When a person files a petition alleging a child is dependent and neglected, they are usually alleging the child is being abused by or is not taken care of by his or her parent or guardian. “Taken care of” can mean providing necessities as basic as food, clothes and housing. It can also mean, the child’s physical or mental health needs are not being met, the child is being unlawfully kept out of school and other facts that show the child is being abused or neglected. When such a petition is filed in Tennessee, the child is appointed a guardian ad litem who is an attorney that looks out for the child’s best interest.
Once the petition is filed, the court will schedule a preliminary hearing. That hearing is just that, a preliminary hearing to determine if there are enough bare facts for the petition to move forward. If the court finds there are such facts, the court will set the matter for a final, adjudicatory hearing to decide whether the child is in fact dependent and neglected in the parent or guardians care. If the court finds the child is dependent and neglected, the court must then hold the dispositional hearing. The dispositional hearing is the “now what” part of the matter. That means, so if the child is dependent and neglected in the parent or guardian’s care,” what should we do now?” Many times the court can put services in the home such as counseling, parenting classes, homemaker services, etc. Other times, the child must go live somewhere else until the parent or guardian can hopefully rectify the basis for the petition. Many times this is the case when the parents are addicted to alcohol or drugs, are in jail, etc.
Having been a guardian ad litem for many years, I have observed and participated in many hearings. In doing so, I have observed many parents not ask for bifurcated hearings. A bifurcated hearing is contemplated in Tennessee law. It means that the court first holds the final, adjudicatory hearing. If the court finds the child is dependent and neglected, the court then moves on to the dispositional, “now what” part of the hearing. It is very important to bifurcate these two hearings for one simple reason. The evidence allowed in the adjudicatory hearing is more limited than in the dispositional, “now what”, hearing. In the adjudicatory hearing, hearsay is not allowed. That means someone can’t testify to what other people told that person. In the dispositional hearing, reliable hearsay is allowed.
Many times, if the parents or guardians do not ask for a bifurcated hearing, reliable hearsay comes into evidence and the Judge hears it and may rely on it in deciding whether the child is in fact dependent and neglected in the parent or guardians care. The only way to ensure the Judge cannot listen to hearsay in the adjudicatory hearing is to ask for a bifurcated hearing.