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Participant vs. Party – in DCF cases (Which one am I and what does that mean?)

Dependency cases can involve several different people. Each one has a title and each one has a specific role to play in the case. However they do not all enjoy the same rights and privileges.  Whether you are classified as a “party,” a “participant,” or neither, will indicate whether you have a right to file motions, to visit the child(ren), or to even speak during a hearing.


A “party” is the parent or parents of the child (whose parental rights have already been legally established), the petitioner, the Department of Children and Families, the Guardian Ad Litem program (often referred to as “G.A.L.” or as the “Guardian”), and the child themselves. If the child has an attorney (“Attorney Ad Litem”), they are also considered a party to the case. Parties may file motions with the Court and they may be heard during court proceedings. Unless forbidden by the Court, the parent(s) have a legal right to visit their child(ren).


A “participant” is any person who is not a party, but who should receive notice of hearings. Participants include the custodian(s)/caregiver(s) of the child, identified prospective parents, and “any other person whose participation may be in the best interest of the child. It is important to point out that the “caregiver” and the “guardian” are not the same thing. The caregiver refers to the person or persons who are caring for the child. The “guardian” refers to the “Guardian Ad Litem Program” – who is a party. A community based agency under contract with the Department of Children and Families, may be designated as a participant. The case manager for example, is from a community based agency under contract with the Department of Children and Families. If the Court allows it, a participant may speak during a hearing, without having to first file a “motion to intervene.”


Often, a caregiver (whether foster parent, relative or non-relative) of the child, will want to voice their opinion during Dependency Hearings. According to the statute, during Judicial Review and Permanency Hearings, the Court must hear from the caregiver, concerning the well-being of the child, the impact of any services provided to the child, the working relationship between the parents and caregivers, and the return of the child to the parents. If the caregiver cannot be present at this hearing, it is the case manager’s responsibility to obtain the caregiver’s position and report back to the Court. 


Sometimes, relatives that are not the current caregiver of the child, will want to have a say in the dependency case. Depending on the relation to the child, some relatives may have additional rights regarding the child. For example, grandparents have specific grandparent rights such as reasonable visitation with the child(ren), and priority in adoption proceedings if the parent’s parental rights are terminated.


Depending on what type of participant you are, you might not be entitled to information regarding the case. For example, if you are a caregiver, the case manager should be visiting you and the child(ren) at least once a month. There is some information that the case manager can share with the caregiver. If you are a relative, but not a caregiver, the Department is under no obligation to provide you with any information. Often times, this leaves important family members in the dark while their loved ones have to navigate the murky Dependency waters on their own.


While all participants may be granted “leave to be heard” by the Court to speak during hearings, more often than not, the Court will not grant a participant the ability to speak, simply because of the time constraints or subject matter that is being discussed. A Termination of Parental Rights Trial is a private proceeding. No one, other than the parties, witnesses, and attorneys may be heard or be present during a termination of parental rights trial. An attorney can help a participant by explaining whether they have standing to file a motion to intervene.


For an experienced attorney who can answer your dependency related questions – give us a call at (386)310-0061 and we will schedule a consult to discuss your unique situation.