The Legal System

A Guide to Family Court, Hearings, and Court Participation

Who’s Who?

It is important to understand the different people and organizations involved in supporting a child in foster care.

Dept. of Human Services

DHS is responsible for supporting Philadelphia families and children.  One of the roles of DHS is to identify children in unsafe situations and to find a safe place for them until they can be reunited to their birth families. 

When reunification is not possible, as determined by the courts, DHS is also responsible for helping children find adoptive homes.

Community Umbrella Agency

Once a child has been initially established in foster care by DHS, he or she is assigned to one of ten community umbrella agencies (CUAs). 

A CUA case worker is assigned to the child and is responsible for working with both the birth family and the child to work towards reunification.  The case worker oversees the safety of the child in foster care with regular visits, and provides resources to birth parents seeking reunification.

Foster Care Agency

Foster care agencies are contracted by DHS and work primarily with foster families to:

  • provide foster care training and certification
  • conduct regular home inspections to make sure foster homes meet DHS requirements
  • provide support for foster families

Every foster family is assigned a case worker from their foster care agency.


Family Court

Each case must be reviewed in court at regular intervals to assess progress towards reunification and to set goals.  All official decisions are made by the court.  When reunification is not possible, the court is responsible for determining the next best place for the child to live, whether that’s with other family members, or with a new adoptive family. 

Child Advocate

Every child is assigned a child advocate who provides legal representation for this child at all court hearings.  The role of the child advocate is to look out for the best interests of the child and to provide the court with information to best serve and protect the child.

Foster (Resource) Family

Foster families (aka resource families) are certified to provide care for children when it is not safe for them to live in their own homes.  These families care for children on behalf of DHS and the CUAs.  Responsibilities include providing food and shelter, transportation, schooling, and healthcare

Types of Court Hearings

There are a number of regular hearings required for every family and child

Shelter Hearing

Within 72 hours of placement

A shelter care hearing is held within 72 hours after a child is removed from their home in which the court determines whether there is sufficient evidence to warrant keeping the child in out-of-home care. 

If so, the child then remains in “emergency care” with other family or with a foster family until the adjudicatory hearing.

Adjudicatory Hearing

Within 10 days of shelter hearing

Within 10 days of the shelter hearing, an adjudicatory hearing is held where a judge collects all available information about a case to determine if a child should be formally placed in out-of-home care with other family or in foster care.  If so, goals are set for the family to reach before the child can be reunified.  The case is also transitioned from DHS to one of the CUAs and a CUA caseworker is assigned to the family and child.

Permanency Hearing

Within 6 months of placement
Every 3-6 months while in care

In PA, a permanency hearing is required every 6 months to determine the goals for permanency. More often, hearings tend to be held roughly every 3 months when possible. Any previous family goals are reviewed to see what progress has been made. Future goals for permanency are set, which may include:

  • reunification with birth family
  • adoption by other family members
  • adoption by foster family or preadoptive family
  • legal guardianship by other family members

Foster parents are encouraged to attend permanency hearings. See court participation below.

Termination of Parent Rights Hearing

If a child has been in care 15 of the last 22 months

The primary goal of foster care is always family reunification. If reunification has been deemed impossible by the court, then parental rights to guardianship may be terminated at a formal hearing which frees a child for adoption. The court may request a TPR hearing at any point when reunification is deemed no longer possible. 

DHS is required to request a TPR hearing if a child has been in foster care for 15 of the last 22 months. In this case, a hearing must be held, but the court is not required to terminate parental rights.

    Adoption/PLC Hearing

    After reunification has been ruled out

    If it has been determined that reunification is not possible, the next step is either an adoption hearing or a permanent legal custody hearing.  If the birth parents’ rights have been formally terminated at a termination of parent rights hearing, then the child may be adopted by other family members, the foster family, or another preadoptive family.  If the parents’ rights have not been terminated, but reunification is not possible, the child may be placed under permanent legal custody of a new permanent home.  In this case, the birth parent retains some rights, such as visitation.

