The Components of a Child Dependency Case
Facing the potential loss of a child to the state is a situation no parent wants to experience, but allegations of abuse, neglect and abandonment are made every day that completely upend the lives of the families involved. Anyone can call the Florida Abuse Hotline and make a report about past or imminent harm to a child, which is the first step in dependency cases. A dependency case is a judicial process used to oversee a child’s well-being when a parent is suspected of causing harm, and can lead to the complete loss of parental rights. This result is permanent and extreme, but not foregone. The state does favor reunification over other alternatives, but this outcome is not guaranteed, and the likelihood is that the child will be out of a parent’s custody for some period of time. Further, dependency cases rarely resolve quickly, so parents must prepare themselves for an extended fight. Having a family law attorney experienced in dependency matters can make all the difference in the outcome. Additionally, knowing the basic outline of a dependency case could make the ordeal less overwhelming and easier to bear. To that end, an overview of the dependency process will follow below.
As noted above, the vast majority of dependency cases start with a report of abuse or neglect to the Florida Abuse Hotline. If the report is deemed to have merit (not all are), the Department of Children and Families (DCF) will send an investigator to the home to check whether there is evidence the child is in danger. Investigators have a lot of options if they feel the home is unsafe, including removing the child from the home. The scary part for parents is investigators do not have to tell them where the child is being taken.
DCF investigators can only remove a child without a court order if they believe an imminent threat to the child’s life or health exists. If a child is removed, a hearing in front of a judge, called a shelter hearing, must occur within 24 hours of removal, and the judge will decide if the child should remain in DCF custody, or be returned to the parents. If the continuation of removal is approved, a formal petition of dependency will be filed within 30 days, marking the official start of a dependency case.
This hearing is the first time DCF will present all its evidence supporting the need for State supervision, and placement of the child in another’s care, at least temporarily. DCF will also present a case plan that outlines what a parent must do to secure the return of the child and end state supervision. Attending this hearing is crucial because the parent is deemed to have consented to DCF’s allegations if he/she fails to show up, and gives up the opportunity to contest the validity of the petition.
Disposition and Review
If a parent does not admit or consent to the petition for dependency, a trial will be held where a judge will decide if abuse or neglect occurred. If the court believes such harm was or is present, a date will be set for a disposition hearing, which involves setting out what the parent must do to secure the child’s return, i.e., the case plan, and where the child will live in the interim. A review of the case is held a few months later to assess the parent’s progress, and to verify DCF is providing the support the parent needs to comply with the case plan.
Permanency Planning Hearing
Finally, five or so months after the review hearing, the court will hold the permanency planning hearing to decide if the child can return home, or if a different placement situation is necessary, i.e., adoption or permanent placement with a relative. Attending all court hearings is a crucial aspect of returning a child to his/her home, as it shows the parent is committed to the child’s wellbeing.
Potentially losing your child to the state is devastating, and all available resources should be used to prevent this outcome. Hiring an attorney experienced in dependency matters is the best thing you can do to bring your child home as soon as possible. Fort Lauderdale family law attorney Joyce A. Julian, P.A. understands how overwhelming these cases are, and will fight for your parental rights. Contact her for a free consultation.