Dealing With Florida DCF
Orlando DCF Attorney Eduardo J. Mejias
Practicing Exclusively Family Law Since 2011
DCF, Black Letter Laws and Behind-The-Scenes Laws
Chapter 39 of the Florida Statutes governs dependency cases. I provide a brief overview of its major points on Department of Children and Families (DCF). However, I feel compelled to discuss on this page the day-to-day practices of this state agency. A capable family law attorney must know both the “black letter” law and the informal, “behind-the-scenes” law that other lawyers, judicial officers, and administrators often practice. Nowhere in family law does such a sharp dichotomy exists between these two as in DCF child dependency cases. This is what you need to understand about dependency actions from DCF:
Dependency Actions are Not A Criminal Prosecution
First and foremost, if you’re a parent that is listed as a respondent in a DCF dependency action, you are not involved in a criminal prosecution, even thought the proceedings resemble criminal cases. No bail is ever set, and no prison sentences are ever ordered. However, the reality of being separated from your child, even temporarily, certainly feels like a prison sentence to a parent who is new to these proceedings. Furthermore, the DCF acts like the State Attorney’s Office in a criminal case.
Case Managers Are Not Concerned With Your Best Interest or That of Your Child
Second, if you are assigned a sympathetic and reasonable case manager (which is rare), always remember that he or she is not concerned with your best interests, or even the welfare of your child. While your case manager might claim to be concerned with your child’s well-being, it is actually the Guardian Ad Litem (GAL).
Case Managers Have No Authority to Do Anything Without Your Consent
Third, unless you have already consented to a case plan, case managers possess no authority to order you to do anything. They will often insinuate or outright claim that you have to subject yourself to a psychological evaluation, random drug testing, or a parenting class, but until your dependency judge issues an order stating this, you are free to decline their request.
Chapter 39 grants offending parents a right to a fairly quick arraignment date, and if necessary, a dependency trial. Only if you enter an “admit” or “consent” plea at the arraignment will you be mandated to complete a case plan, which often involves the aforementioned tasks. Keep in mind, however, that no matter how self-righteous and intimidating the case managers may seem, DCF still must prove in court with clear and convincing evidence that you have either (a) abandoned, (b) abused, or (c) neglected your child.
As with criminal cases, you enjoy a presumption of innocence. I emphasize this because the harsh tone and rhetoric that many case managers use creates the false impression that the parent has already been found “guilty”.
Judges Cannot Take Your Children Just Because It Is In Their Best Interest
Finally, dependency judges cannot take away a child from th biological parent or parents simply because it is in the child’s best interests to stay with extended relatives or foster parents. A dependency court can only adjudicate a child to be dependent if the offending parent is unfit, which by definition, requires one of the three findings of abandonment, abuse or neglect of the child. These are much more serious conclusions than the determination that a child would be “better off” with someone outside the immediate family.
Traditional family law custody disputes (such as divorces with children and paternity cases), not dependency cases, use the standard of “best interests of the child”. In short, a third-party caregiver may indeed be a “better” alternative for the child, but if the offending biological parent is not unfit, the child cannot be taken away from him, her or both parents.
I highlight this distinction because case managers and DCF attorneys often blur these lines, sometimes intentionally. This undermines Florida’s long-standing preference for allowing biological parents to raise their child free from state interference. As your dependency attorney, I will make certain that all of the players in your case are reminded of this time-honored policy.
Call for an Initial Consultation
If you have any questions about your dependency matter, I encourage your to call AAA Family Law at (407) 260-6001 and schedule an initial consultation with me. At the consultation I will (a) ask you to explain your interactions with DCF and what you hope to accomplish, (b) lay out a legal plan of action to help you accomplish your objectives and (c) quote you a fixed attorney retainer fee, not an hourly rate whose total you cannot predict.
This is the rage of attorney fees charged by AAA Family law for these cases. The actual amount depends on the level of complexity of your case. Department of Children & Families Dependency: $3,000 to $5,000.
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