so be prepared to give specific reasons why you are not satisfied with the job your lawyer is doing. Before going to the judge, you might even want to write down your complaints.
Theresa Hughes, Esq., is the former director of the Child Advocacy Clinic at St. John’s University School of Law.
How to Find Your Lawyer
If you don’t know who your attorney is, call these organizations. They should be able to find the name and phone number of the lawyer who is assigned to you.
Lawyers for Children:
If you’re trying to call your lawyer and they don’t answer, don’t give up. Attorneys for children in foster care are often in court, and because they have so many cases, they might not return your phone call right away. Keep calling, and leave a message with your full name and phone number every time you call.
Your Legal Rights in Foster Care
You have the right to be heard. Talk to your ACS caseworker, your foster care agency caseworker, and your lawyer. Make sure you let them know how you feel and make sure they answer your questions. It is their job to listen to you.
You have a right to your own lawyer and the right to talk to that lawyer in private. Your lawyer's job is to listen to you and to tell the judge what you think, feel, and want. Your lawyer can explain to you why you have been removed from your home and why a case has been filed in Family Court.
You have a right to be part of the planning process for you and your family, and to attend meetings about this. These meetings are called Family Team Conferences, and are held about once every six months. They are also held if there's a change in your case, like being moved to a different foster home. You have a right to express your wishes. You have a right to speak to your lawyer outside the meetings and to have an adult come to the meetings with you to help you feel more comfortable and provide information and support.
You have the right to ask your lawyer and caseworkers if you might be able to be cared for by relatives or friends in their homes.
You have a right to be well cared-for in foster care, to get proper food and clothing, to go to school, and to get medical care.
You have the right to be placed with your siblings whenever possible, as long as it is safe and in both of your best interests for you to be together. If you have a child, you have the right to be placed with your child as long as you are able to protect and care for him or her.
More Legal Help For Youth 24 and Under
What Can I Do if My Child Has Been Placed in Foster Care?
If you are a parent and your child has been taken into care, you should first speak with your attorney and/or caseworker. They should be able to advise you on your next step. If you are no longer in care yourself, of if you just need more advice, these resources can be of help:
Child Welfare Organizing Project (CWOP)
Center for Family Representation
Legal Information for Families Today (LIFT)
What if I've Aged Out of Care But Still Need Legal Help?
If you’re about to age out and aren’t ready (for instance, if your agency hasn’t found housing for you that you can afford), talk to your lawyer. He or she can ask the judge to extend your placement in foster care until you get everything you need.
If you have already aged out, call your former agency and ask if they can refer you to services in your community. There are legal organizations around the city that can help you with things like housing and benefits, for free. Here are a few:
Law Help New York
New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG)
Legal Services for New York City
Dealing With the Police: Your Rights, and How to Stay Safe
Answer Your Legal Questions