Juvenile Court Basics

Authored By: Iowa Legal Aid


Juvenile Courts generally handle cases dealing with children under the age of eighteen.

What Kinds of Cases Does the Juvenile Court Handle?
Most cases in Juvenile Court are Child In Need of Assistance (CINA) cases, juvenile delinquency cases and minor guardianships.

Information from the Iowa Courts can be found here: Juvenile Court and Proceedure

What is a CINA Case?
Most CINA cases involve abused or neglected children.

  • The State files a petition alleging that the child is a child in need of assistance.
  • The petition says the state's protection and Juvenile Court involvement is necessary to ensure the child's well-being.
  • The parents have an opportunity to respond to the allegations. If the judge decides the child is in need of assistance,
  • The court will  decide where the child will live, what type of services will be provided, etc.

Sometimes a case is also filed to end a person's parental rights.

  • Most of the time the Juvenile Court hears these cases.
  • They may or may not be preceded by a CINA case.
  • A termination of parental rights case asks the Juvenile Court to legally sever the parent's rights to the child.
  • Federal and state law requires the State to start a termination of parental rights case if a child has been in foster care for a certain amount of time or if there are other special factors.

A parent may also decide to voluntarily give up their child for adoption.

  • These cases do not usually involve the State. Private lawyers and agencies generally handle the matter.
  • The Juvenile Court must still enter a court order terminating the parent's rights, even if the parent consents to the termination.

What Does a Juvenile Delinquency Proceeding Involve?
Juvenile delinquency proceedings are another common type of case the Juvenile Court handles.

  • Juvenile delinquency cases are cases where the defendants are under the age of eighteen when they commit an illegal act.
  • Criminal laws are the same for adults and juveniles.
  • The State must prove charges brought against juvenile defendants beyond a reasonable doubt, as they do against adult defendants.
  • Juvenile defendants can agree they have committed a delinquent act or enter into plea agreements as well.
  • There are no juries in Juvenile Court. All cases are tried to the Juvenile Court judge.

If a juvenile defendant is found to have committed a delinquent act, the court will adjudicate the juvenile to be a delinquent child.

  • Adjudication is the term used in Juvenile Court to signify that a juvenile has committed a delinquent act.
  • After an adjudication, the court will enter a dispositional order determining what course of action is appropriate for the child. A dispositional order will not send a juvenile to an adult prison.
  • A dispositional order may place a juvenile in a detention center, the state training school, a residential treatment facility or other out-of-home placement.
  • A dispositional order may also let a juvenile continue living at home while completing certain terms and conditions.

Some cases involving juveniles do not reach the Juvenile Court.

  • Iowa law allows the Juvenile Court Services Department to review charges involving juveniles and to resolve the charge informally.
  • In most of these cases, the juvenile must complete certain terms of behavior.
  • Specific terms and conditions must be met to be removed from oversight.
  • If the juvenile violates the behavioral terms or engages in other illegal behavior, the Juvenile Court Services Department may ask to file delinquency charges in the Juvenile Court.

Some delinquency cases involve juveniles close to age eighteen or who have committed serious or multiple illegal acts.

  • In these situations, the State may file a request with the Juvenile Court to transfer the juvenile's case to the District Court.
  • A hearing on this issue will take place before the Juvenile Court judge.
  • The Juvenile Court judge then decides whether the case will stay in Juvenile Court or be transferred to District Court.
  • If the case goes to District Court, the juvenile is then tried just as if they were an adult.

Are There Other Cases a Juvenile Court Would Hear?
Juvenile Courts also hear civil commitment cases involving children under the age of eighteen.

  • The process for committing a juvenile for mental health or substance abuse reasons is like the process for committing an adult. The actual commitment hearing is held in Juvenile Court.
  • There are occasions where a juvenile is subject to a civil commitment and is also involved in a CINA or delinquency case.

Juveniles may also seek protection from domestic abuse under Iowa Code Chapter 236.

  • The same requirements apply as in cases involving adults.
  • If the person against whom the protection order is sought is seventeen years of age or younger, the District Court will transfer the case to the Juvenile Court.

Juvenile Courts have the authority to finalize adoptions.

  • Adoption occurs after parental rights to a child have been terminated.
  • Adoption is the process for legally making a child a part of the adoptive family. Both young and older children can be adopted.

Juvenile Courts handle guardianships over minors.

  • Minor guardianships whether voluntary or involuntary are filed in juvenile court.

Juvenile Court cases are not always over as soon as the judge makes a decision.

