Understand first and foremost that DCF is trying to do its job and is required--and AUTHORIZED--by law to investigate all allegations of abandonment, abuse, or neglect. Digging in ones heels and refusing access to the child(ren) could backfire by causing immediate removal (depending on the allegations made). It could also raise (perhaps unjustly) red flags by giving the impression--just or not--that you have something to hide. Understand that the CPI (child protective investigator) only needs probable cause to remove a child (that is, a reasonable suspicion that a child is at risk and that services cannot be placed in the home or would not obviate the need for removal). A parent's/custodian's refusal to cooperate might indicate that he or she would also be uncooperative with services, leaving removal as the only alternative. Cooperation could alleviate the CPI's concerns or at least signal that, while there may be issues in the home, removal of the child(ren) is not required.
Be Involved and Ask Questions
You have the right to know certain things when being interviewed pursuant to an investigation, such as the purpose of the investigation, the allegations made against you or about the child(ren), the possible outcome of any investigation, and the availability of services to you. So ask questions. But understand that while you can ask, the CPI cannot reveal the identity of the person(s) who reported the alleged abuse, abandonment, or neglect. If removal of the child(ren) is raised, offer alternatives to removal (i.e., things you are willing to do to avoid removal), and alternative placements (if removal is to occur). You have the RIGHT to be involved fully in the investigative process.
Be On Time and Prepared
If your child has been removed, the first hearing will be a shelter hearing (most always within 24 hours of removal). A chief reason children get placed into shelter care or get adjudicated dependent is the failure of a parent/legal custodian to show in court. If you aren't there 15 minutes early, you're late. Be ready to provide the court argument as to what you can do to guarantee the safety of any child returned to your home. Don't omit the other bio parent(s) from the hearing--better a child be with family than foster care. As an alternative, bring relatives and/or friends who are willing to act as temporary custodians. Make sure you know something about their past history: those who have criminal records and/or prior history with DCF are likely to be passed over for placement. If you cannot afford an attorney, don't worry: the courts typically have "on call" court-appointed counsel to sit in as friends of the court. You can ask for appointment of counsel at this hearing.
Meet with Your Attorney ASAP
Whether privately retained or court-appointed, no attorney can prepare and present a defense when the client fails to communicate with him or her. Keep in constant contact with your attorney, be actively involved in your defense. Do your own footwork: names, addresses, phone numbers. Don't leave anything to chance. And remember, YOU have the duty to update the court with a change in address or phone number, NOT your attorney. Make sure the court, the DCF case worker AND your attorney have updated information at all times.
Consider Voluntarily Engaging in Services
Though some attorneys may take issue with this, consider engaging in voluntary tasks while your case is pending. Why? It shows a willingness to address perceived issues. It also provides the attorney the ability to better bargain with DCF's attorneys over disposition of a matter and gives the attorney a greater ability to move the court to reunify parent and child prior to trial.
Additional resources provided by the author
The dependency laws of the State of Florida are found in Chapter 39, Florida Statutes. It's a short chapter, considering. You can find the statutes by going to http://www.flsenate.gov/Statutes/.
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