Mediations With the Department of Children and Families (DCF)
By Orlando Dependency Attorney Eduardo J. Mejias
Practicing Exclusively Family Law Since 2005
DCF Dependency Mediations Differ From Those For Divorce
As with other family law matters, dependency cases involve at least one mediation. However, a mediation with DCF differ in many ways from the ones for a divorce or a paternity dispute. Therefore, as a family law attorney, I prepare my dependency clients for them in a much different way. Dependency mediation differs from others in these ways:
Mediations Have a One-Hour Time Limit
A mediation in a divorce, paternity or modification case either (a) lasts up to three hours, conducted by the county mediation office or (b) can go on all day if it is with a private mediator. Conversely, the dependency mediator will only give the parties one hour to reach a settlement. This time limit puts a premium on putting an offer on the table at the start of this process.
Attorneys Negotiate Around the Proposed Safety Plan
At the outset, the DCF attorney will offer a written “case plan” (sometimes referred to as a “safety plan”) for the offending parent to consent to. Then, the attorney for the Guardian Ad Litem (GAL) will either seek clarity to some of the aspect of the proposed case plan, or simply agree to it wholesale. It is then up to the attorney for the offending parent to demand modifications to the case plan that will make it more palatable for the client.
They Have Limited Room for Negotiation
The short time allotted for the mediation restricts the amount of compromise that can be extracted from DCF. Even the most skilled attorney or negotiator can’t work a lot of magic within such a limited window of time. To make matters worse, DCF, unlike the typical party to a divorce or paternity case, has no incentive to “get things over with.” On the contrary, the longer that DCF can prolong the time before it is forced to devote its resources to a trial, the more it pushes the offending parent to take as many revenue-generating drug screening evaluations, parenting classes, and counseling sessions as they can.
Not only does the parent pay more money to the state by taking part in these programs, the increased participation by all parents sends a signal to Tallahassee that such programs need more taxpayer funding. As with all other state agencies, the DCF and GAL employees work primarily to justify the receipt of their own paychecks. The best interests of the children take a back seat to institutional self-promotion.
For the Most Part, They Are an “All or Nothing” Proposition
Other than minor concessions, DCF will not back off from their proposed case plan. As an offending parent, you either consent to the substance of the case plan (and waive your right to a trial), or you don’t.
However, by not consenting to the plan the offending parent can still voluntarily complete the case plan and receive a trial date. At the trial, the parent can show his or her substantial compliance with the case plan, while not forfeiting the ability to obtain a “not dependent” finding (the equivalent of a “not guilty” finding).
On the other hand, by consenting to a case plan, the child is immediately deemed dependent, and DCF can arbitrarily extend the case plan requirements with impunity. In fact, I have witnessed DCF “move the goalposts” and delay reunification for several months, or even years, once it has obtained the parent’s consent. For these reasons, I rarely advise my dependency clients to consent to a case plan at the mediation. When should a parent consent? A parent should only consent at the mediation when the factual strength of the petition for dependency is overwhelming, and the proposed case plan is unusually generous. However, the confluence of these two factors seldom occurs.
How to Get Help
If you have questions about your dependency case, I encourage you to call AAA Family Law at (407) 260-6001, and schedule a free thirty-minute consultation by phone or at our Altamonte Springs office. You will have an opportunity to explain your case and that will be followed by my plan of action to try to achieve your objectives. Then I will quote you a fixed attorney retainer fee before you make any payments or sign a contract, not an hourly rate whose total cost is unpredictable.
Our attorney retention fees for child dependency cases with the Florida Department of Children and Families range from $3,000 to $5,000 depending on the complexity of the case.
For additional information on child dependency cases relating to the Florida Department of Children and Families, please click on these other pages on this website:
- Department of Children and Families (DCF)
- What Drives DCF and How to Adapt to It
- Dealing With DCF
- How DCF Interprets Omissions as Failing to Protect Your ChildreSen
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