  • One of the important things that the Juvenile Court does is to monitor and review the cases to make sure the children and families continue to make progress.
  • Often the Juvenile Court will keep oversight of a case for several months or longer.
  • When the goals of the Juvenile Court case have been met and the Juvenile Court's intervention is no longer necessary, then the Juvenile Court can dismiss the case.
  • In minor guardianship cases, the case will remain open as long as the guardianship remains in effect.

What Doesn't the Juvenile Court Do?

  • The Juvenile Court does not handle certain criminal cases even when the defendant is under the age of eighteen. 
  • Some very serious crimes which are committed by persons over the age of sixteen automatically start in the District Court. In these cases, the defendant may ask the District Court to transfer the case to the Juvenile Court. The District Court judge will have a hearing on this request and then decide about the transfer.
  • Some minor crimes are only handled by the District Court system, without regard to the defendant's age.
  • These can include violations of some city or local ordinances, curfew and traffic violations, and certain simple misdemeanor violations of the Iowa Code.

The Juvenile Court does not rule on custody or divorce cases.

  • These cases are tried in the District Court even though they often involve children.
  • If the children are under the jurisdiction of the Juvenile Court at the time the divorce or custody case is being decided, the parties must get permission from the Juvenile Court before a District Court judge can make a final custody decision.

Conservatorships involving juveniles are decided by the District Court not the Juvenile Court.

  • Parents can agree or consent to a conservatorship for their minor child; a conservatorship proceeding must be filed with the District Court to accomplish this.

Who Are the Other People Involved in Juvenile Court?

  • In most CINA cases, the County Attorney's office represents the State.
  • Social workers from the Iowa Department of Health and Human Services and other social service agencies may be involved as well.
  • These are the people who work directly with the children and families.
  • These people also must report to the court about the family's progress.
  • They also recommend placement of children, services for the families, etc. to the court.

In juvenile delinquency proceedings, the County Attorney's office also represents the State.

  • Someone from the Juvenile Court Services Department will take part.
  • These people are sometimes called juvenile probation officers.
  • The officers review the cases filed against juveniles, make referrals to the County Attorney's office for initiation of a proceeding and make recommendations to the court.
  • Once a child is adjudicated to be a delinquent child, the Juvenile Court Services Department is responsible for monitoring the child's progress and making recommendations to the court regarding the child's future.

Do People Involved in Juvenile Court Proceedings Have Representation?

  • Children have the right to legal representation in Juvenile Court proceedings.
  • A lawyer/guardian ad litem will represent children in CINA cases and termination of parental rights cases.
  • Often a single person fills this role.
  • Occasionally, one person may serve as the lawyer and another person will serve as the guardian ad litem.
  • The lawyer must be a licensed attorney.
  • This person is to make sure the child's legal interests are protected and to advocate the child's wishes.
  • The guardian ad litem does not always have to be a licensed attorney.
  • A Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) may be appointed as the child's guardian ad litem.
  • The guardian ad litem's job is to advocate for what is in the child's best interest.

In delinquency cases, children are entitled to have a lawyer for delinquency-related court proceedings.

  • In many instances this will be a court-appointed lawyer.
  • Children also have the right to legal counsel when they are taken into custody and/or questioned about serious or aggravated misdemeanors or felony crimes.
  • If the court decides) the parents can afford to pay for the child's lawyer, the court may order the parents to pay all or part of the lawyer's fees.
  • Children (or their parents) may hire a lawyer to represent the child at any stage of a delinquency proceeding.
  • This includes informal proceedings with the Juvenile Court Services Department.

Children who are civilly committed for either substance abuse or mental health reasons are entitled to representation by a lawyer.

  • That lawyer is generally appointed in the initial commitment order.
  • If the committed child is subject to an ongoing CINA or delinquency case, the same lawyer may be appointed to represent the child in the commitment proceeding.

Children in a guardianships case may receive representation by a lawyer.

  • Children may receive representation if the court decides that their interests may be inadequately represented.

What if the Parents Need a Lawyer?

  • Parents may be entitled to a court-appointed lawyer in CINA and termination of parental rights cases.
  • Parents may be entitled to a court-appointed lawyer in guardianship cases if they contest the guardianship.
  • The parent will need to contact the Juvenile Court or the Clerk of Court and apply for a court-appointed lawyer.
  • Appointment of a lawyer for the parent depends on the parent's income and ability to pay.
  • To apply, the parent fills out an affidavit showing his or her financial situation to the judge.
  • Parents involved in CINA, termination of parental rights proceedings or guardianship proceedings are encouraged to apply for a court-appointed lawyer as soon as possible after the case is filed.
  • The court will then determine if the parent qualifies for a court-appointed lawyer and, if so, who the lawyer will be.

