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What happens at the Preliminary Hearing in a Child Requiring Assistance (CRA) case?

Produced by Massachusetts Law Reform Institute
Created February, 2021

At the Preliminary Hearing the judge decides if you or your child's school needs help from the court.

Plan to bring your child with you.

Make sure you get there on time.

Before you go to the courthouse

Check with the court to see if they allow you to bring your cellphone to court. See Trial Court restrictions on the possession of cellular telephones and personal electronic devices.

Go to the courthouse and check-in

You have to go through a metal detector each time you enter a courthouse.

Check-in at the Clerk’s office to let the court know you are there.

When your child appears at the clerk's office, the clerk sends a form to the Committee for Public Counsel Services' Children and Family Law Division (CAFL). They assign a lawyer for your child. This lawyer will be your child's lawyer through the whole CRA process.

Most of the time, the Clerk gives your family a number so that no one says your child’s name in public.

The clerk arranges an “Immediate Inquiry” for you to meet with a court probation officer

The “Immediate Inquiry”

Before the hearing a probation officer will talk with you and your child about the CRA application. They will speak with you and your and your child outside the courtroom. They will ask you and your child about what is happening at home and in school.

They will talk to your child about the reasons you or the school filed the CRA. Your child will get to talk about the kind of help they need so they can follow the rules at home, get to school, and follow the rules there.

The probation officer will also ask you about your income so the judge knows if they must appoint a lawyer for you. The judge must appoint a lawyer if they are going to decide custody.

  • If your income is low enough, the court will appoint a free lawyer for you.
  • If the judge decides that you are able to pay something, they will order you to pay a reasonable amount for the court-appointed lawyer.

You may hear or see the word "indigent." Indigent is another word for poor.

The probation officer will tell you if the case should be “informal” or “formal.”

Expect your child’s lawyer to speak with your child in private. At some point, the court officer will announce the judge is ready to hear your case. The court officer will call out your family’s number.

Preliminary Hearing in the courtroom

When you walk into the courtroom it will be private. No one from the public will hear what is going on. Only you, your child, court staff and your child’s lawyer are allowed in the courtroom.

The Clerk, who sits in front of the Judge, will “call the case” by saying your family’s name. The clerk will probably ask you to raise your hand and swear to tell the truth. The judge will ask you why you filed the petition. If the school filed the petition they will ask the school why they filed the petition. They will ask you or the school questions about your child and the problems you are having.

Based on the conversation the probation officer had with you and your child, they recommend that the judge:

  • Dismiss the case,
  • Order Informal Assistance, or
  • Schedule a Fact-Finding Hearing.

Your child’s lawyer will present the case from your child’s point of view. The lawyer will tell the judge what your child thinks should happen in the case. Your child’s lawyer will tell the judge which of the 3 options your child wants the judge to choose:

  • Dismiss the case,
  • Order Informal Assistance, or
  • Schedule a Fact-Finding Hearing.

Then, the judge will talk directly to your child. The judge will make sure your child understands that court is serious.

The judge decides

Dismissing the case

The judge can dismiss the case. Dismissing the case means the judge decides that there is no "probable cause" to believe that your child and your family need assistance.

If the judge dismisses the case they issue an “expungement order.” This order means the clerk must destroy all the papers in the court files about the case and any records that may exist at the Department of Criminal Justice.

Ordering Informal Assistance

“Informal Assistance” means the judge has decided your family does not need a court decision. But the judge does not want to let go of the case completely. So the court asks you if you want to try to work out the issues with your child. But, your child’s probation officer will check in on your child to make sure things go well.

The judge can decide to order Informal Assistance if:

  • they decide it is best for your child to get Informal Assistance, and
  • you and your child agree to Informal Assistance.
  • Or if the school filed the petition, you, your child and the school agree to Informal Assistance.

See What is "Informal Assistance"?

Ordering a Fact-Finding Hearing

If the judge accepts the CRA Application that you or the school district filed, they order a "Fact-Finding" Hearing.

You will get a new judge at the Fact-Finding Hearing.

At the hearing, whoever filed the CRA application must prove to the new judge that your child is a "Child Requiring Assistance."

You, your child, your child's lawyer and the Probation Officer all have a chance to speak.

See What happens at the “Fact Finding” Hearing in a CRA case?

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