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Couple going over papers with a DCF investigator.

Your Rights If DCF Investigates or Files a Dependency Petition

By Orlando DCF Lawyer Eduardo J. Mejias

Practicing Exclusively Family Law Since 2011

Do Not Be Too Concerned About a DCF Investigation

You should not be overly concerned about an investigation by the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF). The Florida DCF investigates domestic situations that are usually much more mundane than the ones depicted by the media. And based on my observations, the majority of DCF investigations result in nothing more than a closed file. If there is a possibility that the DCF investigation does proceed to the next stage, you need to understand the phases through which it will go.    

Be Very Concerned About A State Dependency Petition 

You should be very concerned about your rights when Florida DCF initiates litigation by filing a "petition for dependency". 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 lawyer experienced in DCF dependency cases to represent you.

The Phases of the DCF Process

All DCF matters potentially involve a process with five distinct phases which could end with your child becoming dependent on state care or supervision:

  1. The investigation.

  2. The shelter hearing, where the state dependency petition is made.

  3. The arraignment, where the parent admits, denies or consent to the petition for dependency.

  4. The adjudication, where the parent can oppose the petition for dependency.

  5. The disposition, where if the children are found to be dependent, the court will establish a case plan for the parent or parents, or terminate their parental rights.

This next section describes these phases and the rights you have in each of them.

1. The Investigation

Child Protective Services (CPS) is the investigative arm of DCF. It begins an investigation whenever an anonymous complaint is submitted about a worrisome domestic situation involving children. Just about anyone can report a concern to CPS and it must investigate every complaint.

Unfortunately, many divorced parents involved in custody disputes exploit this requirement of investigate all complaints 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 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.

2. 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.  At this point you need to hire a DCF lawyer to defend your rights. 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.

See Section 39.402(1), Florida Statutes.

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.

3. The Arraignment Hearing

No later than twenty days after the shelter hearing, the juvenile court must hold an arraignment hearing. Here, the offending parent has 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.

4. The Adjudication

Here 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.

5. The Disposition

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 Our DCF Lawyer Can Help 

I have been practicing mostly family law since 2005 and exclusively since 2011. Therefore, I have extensive experience defending the rights of my clients as a DCF lawyer. So, if DCF dependency petition is filed a on your children I will protect your rights during a the shelter hearing, arraignment, adjudication and disposition by (1) helping you navigate these steps and (2)  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.  

Our attorney retention fees for child dependency cases with the Florida Department of Children and Families range from $3,600 to $6,000 depending on the complexity of the case.  For additional information on our attorney fees please click on Our Retainer Fee Policies.

AAA Family Law represents clients in all of the family courts of the Orlando metro area.  We can also represent you in any family law appeal case in the state of Florida.


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