What is dependency law?
Vulnerable children are sometimes found to be in an unfortunate state of neglect with chronic lice, malnourishment, lacking eyeglasses or other medical care, and living in poor conditions. Many agencies and professionals have mandatory reporting requirements, which means that if child neglect, abuse, or abandonment is seen, it must be reported. In some instances, parental rights will be removed, and the children will be placed up for adoption. However, sometimes a parent is wrongfully accused of abuse, abandonment, or neglect of their child, and they must have their parental rights protected. DCF is overwhelmed with cases, and sometimes they get it wrong.
Vulnerable children are sometimes found to be in an unfortunate state of neglect
Camy B. Schwam-Wilcox is an Orlando child neglect lawyer and former prosecutor often appointed by the court to act as the Guardian ad Litem for a child or children who have been abused, abandoned, or neglected. Camy B. Schwam-Wilcox has taken the DCF training program regarding sexual abuse and is qualified to assist with sexual abuse matters concerning children. She represents parents or third parties (grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc.) when there are reports of abuse, abandonment, or neglect of children. If you need to hire an attorney because you do not qualify for a court appointed attorney, our attorneys are available and qualified to represent you against the allegations.
What is dependency?
Dependency Court is a court of emergency jurisdiction to assist children that are being abused, abandoned, or neglected. Children will either be found dependent, and the offending parent/guardian will be given a case plan with tasks to complete before reunification, or the allegations are so egregious that DCF is attempting to terminate a parent’s rights to avoid reunification. It is important to note that anonymous reports are insufficient to support an adjudication of dependency without corroborating evidence and admission. The evidence is potentially submitted via a trial (or adjudicatory hearing as it is called in dependency court).
Parents/guardians may even file a private Petition for Dependency or Termination of Parental Rights if there is no allegation made through DCF or if DCF does not move forward on the case, which may happen for a variety of reasons.
What does the dependency of a child or juvenile mean?
Dependency of a child or juvenile is when a petition is filed by DCF (or a private petition by an interested party) alleging abuse, neglect, or abandonment of a minor. Legal actions may remove the child from the parent or guardian’s care to protect the child’s health, safety, and best interests. If the child stays with their parent or guardian, DCF will provide services and supervision until the court is convinced that the parent or guardian has made the home safe for the child without ongoing supervision.
If the child was removed from the home, the court might decide that the parents or guardian have successfully resolved the problems outlined in the petition and completed the tasks of the case plan which may permit reunification. The court will require ongoing supervision by the DCF for six (6) months after reunification. If after twelve (12) months DCF determines that it is not likely the parents or guardian and the child can be safely reunited, DCF may try to terminate the parental rights.
A Guardian ad Litem (GAL) may be appointed by the court to represent the child in court proceedings. The GAL is separate from DCF and provides the judge with independent information and recommendations to assist in ruling in the child’s best interests. They will identify family members, friends, neighbors, or teachers with whom the child feels it is important to maintain contact. These contacts can include:
- Mentoring programs – such as Big Brother/Big Sister
- Recreational opportunities to develop social skills and self-esteem
- Educational support programs
- Volunteer opportunities
Filing a dependency petition
The purpose of a petition is to seek the protection of the child and not the punishment of the person(s) creating the condition of dependency, meaning at the end of a case there is no jail sentence even if the child is found dependent. Proof of actual harm or abuse is not required but allegations must be submitted in good faith, in writing, and signed. The petition must specifically identify the acts or omissions that the petition is based on and identify the person or persons alleged to have committed the acts or omissions.
Additional statements, if known, must be noted in the petition. These include whether the parent or legal guardian has:
- Previously unsuccessfully participated in voluntary services provided by DCF
- Participated previously or currently in mediation, and if a mediation agreement exists
- Rejected voluntary services offered by DCF
- Has not complied fully with a safety plan
- Been determined by DCF that voluntary services are not appropriate – reasons for this determination must be stated
What is the court process after a petition is filed?
When an allegation is submitted, DCF will investigate and may remove the child from the custody of their parents or guardian. A hearing will be conducted within 24 hours of the child’s removal to determine if the child will remain removed from their parents or guardian. An attorney or GAL may be appointed to the child’s care and best interests until the court sets an arraignment hearing.
At the arraignment hearing, allegations are read to the parents or guardians and they are given the opportunity to admit, consent, or deny allegations set in the dependency petition. DCF will prepare a case plan to outline the steps that must be taken to resolve the issues in the dependency petition when parents or guardians admit or consent to the allegations. Admittance is when the parents or guardians agree with the allegations in the petition. Consent is when parents or guardians do not agree or deny the allegations but allow the court to move forward with the case plan, similar to a no-contest plea.
