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What Is Dependency Law?

Dependency Law By Another Name

By "Dependency" I refer to legal practice under Welfare and Institutions Code sec. 300, et seq. Dependency Law has otherwise gone by many different names.  Note that the same or similar issues in a Dependency case might also result in additional or alternative court cases in Family Court, Criminal Court and/or Probate Court. The frequently encountered labels and what they might mean are discussed here.

Dependency Law

Dependency law differs from Criminal or Family, in that 1) it does not involve criminal prosecution of someone for child abuse (as does Criminal law), and 2) it is not only concerning the rights and duties as between parents (as does Family Law). In Dependency cases "the State" is also a party (unlike Family Law cases). However, cases which resolve in Dependency Court will often have "exit orders" which -- if needing further action later -- might then be further litigated in the Family Court.

Adding further confusion is that children suffering "child abuse" might otherwise be subject to a "Probate Guardianship." (See Such cases often arise when a parent is unfit to serve as a parent to their child, and someone else (often a grandparent or other relative) files this legal action in Probate Court to become "guardian" of a child. (The situation is further complicated as there are "Guardians of the Person" and "Guardians of the Estate" but I will avoid those subtopics here.) 


Probate Guardianships are very similar to Dependency cases, yet the court in those cases merely decides to place with a guardian or not. No reunification services are offered in a Probate Guardianship, yet failure of a parent with any such service does not therefore result in a possible termination of parental rights. For this reason alone it is often more in a parent's interests to agree to a relative becoming guardian to their child through a Probate Guardianship rather than going through a Dependency case: it is reversible. A Dependency case may or may not result in termination of parental rights and adoption, but it is the statutorily preferred permanent plan in a Dependency case if parental reunification is unsuccessful. Yet, once a Dependency case has begun -- once the Dependency petition has been filed by the social worker -- a Probate Guardianship is rarely an option.

Image by Joseph Gonzalez


For Child Protective Services (CPS) which is a division of your local Social Services Agency (SSA), whose local name also can be radically different one county to the next.  CPS is the sub portion of the county Social Services Agency which files and begins the Dependency process. This is fairly accurate, but really too narrow, as Dependency law concerns much more than just "what CPS does."

Child Abuse Law

Technically true, but really not descriptive enough, since criminal child abuse, for example pursuant to Penal Code 273(d), is also "child abuse law".  Dependency cases are civil cases which proceed under Welfare and Institutions Code sec. 300 et seq..  Family Law cases (also civil), pursuant to the California Family Code, also may involve child abuse, as do some Probate matters.

Child Welfare Law

Also technically accurate, but the California Penal Codes and Family Codes also concern themselves with the "welfare of children" and so this is not descriptive enough.  Minors who commit "juvenile offenses" (i.e. what would have been crimes" if they were adults) are also dealt with under the Welfare and Institutions Code sec. 602 et seq..  Such cases are more accurately known as "Delinquency" cases.  But, since Delinquency case also arise under the Welfare and Institutions Code, it means calling either Dependency or Delinquency cases "Welfare" cases (or the like) would be indeterminant.

Note that the national legal specialist qualification in Child Dependency law, the Child Welfare Law Specialist (CWLS), uses "Child Welfare" referring to Dependency cases.  (I became one of the first 200 CWLS experts in the country in 2006.)  But that is primarily because Dependency law practice is called something very different among the many states and counties across the nation.  The CWLS certifying agency, the National Association of Counsel for Children (NACC), simply chose a term-of-art to be universal among all states.  (

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Juvenile Law or "Juvi"

This is the most frequently used -- and misused -- legal term in this area of law.  It is often applied by attorneys practicing Welfare and Institutions Code section 602, et seq., cases or "Delinquency" cases -- and frequently meaning only those cases.  Such attorneys are often Criminal law attorneys who often do not practice Dependency law. They only distinguish cases from "adult" and "juvi" (but they do not mean Dependency at all).  It is really because Dependency is so misunderstood, that even attorneys -- and Courts! -- refer to Delinquency cases as "Juvenile"  cases. More accurately under California law, "Juvenile Law" might refer to cases both Dependency and Delinquency, but it is really best avoided due to the ambiguity.

300 Cases

This presumably refers to California Welfare and Institutions Code sec. 300 et seq..  This term is frequently used by Dependency lawyers, yet -- as most of the public does not normally refer to legal code sections -- I find this nomenclature too arcane for regular usage.

Dependency Law or Cases

Dependency cases for the forgoing reasons are the generally preferred terms for cases involving section 300 et seq. of the California Welfare and Institutions Code.

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