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What is the Dependency Process in Florida?

Often, we talk to clients who are very concerned about a dependency action. This can be an upsetting situation as a dependency action is a civil case presented to the court based on allegations of abuse, abandonment, or neglect of a child. These allegations are typically communicated to the Department of Children and Families (DCF) through an abuse report called into the Florida Abuse Hotline or through law enforcement. If you are facing a dependency case in Florida, it’s vital to secure the help of an experienced dependency attorney as soon as you can. A dependency case is a serious matter that could permanently affect the custody of your minor children.  Apfelbaum Law’s attorney will be able to assist you with your dependency matter.

Shelter Hearing

When an allegation is reported, DCF will investigate thoroughly. If they believe the child is at imminent risk of harm due to abuse, abandonment or neglect, they will then remove the child from the custody of the parent/parents or guardian. Within 24 hours of this removal, the court will hold a Shelter Hearing to determine if the child should stay out of the parent’s or guardian’s custody or be returned home. 

In cases where the parent/parents are unable to afford a dependency attorney, the court will appoint one for them. This lawyer may be appointed by the Office of Criminal Conflict and Civil Regional Counsel or from a Parent’s Bar Conflict list, at no cost to the parent. Then the attorney will explain the legal proceedings to the parent/parents and advocate on their behalf. In another option, the court may appoint a Guardian Ad Litem—a community volunteer, or someone from a Parent’s Bar Conflict list, who will represent the parent at the shelter hearing and set all future hearings. Again, there is no cost to the parent/parents, and the attorney will answer questions for the parent/parents and advocate on their behalf. 

The child will be represented by a Guardian Ad Litem. This community volunteer will advocate for the best interests of the child. In cases where the minor remains sheltered, DCF will file a Petition for Dependency and the Judge will schedule another hearing called an arraignment. On the other hand, if DCF investigates and determines the child is safe to remain in the home but needs services and supervision, DCF will file a Petition for Dependency only. This action also leads to a court case.

Arraignment Hearing

The purpose of the arraignment hearing is to determine what is best for the child. To this end, the court will review the allegations in the Petition for Dependency and ask the parent/parents to enter a plea. The parent has the option to admit, consent, or deny the allegations contained in the Dependency Petition in the following ways:

  •  Admit: Parent agrees to the allegations in the petition.
  •  Deny: Parent disagrees with the allegations in the petition and asks for a mediation or case plan conference to address these disagreements.
  •  Consent: Parent neither admits nor denies the allegations, but agrees to participate in case plan services to remedy the risks alleged in the petition. The parent also agrees to continued court supervision.

In situations where the parent admits or consents to the petition, the parties will work together to develop a case plan. The goal here is to identify specific services necessary to resolve the difficulties alleged in the petition and alleviate the risks to the child. These services could include parenting classes, counseling, or addressing a problematic living situation.

Adjudicatory Hearing

When the parent denies the allegations, an Adjudicatory Hearing is scheduled. This is a trial where witnesses will be called to testify regarding the allegations in the case, and additional evidence will be presented. There is no jury in dependency cases, so a judge then determines if DCF has proven its case. If the case is not proven at trial, it will be dismissed by the judge.

Before the trial, the parties are offered mediation to work out their differences and join forces to develop a case plan. When this is successful and the parties can reach an agreement, a trial is no longer necessary and the mediated agreement will be presented to the court for its approval – which is usually accepted.

What Happens if the Case is Proven?

 If this happens, the court will set a Disposition Hearing. 

Disposition Hearing

A disposition hearing happens after the parties have agreed on a case plan, or the judge has determined the case to be proven. At this point, the court will review and accept the case plan. The judge will also decide who will have custody of the child or children while the parents complete their case plan. If the judge feels there is too much risk for the child to go home with the parent/parents, they may choose to leave the child in DCF custody. Florida law allows a parent one year to complete the case plan— which may include, attending parenting classes, going to anger management workshops, addressing financial problems or unsafe living situations, going to a rehabilitation program for alcohol or drug dependency, etc.

Judicial Review

The Court will schedule a Judicial Review Hearing every six months. During this hearing, the court reviews the child’s placement, learns about progress on the case plan, and ensures everyone involved is doing what they should to resolve the situation. 

Reunification

When a child is removed from their parent or parents, they may be reunified if the court decides the risks have been resolved and the child can return home safely. Usually, this finding is related to the parent/parents’ compliance with their case plan. If the child and parents are reunified, the court will then monitor the family for at least six months. 

Termination of Parental Rights

Although it doesn’t happen frequently, in some cases DCF may file a petition to fully terminate a parent’s rights—a Petition for Termination of Parental Rights (TPR). This petition asks the court to sever all legal rights of a parent/parents. If this happens, the parent/parents will have an opportunity to be represented by a parental rights attorney, and have a trial where DCF must present clear and convincing evidence to prove their case. If a parent fails to complete a court ordered case plan, this may be a ground for TPR. 

If you need assistance with your dependency claim, or have questions about any potential legal matter, please contact Apfelbaum Law for a consultation. We have offices in Port St. Lucie and Stuart, but provide legal services throughout the Treasure Coast and Florida.