Deciding to file a family with service needs petition, also known as a FWSN petition, is a difficult decision for many families. On this page, I will explain the basics of the FWSN petition to help you make this decision.

Requirements for a FWSN Petition

The family with service needs petition is available for families that have a child who is 7-18 years old who fits one of the following categories:

  • The child has run away from home without just cause,
  • The child is beyond the control of the child’s parent, guardian, or other custodian,
  • The child has engaged in indecent or immoral conduct,
  • The child is truant or habitually truant,
  • The child is overtly and continuously defiant of school rules and regulations, or,
  • The child is 13 years or older, and he or she has engaged in sexual intercourse with another person who is 13 years or older, but not more than two years older or younger than the child.

Anyone may file a FWSN complaint with the court, and the case will be referred to a probation officer. The probation officer will determine if the alleged facts, if true, would qualify for a FWSN petition. After an initial assessment, the child and his or her family will be referred to a suitable community based program, another service provider, or a family support center for voluntary services.

If the service provider determines that the child and his or her family can no longer benefit from the services, the probation officer will be informed. The probation officer must then conduct another assessment and either refer the family to a support center for additional services or file a FWSN petition with the court.

The probation officer’s decision must be presented to the complainant in writing. Similarly, if the probation officer determines that the allegations are not true, or do not fall under the Family with Service Needs Petition, the probation officer shall inform the complainant in writing.

FWSN and Police Involvement

A FWSN petition is oftentimes filed by a police officer. As soon as a police officer gets notice of a potential Family With Service Needs, it is the officer’s job to try and locate the child. Once the child is located, the police officer is required to report the location of the child to his or her parent or guardian. The officer may then take one of four actions.

The officer can 1) transport the child to his or her parent or guardian’s home, 2) refer the child to superior court for juvenile matters, 3) hold the child in protective custody for up to 12 hours, while a more suitable disposition is determined, or 4) the officer can transport the child to a public or private agency serving children.

After the Petition is Filed

If a Family With Service Needs petition is filed, the court will issue a summons for the child and his or her parent or guardian. The court has the authority to order an adult to appear in court, issue a contempt order, and more. It is therefore important to comply with the summons request.

If the petition alleges that truancy occurred, the case cannot be dismissed just because it is filed at the end of the school year. In truancy cases, the court shall order the local board of education or private school to conduct an education evaluation on the child if it has not been performed during the previous year.

Petition allegations should show that there is a strong probability that the child will either injure him or herself or run away before the court date, or that there is a need to hold the child for another jurisdiction; however, a non-delinquent runaway from another state cannot be held in detention.

Hearings for temporary custody should be held no later than 10 days after a judge signs orders of temporary custody. During the hearing itself, the judge can continue the child’s temporary custody at a suitable agency or with a suitable person.

If the petition filed shows that it is in the best interest of the child or family to be referred to a community based service or another service, the judge may continue the matter for a reasonable amount of time.

This continuance cannot exceed six months, but it may be extended for an additional three months for cause. The matter will be dismissed at continuances if the matter is resolved satisfactorily.

Hearing on FWSN Petition

If a family with service needs petition is filed, the child and his or her family are entitled to a hearing. In addition, these parties are entitled to adequate and fair notice of consequences for violation of order regulating the child’s future conduct in writing. At any time after the hearing for good cause, the court has the right to modify or enlarge the condition.

If there is clear and convincing evidence that a child falls under the definition of a family with service needs, the court can take one of the following actions. If the child is truant, the court may refer him or her to DCF for voluntary services or to the local school district or private school for services such as summer school, participation in community agencies, and more.

Alternatively, the child can be ordered to remain in his or her home or the custody of a suitable person. If this is the case, the child can be subjected to probation supervision or probation in addition to supervision by his or her school.

If a child is found to be a FWSN as a result of sexual intercourse, the court may refer the child to a youth service bureau or another appropriate agency, a teen pregnancy program, or an STD program, and the child can be ordered to do community service in a hospital, AIDS prevention program, or an OBGYN program.

The final option in a FWSN hearing is committing the child to DCF for an indefinite period of time that is not to exceed 18 months. DCF may file a motion 14 days prior to the hearing for a commitment extension, provided that it is in the best interest of the child.

A permanency hearing can be held so long as it is within 12 months of the commitment. In addition, DCF may file a motion to discharge the child at any time.

Violation of FWSN Adjudication Orders

If a probation officer feels that a violation of adjudication orders took place, he or she may file a petition with the court alleging the violation. The probation officer should use probable cause based on specific allegations or other verified affirmations to determine if the child needs to be removed from his or her current situation because of risk of injury.

The officer is required to serve the child with a summons and alert the court. The child is then entitled to counsel and an evidentiary hearing. It is then up to the court to determine if the child violated the orders or not. If it is found that the child violated the order through clear and convincing evidence, the court can do one of three things. The court may order the child to remain at home, in the custody of an appropriate relative, or remain in a DCF commitment.

Alternatively, the court can order that the child be placed in a staff-secure facility under the Court Support Services Division (CSSD) for a period of up to 45 days, with a court review every 15 days until the child is released and returned to the community under the probation’s supervision. The final option is that the court can order the child to be committed to DCF for a period of time not to exceed 18 months.

For information regarding what happens when a family with service needs petition is filed in court, please contact me at (203) 925-9200 for more information.

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