Written by attorney Charles Michael Kelly

Overview for Parents in a Florida Dependency Court

When it is believed that a child within the boundaries of the State of Florida has been harmed or is about to be harmed anyone can all the Florida Abuse Hotline (1-800-96ABUSE) and report what they believe is going on. If that call is accepted (there are some that are not) a call is made from the Hotline Center to the local office of the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) and an investigator is dispatched to conduct an investigation. The investigator has a number of options available to them including the power to take emergency custody of the child or children and move them to a safe location. They do not have to inform the parents where the children are being taken.

Within 24 hours there is a court hearing (Shelter hearing) where at DCF and their lawyer must convince the Court that the dangers remains and the children must stay safe at the location DCF found for them.

There are a number of things that can happen at a Shelter hearing, but this article is written under the premise that the Shelter was granted and the children are now placed away from their parents. It attempts to let the parents know what they can expect from being in a moment when the State of Florida has declared that their children have been abused or neglected.

How Do You Get Your Child Back Home?

Children grow best in a permanent, safe and loving family. When they are removed from their homes, it is best for them to return as soon as possible. For your child to be returned to you, you must make your home safe and ensure proper care of your child within certain time limits. When children cannot return to their families, another permanent, safe home will be found for them often through adoption.

Your Case Manager

DCF and/or the Community Based Care Agency will assign a Case Manager for your child and family. When you go to Court, you should be given that person’s name and phone number.

Your Case Manager should:

  • Help you understand the problems that brought you to Court;
  • Help you work on the steps you must take to have your child returned to you; and
  • Maintain regular contact with you and your child.

Your Case Manager will need the following information to care for your child:

  • Birth certificate;
  • Medical insurance coverage.
  • Immunization record.
  • Family medical history.
  • Social security card.
  • Your wage and income information.
  • Names and addresses of relatives who might be able to take care of your child.
  • Identifying information for both parents including names, addresses, social security numbers, birth dates and phone numbers.

You should tell your Case Manager how you can be contacted and of any changes of address if you move. If you do not hear from your Case Manager for a while, or if you have questions or problems, call your Case Manager.

Your Attorney

If you qualify and request one, the Court will appoint an Attorney for you. Or, you may want to hire your own attorney. Your attorney represents your rights and your wishes in the case.

Your Attorney should:

  • Talk with you before every hearing and speak for you in Court;
  • Help you understand your rights; and
  • Tell you about the hearings you will attend and what to expect at each hearing.

When Will You Have to Go to Court?

The Court will require you to attend several court hearings so that the Judge and others may listen to all sides and decide what is best for your child. Most child abuse and neglect cases have at least five different court hearings during the first year.

Step 1 Shelter Hearing

Step 2 Arraignment Hearing

Step 3 Trial

Step 4 Review Hearing

Step 5 Permanency Planning Hearing

Each court hearing has a different purpose. They are all described in this letter so that you will know what to expect at each hearing, when and where it will be held, and why it is important for you to attend.

Remember, the actions of the Court are intended to keep children safe and help families create a safe home for their children. If you do not understand the purpose of any of the hearings you are asked to attend, talk to you attorney. Unless you improve the conditions that brought your child into foster care, the Court may terminate your parental rights and your child may be placed for adoption .

Step 1: The Shelter Hearing

DC F may take a child into custody without a court hearing when there is an imminent threat to the child’s life or health.

The Court will hold a Shelter Hearing within twenty-four (24) hours if your child is removed from your home.

At the Shelter Hearing the Judge will determine if the child is potentially abused or neglected. A Petition for Dependency will be filed within 30 days. The Judge will decide if your child should stay in the custody of DCF until the adjudicator hearing. The Attorney for DCF, the GAL and your Attorney will present information about the case to the Judge.

It is very important that you be at the Shelter Hearing to give your Attorney information that will help the Judge make a decision.

Step 2: The Arraignment

How will my case proceed?

After the Shelter Hearing, a Case Plan will have been developed as well as a Petition for Dependency that will be filed by DCF. In this Petition, after the case has been investigated, DCF will make allegations as to why your child is in need or State supervision and whether or not they need to remain outside of your care. The hearing on this Petition is an opportunity for you to admit, deny or consent to the allegations in their Petition. You will need to discuss these options with your attorney before the arraignment date.

It is very important that you attend the arraignment as your failure to attend signifies that you have consented to the Petition for Dependency as the State has filed it.

Step 3: The Trial

Was my child abused or neglected?

If you do not admit or consent to the Petition for Dependency, there will be a trial on that Petition. At the Trial, the Judge will listen to the evidence and decide if your child has been abused or neglected. If the Judge decides that you child was abused or neglected, the Judge may also set a date for the Disposition Hearing. At the Disposition Hearing the Judge will decide what needs to happen and what you need to do before your child can be returned to you.

The Judge will decide where your child will live until the Disposition Hearing.

All the people who are involved in your case, including the attorneys, must be in court. It is very important that you attend the Trial.

Unless the case is dismissed the Judge will review a Case Plan prepared by DCF for you and your child. The Case Plan will state what you and others must do to help solve the problems that brought you and your child into Court. The Plan will state the time given for you and DCF to complete this Plan.

You need to start doing what the Judge orders in the Case Plan right away.

Following the Case Plan is the key to getting your child back home. Unless you do what the Judge orders, you could lose your rights to your child.

The Judge will set a Review Hearing to be held in a few months to hear how you are doing from all the people involved in your case.

It is very important that you attend the Disposition Hearing so that you completely understand what you need to do in order to have your child returned to you.

Step 4: The Review Hearing

How am I doing?

Within a few months of the trial, there will be a Review Hearing in Court. The Judge will review your case to make sure that you are doing what the Case Plan requires. The Judge will also make sure the Coalition and others are doing what is ordered in the plan.

If the Case Plan needs to be changed, the Judge will order those changes.

The next hearing the Judge will set is the Permanency Planning Hearing. It will be held in about 5 months to see if you have completed what is required in the Case Plan.

It is very important that you attend the Review Hearing.

The Permanency Planning Hearing

Will I lose my child forever?

The Permanency Planning Hearing will be held about 5 months after the first Review Hearing. At the Permanency Planning Hearing the Judge should decide whether or not your child can be safely returned home.

If the Judge decides that your child cannot be safely returned home, the Case Plan goal will be changed to adoption or some other permanent arrangements outside of your home.

It is very important that you attend the Permanency Planning Hearing.

These are your rights:

  • You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford to pay for an attorney, one may be appointed for you by the court.
  • You have the right to admit, deny or consent to the allegations made about you and your family.
  • You have the right to be notified of all Court hearings. You must keep the court informed if you move.
  • You may have an interpreter appointed by the Court if you do not understand English or cannot hear.
  • You have the right to talk to your case manager and your attorney. But remember, they may be busy with someone else when you call. Be sure to leave a message with a phone number where you can be reached or call them again. Keep track of the best times to call them.

These are your responsibilities:

  • Take this seriously.
  • Attend the court hearings.
  • Do what the Case Plan says you have to do. If you do not understand what is required, ask your attorney.
  • Stay in touch with your attorney and your case manager. Be sure they always have a current address and telephone number for you.
  • Be sure that you know what you are supposed to do and when, and then do it. Things move very quickly in child abuse and neglect cases. It will make a difference in whether or not your child is returned to you.

Unless you do what the Court requires, you could lose custody of your child forever.

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