Dependency Case Process – Chapter 39, Florida Statutes
A dependency action is a civil case brought before the Court based on allegations of abuse, abandonment or neglect of a child. The proceeding is based on allegations communicated to the Department of Children and Families (DCF) through an abuse report called into the Florida Abuse Hotline.
DCF will investigate allegations reported, and if they believe the child is at imminent risk of harm due to abuse, abandonment or neglect, they will remove the child from the custody of the parent/parents or guardian. Within 24 hours of the child’s removal, the court will conduct a Shelter Hearing to determine if the child will remain out of the parent’s or guardian’s custody or be returned home. If the parent/parents are indigent and cannot afford an attorney, the court will appoint one for them. Attorneys will be appointed from the Office of Criminal Conflict and Civil Regional Counsel or from a Parent’s Bar Conflict list to represent the parent at the Shelter Hearing and set all future hearings. The attorney is appointed at no cost to the parent. The attorney will explain the legal process to the parent/parents and advocate on their behalf. Additionally, the Court may appoint a Guardian Ad Litem who is a community volunteer or from a Parent’s Bar Conflict list to represent the parent at the shelter hearing and set all future hearings. This attorney is appointed at no cost to the parent. The attorney will explain the legal process to the parent/parents and advocate on their behalf. Additionally, the Court may appoint a Guardian Ad Litem who is a community volunteer who advocates for the best interests of the child. If the child remains sheltered, DCF will file a Petition for Dependency and the Judge will set another hearing called an arraignment. Not all cases begin with a shelter. If DCF investigates a report and determines that a child is safe to remain in the home but needs services and supervision, DCF will file a Petition for Dependency only. This will initiate a court case.
At the arraignment hearing, the Court will review the allegations in the Petition for Dependency and ask the parent/parents to enter a plea. The parent may admit, consent or deny the allegations contained in the Dependency Petition.
- Admit: Parent agrees to the allegations in the petition.
- Deny: Parent does not agree with the allegations in the petition and requests a mediation or case plan conference to address these disagreements.
- Consent: Parent does not admit or deny 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.
If the parent admits or consents to the petition, the parties will meet to develop a case plan that indentifies the specific services necessary to resolve the issues alleged in the petition and alleviate the risks to the child.
If the parent denies the allegations, an Adjudicatory Hearing is scheduled. An Adjudicatory Hearing is a trial where witnesses will be called to testify about the allegations in the case and evidence will be presented. The Judge will decide if DCF has proven its case, as there is no jury in dependency cases. If the case is proven, the Court will schedule a Disposition Hearing. If not, the case will be dismissed. Prior to trial, the parties are given an opportunity to mediate their differences and work together to develop a case plan. If a settlement is reached, trial will not be necessary and the mediated agreement will be presented to the Court.
At the Disposition Hearing the Court will review and accept the case plan and determine who shall have custody of the child(ren) while the parents complete their case plan. Florida law gives a parent one year to complete the case plan.
Every six months the Court will schedule a Judicial Review Hearing. At this hearing the Court will review the child(ren)’s placement, discuss progress on the case plan and address whether everyone involved is doing what he or she is supposed to be doing.
Children that have been removed from their parent/parents will be reunified when the Court determines that the risks which brought the case before the court are alleviated and the child(ren) can return home safely. Generally, this finding is related to the parent/parents’ compliance with his and/or her case plan. After reunification, the Court must monitor the family for at least six months.
Termination of Parental Rights
In rare cases, DCF may file a petition to terminate a parent’s rights. A Petition for Termination of Parental Rights (TPR) requests the Court to end all legal rights of a parent/parents. The parent/parents is given an opportunity to be represented by an attorney and have a trial where DCF must present clear and convincing evidence to prove their case. Failure to complete a court ordered case plan is a ground for TPR.