    For more information, see the Child Welfare Information Gateway.

    Court Participation

    Foster parents are welcome and encouraged to participate in court hearings that involve their foster children

    Attending Court Hearings

    As a foster parent, you shold receive a letter notifying you ahead of time for any hearings. The letter will include the DHS case number, hearing date, and court room location. 

    Where Do I Go?

    All hearings for Philadelphia families are held at the Philadelphia Family Court at 1501 Arch Street, Philadelphia, PA 19102. Your hearing notification letter should show the specific courtroom location where your child’s case will be held. Your CUA case manager can also help you know where to go. See the Philadelphia Family Court website for more information.

    Title Address Description
    Philadelphia Family Court
    1501 Arch St, Philadelphia, PA 19102, USA

    1501 Arch Street
    Philadelphia, PA 19102


    Questions About Court


    Am I allowed to go to court with my child?

    Yes!  Foster parents are encouraged to attend their foster child’s hearings and can often be useful sources of information.  It is important to remember that you are not one of the parties in the case.  Instead, think of your role as more of a witness.

    Should I or can I have a lawyer represent me?

    No, foster parents cannot have a lawyer because they are not one of the named parties in the case.  The only people who are represented in court are the parent(s) and the child(ren). 

    What should I wear to court?

    Try to be as presentable as possible – it is a court after all.  Avoid things like denim, sweatpants, or hats.  Business casual is acceptable.

    Will I have to speak in court?

    Foster parents have the right to be heard in court. That means if the judge or a lawyer asks you questions, you have the right to speak. Answers you provide will be used to help guide decisions made by the judge.

    How can I express concerns about my child's birth parents to the court?

    In court, you are only permitted to speak if you are directly asked a question by the judge or if the judge permits a lawyer to ask you questions.

    However, foster parents are permitted to provide a report to the court with any concerns at least 1 week ahead of time. In the notification letter you receive prior to your child’s court date, there will be instructions for submitting a report as well as a template.

    It is important to note that any information you provide will be read out loud in court. If the birth parents are there, they will hear the contents of your report. Therefore, voice your concerns as tactfully as possible to avoid hurting your relationship with the birth parents.

    How can I express concerns about DHS or my foster care agency to the court?

    In court, you are only permitted to speak if you are directly asked a question by the judge or if the judge permits a lawyer to ask you questions.

    However, foster parents are permitted to provide a report to the court with any concerns at least 1 week ahead of time. In the notification letter you receive prior to your child’s court date, there will be instructions for submitting a report as well as a template.

    If you have specific concerns about DHS or your foster care agency, you should notify them ahead of time to allow them the opportunity to resolve the issue if possible. However, DHS and your foster care agency are not permitted to retaliate against you for any information you provide. 

    It is important to note that any information you provide will be read out loud in court for the record.

    Will I be able to stay for the entire hearing?

    The judge has the right to ask you to leave the courtroom at any time during the hearing, depending on the sensitivity of the topics discussed. You may be asked to be present for some parts of the hearing and not for others.

    Attendance is at the sole discretion of the judge. However, keep in mind that foster parents are often a valuable information resource and your attendance is often appreciated. 

    For more information, see What About Court Participation on the DHS Resource Page.

    Learn More About Foster Care

    The following guides can help get you up to speed on several important aspects of foster care in Philadelphia.


    Learn about financial support available for foster parents.


    Learn about healthcare topics such as doctors visits and insurance.

    The Legal System

    Learn about family court, hearings, and child custody.

    Caseworkers and Visits

    Learn about the different types of caseworkers, home visits, and parent visits.

    New Placements

    Learn about what to ask when receiving a new placement and the first week in care

    School and Daycare

    Learn more about education, school, and daycare.

    Adoption and Permanency

    Learn about foster care, adoption, and foster-to-adopt.

    Foster Care Policies

    Learn about policies like travel and babysitters