Understanding Florida Dependency

The State of Florida takes child abuse very seriously and any allegations of abuse, abandonment, or neglect have strict procedures that immediately go into effect. The first step is to receive notice of a dependency action, meaning someone believes they have witnessed abuse, abandonment, or neglect of your child and reported it to the authorities. Typically, this comes in the form of a protective investigator meeting with you at your home and discussing the allegations with you and other members of your household. You may choose to have an attorney present during that investigation. If the protective investigator determines that there is an elevated safety concern for the child that cannot be immediately remedied, they will remove the child. If this occurs, here is what you need to know:

  • There must be a hearing to determine whether the child can remain in the home – The initial hearing to determine whether there is/was sufficient evidence to remove the child is called a “shelter hearing” and is must be held within 24 hours of removing the child from your custody. At this hearing, the court will determine whether you are indigent and entitled to the appointment of counsel. If you are not indigent, the court will advise you of your right to be represented by an attorney at your cost; however, the court will not reschedule the hearing for you to obtain an attorney. As such, it is advisable that you contact an attorney prior to the hearing to possibly attend in the event an attorney is not appointed by the court. The State of Florida through the Department of Children and Families will file a Shelter Petition and argue to the judge that they could not place any safety measures in the home for the child. You may present evidence to the contrary at this hearing. If the judge makes the determination that the child must be removed from your care, then you may present alternative caretakers such as family members or close friends that may care for the child temporarily as an alternative to entering foster care. Any potential caretakers should be present at the court hearing to undergo questioning by the judge and a required background check by the Department. If the court determines that there is way for the child to remain in the home safely, that does not mean that the dependency process is over. The Department may still file a dependency petition and require that you participate in a case plan with the child remaining in your custody.

 

  • The Shelter Hearing is not the Final Hearing – The Shelter Hearing is only an initial hearing. The Court has not determine whether the allegations of abuse, abandonment, or neglect are true. That determination requires a full Dependency trial that must be held within 60 days of removing the child from your care. Prior to the trial date, there will be an arraignment hearing in which you will tell the court whether you admit, deny, or consent to the allegations of dependency. If you admit or consent, the court will proceed to adjudicate the child dependent and you will receive a case plan that includes services directed to helping you create a safe environment for your child. If you deny, the case shall proceed to trial where you will be given the opportunity to cross examine the State’s witnesses and present evidence in your defense. If the court does not find there is sufficient evidence of abuse, abandonment, or neglect, the case is dismissed and your child is returned to your custody immediately. If the court finds that abuse, abandonment, or neglect of the child occurred, you will have to a year to complete a case plan as previously described.
  • The purpose of a finding of dependency is to make families safe –  An adjudication of dependency is not the end of the line nor should it be interpreted as a criminal case in which you are being punished for your acts. You have the opportunity to work with a case manager to develop a plan (case plan) to get your children back and maintain a safe home environment. Full cooperation with a plan that has reasonable and relevant tasks will result in the most positive outcome. Any refusal to follow the plan can be automatic grounds for a permanent revocation of your parental rights. Make sure to participate in the case management conference to take part in the development of your plan. Any tasks in the case plan tasks that you believe are unreasonable may be brought to the attention to the court in the form of an objection. The court, after hearing from all the parties, will make a determination as to whether the task is necessary to ensure the safe return of your child.
  • Think of the plan as a trial period – During the case plan, you may or may not receive custody of your children. Regardless, this is a time in which you are being monitored by the court and the State to ensure the future safety of your family. It is in your best interest and the best interest of your child to complete the case plan as soon as possible and gain insight to the circumstances that brought you to this juncture of your life. It is not sufficient to just go through the motions of completing the tasks. You must demonstrate to the court that you have corrected the circumstances that created the dependency. Only then can the court return your child and close the case.
  • There are consequences to not cooperating- Failure to complete your case plan tasks and/or failure to demonstrate that you have corrected the dependency circumstances may lead to a termination of parental rights proceeding in which the State will try to permanently revoke your rights to your child and your child may be placed for adoption. It is important that you take the dependency proceeding seriously to ensure this does not happen.

It’s imperative that you follow every guideline to the letter and fully cooperate with the judge, your attorney, and your case manager. Ask questions if there is something you do not understand, as the future of your children depends on the success of your actions.

If your children have been removed from your home or if you are currently undergoing an investigation for abuse, abandonment, or neglect, don’t panic. Contact the team at Annette Sanchez Law right away so that we can help you through the dependency process.

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