Your Rights in a DCF Investigation And a Dependency Petition
By Orlando Department of Children and Families Lawyer Eduardo J. Mejias
Practicing Exclusively Family Law Since 2011
Do Not Be Too Concerned About an Investigation
Be Very Concerned About A Petition For Dependency
You should be very concerned about your rights when Florida DCF initiates litigation by filing a "petition for dependency" because this means that the child may become dependent on care or supervision by the state. The consequences of this petition can be quite serious. The legal issues are complex, so it is important that you hire a family law attorney with experience in DCF dependency cases to represent you.
The Phases of the DCF Process
All DCF matters potentially involve a process with five distinct phases:
- the investigation,
- the shelter hearing,
- the arraignment,
- the adjudication and
- the disposition.
This section describes these phases and the rights you have in each of them.
Child Protective Services (CPS), the investigative arm of DCF, begins an investigation whenever an anonymous complaint is submitted about a worrisome domestic situation involving children. Just about anyone can report a concern, and CPS must investigate every complaint.
Unfortunately, many divorced parents involved in custody disputes exploit this requirement of investigate all complains by reporting imaginary or frivolous concerns about the other parent's household. However, family law judges have grown accustomed to this practice. Thus, the mere investigation by Child Protective Services probably will not affect the outcome of a pending family law case.
At a minimum, Child Protective Services (CPS) will visit the household where the alleged conditions are present and interview the parent and the children living there. If the children also spend overnights at another parent's house, CPS may also pay a visit to that parent. Finally, it can also interview neighbors and extended family members. Occasionally, psychiatric evaluations of the children may be conducted.
After gathering all of the available evidence, CPS presents its findings to the Department of Children and Families. It then determines whether to file a petition for dependency. This is done based on whether there is enough evidence to meet its burden of proof to establish that the offending parent is “unfit”. An unfit parent, according to statute, has either abandoned, abused, and/or neglected their child or children.
Keep in mind that these findings are much more serious than the typical factual findings in child custody battles. DCF does not care who is the better parent. Their only concern is whether the children can be safe with the offending parent. One parent may indeed be “worse” than the other parent, but still be a “fit” parent.
The Shelter Hearing
If DCF does file a petition for dependency and serves the offending parent with it, the juvenile court judge must conduct a shelter hearing within 2 to 3 days. The offending parent or parents must receive written notice of this hearing. At the shelter hearing, the juvenile court judge will remove the child or children from the offending parent's home if probable cause exists to believe that:
- The children have been abandoned, neglected or abused, or are suffering from, or in imminent danger of illness or injury as a result of abuse, neglect, or abandonment or
- a parent has violated a condition of a court-ordered placement and
- no parent, guardian, or responsible adult is available to provide care.
However, even if the court temporarily removes the children from the offending parent's home, you do have the right to a temporary visitation schedule between the offending parent and the children unless there is clear and convincing evidence that visitation is not in the best interests of the children.
The Arraignment Hearing
No later than twenty days after the shelter hearing, the juvenile court must hold an arraignment hearing. Here, the offending parent hs the right to admit, deny or consent to the petition for dependency. If the offending parent admits or consents, the court bypasses the adjudication hearing, and conducts a disposition hearing within fifteen days.
If the offending parent has the right to deny (oppose) the petition for dependency. A denial will lead to an adjudication hearing within thirty days of the arraignment. At that hearing there will be one of two following outcomes:The court will
- issue a finding of no dependency,
- withhold adjudication and order department supervision of the children while allowing them to live with the offending parent, or
- adjudicate the children as dependent on care or supervision by the state.
If the children are found to be dependent, a disposition hearing will be held within thirty days of the adjudication. Similar to a sentencing hearing in a criminal proceeding, the court will either establish a case plan for the offending parent to follow, or terminate his, her or their parental rights.
A case plan may include drug testing, anger management classes, completion of probation in a pending criminal matter, the attainment of employment, as well as a host of other conditions. Still, the underlying goal of a case plan is to reunify the children with the offending parent. The case plan may or may not have a set duration of time. During the case plan, the offending parent will usually be afforded some visitations with the children, though they may be supervised.
In extreme cases, the juvenile court will actually terminate the parental rights of the offending parent. Even in dependency actions, however, this outcome is discouraged. Termination can only be ordered when no case plan is considered to be effective.
How We Can Help
I have extensive experience with DCF cases. I have been practicing mostly family law since 2003 and exclusively since 2011. I will protect your rights during a DCF investigation, shelter hearing, arraignment, adjudication and disposition by helping you navigate these steps and by representing you in family court hearings.
Call me, Eduardo J. Mejias to schedule an initial free family lawyer consultation where I will listen to your explanation of your case, answer your questions with honesty and realism and offer you a clear strategy for achieving your objectives.
I will also inform you of the amount of your retainer fees before you sign any contracts or make any payments. In almost every case these fees will be fixed, not based on an hourly rate where the total amount of the fee cannot be know until the case is over.