The top priority of the Florida Department of Children and Families, commonly referred to as DCF, is the safety of the children in its protection. But this doesn’t mean that affected parents are left out in the cold without any rights of their own.
DCF gets involved when abuse, abandonment or neglect have been alleged, but the goal is to preserve families whenever possible. Parents’ first line of defense is to understand the process.
The Florida Abuse Hotline
The state has an abuse hotline in place to take reports of child abuse, abandonment or neglect. The Florida Abuse Hotline is staffed by counselors who will make a report to DCF to decide whether the matter should be assigned to a child protective investigator or CPI.
Anyone can make a report to the hotline. In fact, Florida statutes require that anyone who knows or has reasonable cause to suspect child abuse must report it, although they can do so anonymously.
“Professionally mandated reporters” are those who are legally obligated to report suspected or known abuse because they work in certain fields, and they must identify themselves when doing so. They include health professionals, teachers, day-care providers and law enforcement personnel.
The DCF Investigation Process
The CPI will conduct multiple interviews to investigate allegations made to the Florida Abuse Hotline, including talking to the parents, the family’s children, and even to extended family members, neighbors, teachers or coaches. The investigator can also require psychiatric assessments of the child.
Parents should expect that these interviews will take place without warning. The investigator isn’t prohibited from talking to the child if they don't happen to be with their parent when the investigator visits. Parental presence is not required.
Florida law mandates that the investigation be completed within 60 days unless the case is also a matter of criminal investigation, or if the child has died or is missing.
Referral for Services
A child isn’t necessarily and immediately removed from the parents’ care if the CPI determines that abuse or neglect does indeed exist. It often depends on the severity of the case.
The investigator might recommend and arrange for assistance from community agencies or request that the court place a case manager within the home to monitor the situation.
Removal of the Child
Children can be removed from their parents’ homes if it’s determined that in-home assistance wouldn’t be enough to protect them. Priority is given to placing them in the homes of relatives or close friends when possible. They'll be placed with a licensed, out-of-home caregiver if no appropriate or willing relatives or friends are available.
The court will often arrange for visitation with parents rather than cut the child off from any contact, but visitation could be supervised by a third party to ensure that the child doesn’t come to harm.
Parents have no right to know where their child has been taken or is currently living in cases of severe abuse.
The Shelter Hearing
The next first step in the process is a shelter hearing that must take place within 24 hours of the child leaving his or her home. This hearing will occur within two to three days if the child is still living at home.
The judge could conceivably decide at this hearing that the child can return home if he or she has been removed. Otherwise, the child would remain in the home where they’ve been placed, and DCF will file a Petition for Dependency with the court to legally declare the child a dependent of the state.
The Arraignment Hearing
The next step is an arraignment hearing that should take place no more than 20 days after the shelter hearing if the child has been removed from the parents’ home. DCF can hold this hearing immediately, however, if extreme danger is believed to exist.
Parents can elect to attend mediation prior to the arraignment hearing to try to work out a case plan with DCF to remedy the situation at home. According to the Office of Criminal Conflict and Civil Regional Counsel of the First District in Florida, a case plan is the most common outcome.
Otherwise, parents will be officially charged at the arraignment hearing. They have a right to deny the allegations against them. They might also admit to the abuse or neglectful actions or simply consent to the Petition for Dependency without either denying or admitting the allegations.
The Adjudicatory Hearing
Denying the allegations at the arraignment will result in an adjudicatory hearing. This is more or less a trial, with both the parents and DCF calling witnesses and presenting evidence to support their claims. The judge alone will decide the issue – there’s no jury.
One of three things will happen as a result of this hearing. The judge will either dismiss the case against the parents and their child can return home, or the matter will proceed to a disposition hearing at which the court could potentially terminate the parents’ rights. The third possibility is that the parents have agreed to a case plan in mediation, and the plan will be presented for the judge’s approval so no actual trial will be necessary.
The plan must be completed within one year, and it’s likely that the child will continue to live with the alternate caregiver during this time. A judicial review hearing will be held within six months to monitor how the plan is coming along.
Your Rights With Florida DCF
Parents have a right to require proof of identity from the CPI before allowing the individual into their home. A simple phone call to the local DCF office can confirm whether the investigator is legitimately employed there, or parents can call the Florida Abuse Hotline at 1-800-962-2873.
Parents are entitled to legal representation during the investigation. They can have a lawyer present at all interviews, although the CPI can continue to interview other parties while waiting for an interview to be arranged with the parents with an attorney present.
Parents also have a right to audio or video record the interviews, and they're entitled to receive a copy of the investigator’s report when it's completed.
Parental Rights During the Court Process
Parents should receive a Notice of Right to Internal Review after the investigation has been completed, and the CPI found that child abuse did occur. They can have the allegations and findings of the report reviewed prior to any court proceedings to determine whether they do indeed have merit. This option isn’t available to all parents, however. They’ll lose this right if the allegations have led to criminal proceedings.
And, of course, parents have the right to an attorney during all required court appearances. The court will appoint an attorney if they can’t afford one.
The court generally will not take the extreme step of terminating parental rights unless and until no case plan has been effective and the issues at home are considered to be beyond hope. Parents can, however, agree to an uncontested termination of parental rights.
- Law Offices of Patrick J. McGeehan: Florida Dependency – Here’s What Parents Need to Know
- AAA Family Law: Your Rights if DCF Investigates or Files a Dependency Petition
- Office of Criminal Conflict and Civil Regional Counsel, First District, Florida: Dependency Process
- Florida Courts: Mandatory Reporting of Child Abuse