Parents in delinquency proceedings are not entitled to a court-appointed lawyer to represent themselves.

  • Parents may hire a lawyer to represent the parents' interests.
  • If the parents hire a lawyer to represent their child a delinquency case, it is important to remember that the lawyer's obligation is to represent the child, not the parents.

What If I Don't like My Court-Appointed Lawyer?

  • A court-appointed lawyer remains your lawyer until the judge takes the lawyer off the case.
  • If you decide to hire a lawyer on your own, the court-appointed lawyer must, with the court's permission, withdraw as your lawyer first. 
  • If you decide you want to represent yourself, you need to let your court-appointed lawyer know right away so the lawyer can request permission from the court to withdraw.
  • If you want to ask the court to appoint a different court-appointed lawyer for you, you need to identify and document why you want a different lawyer.
  • For example, suppose you are not able to get in touch with your lawyer.
  • You may want to have a list showing when you tried to call your lawyer and/or copies of letters you sent to your lawyer.
  • The procedure may vary depending on which judicial district you live in.
  • Any request for a different court-appointed lawyer should be in writing and should explain why you want a different lawyer.
  • You may contact the court administrator's office for your county to find out how to get your request to the presiding juvenile court judge.
  • The judge will make the final decision about whether you get a different court-appointed lawyer.

What Should I Do If I Get Papers from the Juvenile Court?

  •  The most important thing anyone can do when they get papers from the Juvenile Court, or one of the related agencies, is to read the document thoroughly.
  • If a Juvenile Court case is being started or a hearing is being scheduled, you will get notice.
  • Such a notice will tell you when and where the Juvenile Court hearing will take place.
  • Some Juvenile Court hearings are scheduled with very little advance notice.
  • Every effort should be made to go to the hearing. This may be your only chance to tell the court what your position is and what you want to see happen.
  • Most notices from the Juvenile Court will tell you what kind of case it is somewhere near the top of the front page.
  • Read the document thoroughly to understand who is trying to do what and how it involves you. In most CINA, juvenile delinquency and termination of parental rights cases, you will have been working with someone from the Iowa Department of Human Services or the Juvenile Court Services Department before you get court papers.
  • Even if you think you already know what the court papers are about, you should carefully read them to be sure.

If you do not have a lawyer to represent you or are not sure if you have the right to a court-appointed lawyer, call the Juvenile Court or the Clerk of Court to find out.

  • The Juvenile Court or the Clerk of Court will also be able to tell you what you need to do to apply for a court-appointed lawyer.
  • If you already have a lawyer representing you in the Juvenile Court case, contact them right away when you get any new papers or notices from the Juvenile Court.

What Else Should a Person Involved in a Juvenile Case Do?
Whether you are involved with the Iowa Department of Health and Human Services, the Juvenile Court Services Department or the Juvenile Court, you should keep notes about your case.

  • There may be gaps between your court hearings or the visits from providers.
  • You should be sure to document what is going on.
  • One of the ways the Iowa Department of Human Services and the Juvenile Court Services Department inform the court about a child's or family's progress is through written reports.
  • If you keep notes about what is going on, who you spoke to, what you were told, what you did, etc., you will also have records to share with the court.
  • It is always easier to make a quick note about something when it happens than to recall the incident weeks or months later.
  • You should keep all of the documents and papers you get.
  • Use one folder, envelope or something similar to keep all of your paperwork together.
  • It is important to read all of the reports, court orders and other documents you get.
  • Often you will need to do something to show continued progress.
  • If you don't understand any papers you get, contact the person who sent it.
  • You should ask them to tell you what the information means.

Not all legal problems end up as court cases, which in juvenile court are mainly CINA, delinquency and guardianship issues.

For civil law problems with basic needs, fundamental rights or safety, if you need a lawyer but can't afford one contact Iowa Legal Aid.

  • Iowa Legal Aid provides help to low-income Iowans. 
    • To apply for help from Iowa Legal Aid:call 800-532-1275. 
    • Iowans age 60 and over, call 800-992-8161 or 
    • apply online at iowalegalaid.org If Iowa Legal Aid cannot help, look for an attorney on “Find A Lawyer” on the Iowa State Bar Association website www.iowafindalawyer.com  A private attorney there can talk with you for a fee of $25 for 30 minutes of legal advice.

*As you read this information, remember this article is not a substitute for legal advice. 

Last Review and Update: Mar 07, 2022
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