By Eduardo J. Mejias, Orlando Family Law Attorney
Practicing Exclusively Family Law Since 2005
Beyond the Black Letter Of The Law
On the page Dealing With The Department of Children and Families (DCF), regarding juvenile dependency, I provided a broad overview of the highlights of Chapter 39 of Florida's Family Law statutes. This chapter governs how the Department of Children and Families prosecutes dependency cases. Essentially, that page served as a primer for the “nuts and bolts” of black-letter dependency law.
Here I supplement this primer with insights into (a) what drives DCF, and if you are listed as an offending parent, (b) what to do to properly adapt to it requirements to help you get back together with your child.
A Case Illustrating How DCF Operates
A recent courtroom experience reminded me why most private family law attorneys avoid dependency cases like the Zika virus. My client, the father of a young son, raised his son to the best of his ability during his child’s short life. Even after the relationship between my client and the mother of the child fell apart, he continued to play an active role in raising his son.
Despite working 50 to 60 hours per week, he consistently spent quality time with him, and supported him financially. There were no hints of physical or verbal abuse, neglect, or substance abuse surrounding my client. Yet, he found himself listed as an offending parent in a dependency case.
The Department made numerous factually-based allegations in the petition for dependency about the mother’s drug addictions. But it only accused my client of one thing: When he was offered to be his son’s primary caregiver several months ago at the shelter hearing, he declined. In the eyes of DCF, this one act constituted “abandonment”.
In reality, the child’s father wanted his son to live with him, but believed that his demanding work schedule would not allow him to spend enough time with him. He was also assured (wrongly) by the Child and Protective Services investigator that the matter would be “wrapped up” in a month or so, and after that he could resume spending substantial time with his son.
To the average observer, my client’s reaction seems like a sensible response. However, at the recent trial, DCF continued to argue against him assuming even temporary custody of his son, even though he had modified his work schedule, lives in stable residence, and had since expressed a desire to care for his son full-time. Why did DCF take this punitive stance against my client? Was DCF still dwelling on his one-time “abandonment” from several months prior?
The answer to this question lies in a seemingly minor incident that happened about a month before the trial. My client, whom, by this point, had retained me as his attorney, agreed to submit to a home study by the DCF case manager.
The home study went smoothly until the case manager asked to inspect a bedroom that was locked. My client, who actually rents this house from his grandmother who lives in Alabama, told the case manager that he could not open the bedroom door because only his grandmother had the key. When asked what was inside, he informed the case manager that it was filled with boxes containing his grandmother’s personal belongings.
Despite this innocuous explanation, the case manager refused to complete the home study necessary for my client to obtain temporary custody of his son. She reasoned that without knowing what exactly was in that room, she could not “sign off” on recommending that the child live in that house. Because of this one failure to accommodate DCF, its attorney argued at the trial that it would not be in the child’s best interests to live with his own father.
Unfortunately, the dependency judge approved the Department’s strained reasoning, and refused to grant my client temporary custody at the trial. The judge did, however, praise my client for his stellar parenting efforts, and all but assured him that if he granted DCF access to that one room in his house, temporary custody of his son would be his. My client was naturally disappointed in the outcome, but understood what he had to do to get his son.
DCF Focus On Administrative Procedures Over Substance
The lesson to take away from this experience is this: DCF and the judge focuses so intently on the details of administrative procedures that they lost sight of the “big picture” relating to whether or not the father was fit to raise his own child. In dependency cases, failure to comply fully with all of the case plan requirements put forward by DCF is tantamount to being an unfit parent. In short, how well you raised your child throughout his or her life will not save you if you defy or ignore the dictates of DCF.
Complying With The DCF Case Plan Is Vital
I stress to all of my dependency clients that complying with DCF’s recommended case plan is vital to their chances of success. No matter how annoying, trivial, or burdensome these case plan tasks are, you must complete them if you want to be reunified with your child. Think about it. How does the Department generate revenue? Through the collection of fees associated with these case plans. How does DCF successfully lobby for more funding from Tallahassee? By devising and enforcing case plans that require taxpayer dollars.
As you can tell from the tone of this article, I personally believe that the current state of affairs in dependency court needs serious reform. However, until the Florida Legislature improves matters through legislation, we can only deal with the current reality. As I have often remarked to both my family law and dependency clients, “What is just and what is legal are often two different things. Don’t confuse the two.”
How You Can Get Help
If you have been listed as an offending parent in a dependency case, I encourage you to call AAA Family Law at 407-260-6001 and schedule an initial consultation with me. At the consultation I will listen to your situation regarding DCF and come up with a plan of action to resolve your case in the most favorable manner. Then I will 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.
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:
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