Polk County Bar Association
P: (515) 243-3904
P: (515) 243-3904

October 1, 2022

By Jenny Tegeler, Staff Attorney at Iowa Legal Aid.

Iowa Code Chapter 232 governs the judicial process of Children in Need of Assistance (CINA) proceedings. The ultimate goal of a CINA action to is to identify the services necessary for the child and family to allow them to ultimately remain intact as a family unit. It can often be a long, drawn out process with a variety of outcomes. The adoption of bridge orders is an attempt to expedite the process of closing some of these cases where it is determined that the involvement of the Department of Human Services is no longer necessary.

Iowa Code Section 232.103A, titled “Transfer of jurisdiction related to child in need of assistance case—bridge order,” was signed by Governor Branstad on April 17, 2015. It addresses a common problem the juvenile court confronted where one parent was determined to be a suitable custodian; and although it was determined that the other parent was not fit, it was not necessary to terminate the parent-child relationship with the unfit parent. In such a case, there is a need for a permanent, long-term custody decree granting the suitable parent both legal and physical custody. If the juvenile court were to close the case without such an order, both parents, including the one deemed unfit, would by default be entitled to equal custodial and decision-making rights to the child.

A bridge order allows the juvenile court to close a CINA case by entering an order determining custody and visitation and then transferring jurisdiction to the district court. Previously, the juvenile court would have to grant a concurrent jurisdiction order, if there was a parent able to file a district court case seeking custody. The juvenile court would often hold a case open until a final custody decree was entered in district court, which at times can take a significant period of time. With the bridge order, the juvenile court can ensure that there is a permanent custody and visitation order and then close the juvenile case as soon as the order transferring jurisdiction is entered. There is already a similar option in cases where the juvenile court places a child with a guardian following a permanency hearing. In such a case, the court has option of closing the CINA case by transferring jurisdiction over the child’s guardianship to the probate court.

Any party to the CINA proceeding, including the court itself, may file a motion for a bridge order. However, the following criteria must exist before a case can be transferred:

  1. The child has been adjudicated a child in need of assistance in an active juvenile court case, and a dispositional order in that case is in place.
  2. Paternity of the child has been legally established.
  3. The child is safely placed by the juvenile court with a parent.
  4. There is not a current district court order for custody in place.
  5. The juvenile court has determined that the child in need of assistance case can safely close once orders for custody, physical care, and visitation are entered by the district court.
  6. A parent qualified for a court-appointed attorney in the juvenile court case.

Once a bridge order issues, a new case is created in district court without payment of filing fees or court costs. At that point, the Department of Human Services and the state are no longer interested parties; the case becomes a civil custody case between private parties, however the district court takes judicial notice of the entire juvenile file.

Unlike standard custody cases where child support can be determined in addition to issues of custody, physical care and visitation, only the issues of custody, physical care and visitation are addressed in cases filed through a bridge order. Child support needs to be filed separately, either by filing a separate petition in district court or going through the Child Support Recovery Unit.

There is one other distinction to note between a standard custody case and a case filed through a bridge order. The distinction occurs if one party is interested in modifying a bridge order. In a typical custody modification case, the legal standard is whether there has been a substantial change in circumstances that was not considered at the time of the original order and whether the change is in the best interests of the child. If a bridge order has been entered and a party wishes to modify the order, as long as the petition is filed within one year of the filing date of the bridge order, the party does not have to show a substantial change has occurred. Instead, the party need only show the modification is in the best interest of the child. After a year has passed, the case is treated the same way as any modification.

Iowa Legal Aid provides free legal assistance to low-income Iowans in all 99 counties with civil legal problems involving basic necessities and safety. Information about family and juvenile law matters and other civil legal issues is available on Iowa Legal Aid’s websites, www.iowalegalaid.org and www.probono.net/iowa. Probono.net/iowa is a free, members only site that provides a comprehensive collection of information on legal topics, upcoming events including continuing legal education opportunities, and resources on civil law practice for members of Iowa’s justice community.

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