A capable family law attorney must know both the “black letter” law and the informal, “behind-the-scenes” law that other lawyers, judicial officers, and administrators often practice. Nowhere in family law does such a sharp dichotomy exists between these two as in DCF child dependency cases. Chapter 39 of the Florida Statutes governs dependency cases, and I provide a brief overview of its major points on Department of Children and Families (DCF). However, I feel compelled to discuss in this blog the day-to-day practices of the most important player in dependency cases: DCF.
What You Need to Understand About DCF and Dependency Actions
First and foremost, if you’re a parent that is listed as a respondent in a DCF dependency action, you are not involved in a criminal prosecution, even thought the proceedings resemble criminal cases. No bail is ever set, and no prison sentences are ever ordered. However, the reality of being separated from your child, even temporarily, certainly feels like a prison sentence to a parent who is new to these proceedings. Furthermore, the DCF acts like the State Attorney’s Office in a criminal case.
Second, if you are assigned a sympathetic and reasonable case manager (which is rare), always remember that he or she is not concerned with your best interests, or even the welfare of your child. While your case manager might claim to be concerned with your child’s well-being, it is actually the Guardian Ad Litem (GAL).
Third, unless you have already consented to a case plan, case managers possess no authority to order you to do anything. They will often insinuate or outright claim that you have to subject yourself to a psychological evaluation, random drug testing, or a parenting class, but until your dependency judge issues an order stating this, you are free to decline their request. Chapter 39 grants offending parents a right to a fairly quick arraignment date, and if necessary, a trial. Only if you enter an “admit” or “consent” plea at the arraignment will you be mandated to complete a case plan, which often involves the aforementioned tasks. Keep in mind, however, that no matter how self-righteous and intimidating the case managers may seem, DCF still must prove in court with clear and convincing evidence that you have either (a) abandoned, (b) abused, or (c) neglected your child. As with criminal cases, you enjoy a presumption of innocence. I emphasize this because the harsh tone and rhetoric that many case managers use creates the false impression that the parent has already been found “guilty”.