If DCF believes your children have been abused, abandoned or neglected, or are at risk of imminent abuse, abandonment or neglect they can physically remove your children. Under Florida law there must be an emergency hearing held within twenty-four (24) hours of removal. This hearing is called a “shelter” hearing. DCF must attempt to provide notice of the location and time of the shelter hearing to each of the child’s parents. Parents have a right to be represented by an attorney at every stage of the proceedings in dependency cases.
In advance of the hearing DCF must provide a sworn affidavit containing allegations of abuse, abandonment and neglect. At that hearing a Judge will review DCF’s shelter petition and determine whether or not probable cause exists to remove or “shelter” your children pursuant to Florida Statutes. It is important to personally attend this hearing because important issues concerning the basis for removal, placement, visitation, the child’s medical needs, the child’s educational needs and any Native American Indian heritage will be addressed. The court system generally prefers to place children with family members when safe and appropriate. If there are not appropriate relatives available, the Court could place the children with an appropriate family friend or in foster care. Often a Guardian ad Litem will be appointed at this hearing to advocate for the best interests of your child.
An arraignment hearing date is typically announced at this hearing for you to reappear before the court regarding your case. Within twenty-one (21) days after the shelter hearing DCF will file a “dependency” petition alleging grounds for your child to be adjudicated dependent. DCF is required to personally serve you with a copy of a dependency petition in advance of or at an arraignment Hearing. An arraignment hearing is typically held within twenty-eight (28) days of the Shelter hearing or within seven (7) days of the filing of the Dependency petition. In some cases, DCF will implement a safety plan or request services instead of seeking to remove the children from your care. These cases are often referred to as a “direct file” case where the State will only file a dependency petition. In direct file cases an arraignment hearing is held within a reasonable period of time after the date of filing the dependency petition.
MEDIATION AND CASE PLAN ACCEPTANCE
Parents are given the opportunity to mediate a case plan for services instead of going forward to an Adjudicatory Trial in dependency cases. Only parties are invited to attend mediation. The parties in the case are the parents, the child, DCF and the Guardian ad Litem Program if appointed. In the event that a Mediated Agreement is reached a case plan acceptance hearing will be held before the Court to qualify or approve the case plan.
In the event that a full agreement could not be reached at Mediation, an Adjudicatory Trial will be scheduled on the dependency petition filed by DCF. The Adjudicatory trial should be held within thirty (30) days of the arraignment hearing. This trial is an opportunity for you to present witnesses and evidence and to cross-examine DCF’s witnesses. If you are successful at trial, your children are returned to you. If you are unsuccessful at trial, the Court will adjudicate your child dependent and determine that court ordered services are necessary to protect the children and to safely reunify the family. A disposition hearing will be set at a later date for the Court to determine which court ordered services are appropriate for your case. The Disposition hearing should be set within thirty (30) days of the trial.
JUDICIAL REVIEW AND PERMANENCY JUDICAL REVIEWS
A Judicial Review hearing is held every three (3) to six (6) months during a Dependency case. At a Judicial Review the Court will consider the case plan progress of the parents and address any requests made by the parties regarding visitation or case plan goal changes.
If parents are unable to successfully reunify with their children within the period of time authorized under Florida Statute the Court must determine which other permanency goal is appropriate for your child. The Statue outlines permanency goals under F.S. 39. 621. The Statutorily preferred goal after reunification is adoption. Permanent Guardianship is the next goal preferred by the Court and provides a permanent home for the child until they reach the age of majority, but does not terminate the rights of the parents. Parents can still visit their children and make decisions about major medical issues. The other goals that could be approved by the Court are permanent placement with a fit and willing relative and another planned permanent living arrangement.
TERMINATION OF PARENTAL RIGHTS (TPR)
Within sixty (60) days of a Permanency Judicial Review if the child is not reunified with the family or other circumstances exist a party may choose to file a TPR petition to terminate the rights of the parents. Absent a Statutory exception, the parents must be personally served with a copy of the TPR petition and noticed of the date and time of an Advisory hearing. The Court will hold an Advisory hearing in advance of TPR trial. Failure to appear at this hearing could result in the involuntary termination of a parent’s parental rights to their child.
It is important to have competent and knowledgeable representation for any interaction you or your family has with the child welfare system. The attorneys at Mulligan & Associates have more than ten years of experience working on important cases involving children. Call us at 352-593-5990 if you or a loved one has been impacted by the child welfare system.