When parents or guardians deny the allegations in the dependency petition, an adjudicatory hearing will be scheduled with a judge. Similar to a trial, make this a period. Witnesses may be called to testify about the allegations before a judge. A jury is not called for these adjudicatory hearings. The judge will either dismiss the case or determine whether the case is proven. When the case is proven, a disposition hearing will be scheduled where DCF’s case plan will be considered. The court will issue its findings during this hearing.
A judicial review will be set by the court a few months after the adjudicatory hearing to review the child’s placement and progress of the case plan and confirm that parents or guardians are doing what they need to do per the case plan’s instructions. DCF may file a termination of parental rights at this time if the case plan tasks are not being met timely. The parents or guardians are given the opportunity to respond to this filing.
How long does DCF have to investigate a dependency case, and how is it investigated?
Within 24 hours of the child’s removal, the court is required to have a hearing to determine if the child remains out of the parents’ or guardians’ custody. The court believes that the child’s best interest is primarily a speedy reunification with the parents or guardians. This does not include severe child abuse, neglect, or abandonment cases. The best way to get approval for reunification is to show the court that the conditions that led to the child being removed are no longer a danger to the child.
DCF investigates dependency cases through interviews with family members, neighbors, and other individuals who know the family. Investigations regarding a child dependency petition are required to be completed within 60 days. Exceptions are made in extreme cases involving child death, a missing child, or when law enforcement has an open criminal investigation.
How does DCF investigate?
The investigator will interview the parents or guardians, children, and people who know the family. Usually, these are teachers and neighbors. Parents, guardians, and children can have a lawyer or attorney present during interviews. The investigator can continue their investigation and interviews with relatives, neighbors, and other individuals knowledgeable of the family while waiting for these legal representatives. Per Florida Law, interviews are mostly unannounced, which may result in the parents or guardians not being present when the child is interviewed.
As a base for the child’s best interests, the investigation will seek to determine that the physical and emotional needs are met. These include safety, shelter, food, and clothing. The findings in the investigation are used to help the court determine whether each parent or legal guardian abused, abandoned, or neglected the child or engaged in conduct that put the child at imminent risk for these.
Throughout the investigation, the investigator will explore services and resources that may be offered to the family to allow the child to remain safe in the home. Some of the services and resources commonly offered include local community agencies, in-home case management, or asking a judge to grant court-ordered supervision and oversight of the family. These services aim to keep the child in the home with their parent or guardian and prevent future abuse, neglect, or abandonment.
Dismissing a dependency case
The dismissal of a dependency case can occur through a judge’s determination before the shelter hearing, actions taken by the parents of guardians under the guidance of DCF’s case plan, or an appeal. There are two hearings where a judge may dismiss a case.
The most crucial court hearing is the shelter hearing, explaining why the children were removed, where they will be placed, whether the parents will be allowed to visit with the children, and how their educational and medical needs will be met.
The second most crucial hearing is the adjudicatory hearing, where parents or guardians can provide witnesses and cross-examine witnesses from the DCF witness list. Progress through the DCF case plan by the parents or guardians is considered at this time by the judge. Ultimately, it is up to the judge to determine whether children will be reunited with their parents or guardians, if further oversight is needed beyond the necessary six (6) months and for what duration.
Defending against false allegations
In some instances, there is a non-valid claim of abuse, neglect, or abandonment from the non-custodial parent who wishes to either obtain custody of the children or enact revenge on the other parent. The Florida court’s typical goal is for the reunification of a parent with a child. Any anonymous reports of abuse, abandonment, or neglect are insufficient on their own. Evidence is required to establish the state of dependency which will be presented in an adjudication hearing.
Reuniting a child with a parent can be accomplished with the help of a skilled attorney. There are a few actions that may help to either defend the child abuse claim or to establish the parent as being fit to care for the child:
- Learn parenting skills — There are classes a parent can take to learn appropriate parenting skills.
- Use social services — If there are chemical dependencies, financial needs, or other issues, social services may assist you in your time of need.
- Complete a case plan — We will work with you to create an appropriate case plan to give you the skills necessary to properly care for your child(ren), and then it will be your job to successfully complete your plan.
- Reunification — A family or parent can often be reunified with their child or children if specific requirements are met. We can help you meet those requirements.
Your parental rights may be terminated if the case plan isn’t created or followed.
If you are in need of a Dependency attorney (lawyer) in Orange, Osceola, Seminole, Lake or other counties throughout Florida call Schwam-Wilcox & Associates at 407-245-7700, or Contact us by completing the form below to schedule a consultation. Schwam-Wilcox & Associates is a firm you can trust, and our attorneys are ready to help you with your legal needs. The main office is conveniently located near Winter Park in Orlando, with appointments also available in The Villages.