How Dependency Cases Work in Florida

Dependency law is a specific subset of family law that focuses on accusations of neglect, abuse, or abandonment of children. For most parents, being accused of such actions is their worst fear. Anyone involved will likely have to endure a dependency case that will be handled in the Florida court system. Short-term or permanent loss of custody can be a consequence of dependency cases.

How Does the State Learn About Potential Abuse?

The Florida Department of Children and Families receives tips about potential abuse or neglect through the Florida Abuse Hotline, which allows people to anonymously report suspicious behavior or activity. The role of the Department of Children and Families is to launch an investigation when they receive a tip, the goal being to determine whether the children in question are at risk of harm.

The Process

When the Department of Children and Families investigates, they will take children from the custody of the parents or guardian in question if they believe the child is at risk. The court will then schedule a hearing to decide whether the child will return home or be kept out of their guardian’s custody. This is called a shelter hearing.

The Shelter Hearing

Parents and/or guardians must be made aware that the shelter hearing is happening and must be given notice about the time and location of the hearing. At the shelter hearing, a judge will review a sworn affidavit compiled by the Department of Children and Families outlining the allegations of abuse, neglect, or abandonment. Upon reviewing the affidavit, the judge will decide whether there is probable cause for the children to be removed from their home.

This is an important meeting for parents to attend given the nature of the issues being discussed. This hearing will cover why the children were removed, where they will be placed, whether the parents will be allowed to visit with the children, and how their educational and medical needs will be met.

Note that the courts prefer placing children with suitable family members when it is safe to do so. If not, they may place the child in foster care or with a willing family friend. This hearing may also address the appointment of a Guardian ad Litem, who will act in the best interest of the child and advocate for them in court.

If the court decides that the child must remain outside of the parent’s home, the Department of Children and Families will be required to file a Petition for Dependency and an arraignment hearing will take place.

The Arraignment Hearing

The Department of Children and Families will be required to provide the parents/guardians with a copy of the dependency petition either before the arraignment hearing takes place or at the hearing. The arraignment hearing operates similarly to a criminal hearing in that the parents are required to present a plea to the court verbally. The options for such a plea are:

  • Admitting to the allegations of abuse, neglect, or abandonment
  • Agreeing to the creation of a case plan without admitting to the abuse allegations
  • Denying all allegations and asking the court to schedule an adjudicatory hearing

Every situation is unique and requires thought and legal guidance; however, it is worth noting that many parents decide to consent to creating a case plan.

Creating the Case Plan

When parents opt for the case plan arrangement, the parties involved in the case will appear at a mediation meeting. Only the parents, the child, the Department of Children and Families, and the Guardian ad Litem will be allowed to attend the meeting. At this meeting, the parties will go over what is necessary to fix the issues outlined in the dependency petition. A plan will be drafted, and this plan will only be confirmed by the court after the parent has been able to speak with their lawyer about it.

The court will hold a disposition hearing in which they will review the case plan that was settled on during the mediation meeting. These case plans can be completed any time within one year, however, certain circumstances can lead to an increase or decrease in this time limit.

Getting Your Children Back

After the disposition hearing, judicial review hearings will be held periodically for the court to assess what progress has been made on the case plan. If parents meet all of the requirements laid out in the case plan, they have a chance of regaining custody of their children. The court will perform a full investigation to ensure that the issues that brought the children to the court in the first place have been resolved. The family will continue to be monitored for at least six months to ensure the problems do not return.

What if We Can’t Agree on a Case Plan?

In certain situations, mediation does not work, and families cannot come to an agreement with case workers about how to resolve the situations that led to losing custody. When this happens, the courts will schedule an adjudicatory trial regarding the dependency petition created by the Department of Children and Families. These trials are an opportunity for parents or guardians to prove their case to the court. They can present their own witnesses, and they can cross-examine witnesses brought by the Department of Children and Families.

If the parents have a successful adjudicatory trial, they will regain custody of their children. However, if the trial is unsuccessful, the court will employ various services to keep the children safe and work towards reunifying the family over time.

Seeking Permanency

If parents are unable to repair the issues in a timely manner, the court may decide that the child needs a different living situation to give them a sense of permanency. This can include adoption or permanent guardianship. If a child is assigned a permanent guardian, they will have a permanent home until they are a legal adult. This does not terminate the parent’s rights. They can still visit and be involved in the child’s life.

Losing Parental Rights

In certain extreme cases, the Department of Children and Families may decide to file a petition asking for the parents to be denied parental rights. If a situation is severe enough, the parents may not even be granted the option to develop a case plan. However, the loss of parental rights is a last resort in situations where parents fail to complete the requirements of an established case plan.

Contact an Attorney Today

If your children have been removed from your home by the Department of Children and Families and you are facing a dependency case, contact Orshan, Spann & Fernandez-Mesa today. We understand that your parental rights and relationship with your child are at stake, which is why we will fight zealously on your behalf to get your children back. Our highly experienced team understands that these allegations are devastating, and you deserve support from a trusted law firm. Contact us at (305) 853-9161 or via our online form for a confidential consultation.