Department of Children and Families (DCF)
By Orlando DCF Attorney Eduardo J. Mejias
Practicing Exclusively Family Law Since 2005
Be Concerned About A Petition For Dependency
Many parents shudder when they hear about the Department of Children and Families. Perhaps their fear stems from the lurid news accounts of neglected or abused children that they removed from their homes. In reality, this department of the state of Florida often investigates domestic situations that are much more mundane than the ones depicted by the media. In fact, based on my observations, the majority of investigations result in nothing more than a closed file.
However, you should be very concerned when DCF chooses to initiate litigation by filing what is known as a "petition for dependency", meaning that the child should 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 to represent you.
All DCF matters potentially involve five distinct phases:
- the investigation,
- the shelter hearing,
- the arraignment,
- the adjudication and
- the disposition.
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.
CPS, at a minimum, 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, Child Protective Services 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, who then determines whether to file a petition for dependency 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 doesn't 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 2-3 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,
- A parent has violated a condition of a court-ordered placement or
- No parent, guardian, or responsible adult is available to provide care. Section 39.402(1), Florida Statutes.
However, even if the court temporarily removes the children from the offending parent's home, it must establish 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.
No later than twenty days after the shelter hearing, the juvenile court must hold an arraignment hearing. Here, the offending parent will either admit, deny or consent to the petition for dependency, much like a criminal defendant pleads guilty, not guilty, or no contest. 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 denies (opposes) the petition for dependency, then an adjudication hearing will be held 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,
- the court will 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 family law almost exclusively since 2005 and can help you navigate the steps of these case and represent you in court hearings to make sure that your rights are protected.
Call me, Eduardo J. Mejias to schedule a free thirty-minute initial 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. There is an hourly charge for additional consultation time. See Family Lawyer Retainer Fees.
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.
As our client I make these commitments to you:
- To protect your interests by finding and presenting the law and court precedents that best help bring about the success of your objectives.
- To keep you informed of your case by returning your calls and emails within twenty-four hours during business days.