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What Happens at the Shelter Care Hearing in a Child Custody Case?

Article written by Illinois & Iowa Attorney Kevin O'Flaherty
Updated on
April 20, 2020

In this article, we will discuss what initiates a shelter care hearing, the purpose of the shelter care hearing, what evidence is presented in a shelter care hearing and the court process for a shelter care hearing.

What Initiates a Shelter-Care Hearing?

If a parent has been reported to the DCFS for abuse or neglect, or some other event or series of events have taken place within the home, potentially putting the child at risk, the child will most likely be placed into protective custody and the parent(s) or guardian(s) will be looking at a lengthy court process. The first part of this court process is called a Shelter Care Hearing (sometimes used interchangeably with temporary custody hearing, but not in all cases), and in Illinois must occur within 48 hours after the child is brought into protective custody by DCFS. 

What is the Purpose of a Shelter Care Hearing?

If a child is removed from the home, the DCFS investigator will place that child into protective custody, possibly with another family member, friend or foster care home. Within 48 hours of the child being placed into protective custody, the shelter care hearing is scheduled. The primary goal of the shelter care hearing is to determine if allowing the child to remain home places the child in imminent danger, or whether the child needs to remain in protective custody (or placed in temporary custody) for an extended period. 

The emergency nature of a shelter care or temporary custody hearing allows the hearing to occur without the parents or guardians present (this is known as ex parte). If the shelter care hearing occurs ex parte the temporary custody order will only stand for 10 days. During the 10 day period, DCFS must make a reasonable and in good faith attempt at providing notice to the appropriate parties who did not receive notice of the hearing. If notices were properly provided to all parents and guardians but those individuals did not appear at the shelter-care hearing, then the temporary custody order is valid without the 10 days stipulation. If one or both of the parents or guardians are present the court must inquire if DCFS attempted to retrieve information from the parents regarding relatives’ names, addresses, and phone numbers for use in determining an appropriate relative placement.

What Evidence is Presented in a Shelter Care or Temporary Custody Hearing?

The primary evidence being presented at a shelter care hearing concerns occurrence of abuse or neglect. By the time the shelter care hearing takes place, DCFS should have already investigated the at-home situation of the involved child and discovered, to the best of the agent’s abilities, all available evidence whether indicative of abuse or neglect or otherwise. Any and all evidence gathered by DCFS concerning the safety and welfare of the child will be presented to the judge. The purpose of the investigation by DCFS and the shelter care hearing is not to prosecute the parents for alleged abuse or neglect but present the truth of the child’s home situation to the judge who can then make an informed decision that is in the best interest of the child. Specific factors the court is required to evaluate during the hearing include:

  • Probable cause to believe the child is abused, neglected, or dependent;
  • Evidence of urgent or immediate necessity of safety for the child that may or may not require removal from their current home situation;
  • What kind of effort DCFS has made in offering services and assistance to the family to improve the situation and help the child remain at home;
  • A report or suggestion on an appropriate person or agency into whose care the child should be placed if the judge decides urgent and immediate removal of the child from the parents or guardians is necessary; and
  • Any other steps that are necessary to remediate the reasons the case involves the DCFS and has been brought to court.

The judge will take all the evidence presented into consideration when determining the safety of the child. The judge's ruling during the shelter care hearing is different from that which takes place at the adjudicatory hearing, which can be considered the more formal determination of under whose care the child will remain for a longer period of time until the dispositional hearing. The ruling by the judge at the shelter care hearing is temporary and may be subject to change based on a number of factors. The judge will make his decision based on the evidence gathered from DCFS, the attorneys involved in the case, child and parent testimony, and any other pertinent parties.

Illinois Court Family Conference

The State of Illinois has a practice that has been in place in Cook County for a number of years. This practice is called the Court Family Conference and it acts as an extension of the shelter care hearing. If enacted it must be held not less than 56 days after the initial temporary custody hearing. The court family conference serves to allow DCFS and any other interested applicable parties to gather more evidence on the child’s home situation and for the parents or guardians to prepare any necessary articles such as a visitation plan. The judge will again hear all evidence presented and propose a plan for the child, including, but not limited to, a custody ruling, a possible target date for the child to return home, and/or closure of the case.

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