When parents are accused of behavior that harms their children, they may face a civil dependency action. The dependency process usually follows accusations of abuse, neglect, or abandonment and can result in the child’s removal from the parents’ custody. If you are a parent or guardian facing this situation, it’s very important to understand how the civil case will proceed in your state. Keep reading for an overview of the dependency process in Florida and the steps you must take to defend your parental rights.
When someone suspects a parent of abuse, neglect, or abandonment, that person can call into the Florida Abuse Hotline and file a report with the Department of Children and Families (DCF). The DCF will investigate the allegations against the parent. If they find reason to believe a child is at risk, they will take the child to a safe place. The investigator does not have to tell the parents where the child is being sheltered.
The Shelter Hearing
Once DCF takes a child or children into custody, the court will hold a “shelter hearing” within 24 hours. The DCF lawyer must convince the circuit court judge that the child suffered abuse, neglect, or abandonment, or that the child is at risk. If the judge decides the child should stay sheltered, DCF will file a Petition for Dependency and the judge will set a date for the arraignment hearing.
Note: While it’s unlikely, the DCF may file the petition directly without taking custody of the child. If that happens, you’ll skip the shelter hearing and go straight to the arraignment hearing.
Entering a Plea: The Arraignment Hearing
The Petitions for Dependency contains the DCF’s allegations against the parent or guardian. As the parent, you’ll have to enter a plea at the arraignment hearing. You’ll have three plea options:
- You admit or agree to the allegations in the petition.
- You deny or disagree with the allegations, and you request a mediation or case plan conference for a chance to respond.
- You consent to the petition, meaning you neither admit or deny them, but you agree to take steps to remedy the situation and stay under court supervision.
If you admit or consent, you will meet with the DCF to create a case plan. You will have to participate in case plan services that aim to alleviate the specific risks brought up by the petition.
Denying the Allegations: The Adjudicatory Hearing
If you deny the DCF’s allegations, you’ll have to attend an adjudicatory hearing, which will look more like a full-fledged trial. Both sides will present evidence and call witnesses to testify about the allegations. If the DCF proves its case, the judge will schedule a disposition hearing; if not, the judge will dismiss the case against you.
Note: Before the adjudicatory hearing takes place, you’ll have a chance to work out your differences in mediation and develop a case plan with the DCF. If you reach a settlement, you’ll skip the trial portion and present the mediated agreement to the court.
The Disposition Hearing and Judicial Review
Once the court reviews and accept the case plan at your disposition hearing, you have one year to complete the plan. The court will also decide who gets custody of your children while you work on completing your case plan. You’ll have to attend a judicial review hearing every six months to show the court you’re making progress and following the court’s orders.
The Deciding Factor: Reunification or Termination
If the court finds you have corrected the situation and eliminated the risks against your children, you will be reunited with them. Your family will be monitored for at least six months after reunification. If you fail to complete your case plan, you may face a petition to terminate of your parental rights. The DCF will have to prove, with clear and convincing evidence, that you should lose all legal rights as a parent. This type of petition is rare, however, so parents should focus on finishing the case plan.
It can be scary to face the dependency process as a parent, but you don’t have to do it alone. You should contact an attorney as soon as you notice trouble with the DCF. Call the law office of Patrick McGeehan to meet the family lawyer who will argue assertively for your parental rights. We will work diligently to prove your innocence at every step of the process.