The term department means the Department of Children and Families (DCF).
Dependency cases arise when children are removed from the custodial parents due to alleged neglect, abuse or abandonment. Most dependency cases arise out of a shelter hearing. The shelter hearing is the proceeding in which evidence is presented to the judge and the court then decides whether or not to remove the child (ren) from the home. The burden of proof it a shelter hearing is probable cause. There are also instances when the department will open a case with a petition for adjudication of dependency. In these cases, the department feels that the situation is not serious enough to warrant removal of the children but serious enough to get the parents in court.
Dependency cases are similar to criminal cases in that allegations are filed against one or both parents in the form of counts on a petition. They are also similar in that they proceed through arraignment, sounding and Adjudicatory hearing (trial). Motions are also heard from time to time.
The arraignment is scheduled by the clerks when the department files a petition for adjudication of dependency. We issue a summons and have the parents served with an arraignment date. At the arraignment, the parents can bring with them an attorney. In many cases, the court may appoint an attorney to represent the parents. It is not uncommon for there to be a conflict between the parents and thus another attorney will be appointed to represent the other party. At this point, there is generally a denial of the allegations and the case moves to sounding. Failure of a person served with notice to respond or appear at the arraignment hearing constitutes the person's consent to dependency adjudication.
The sounding is the proceeding that keeps the case on the court docket until it is disposed. This is the time that demands for discovery are filed and a case plan is developed. A case plan is a document which governs what tasks everyone involved in the case is to perform and must be formally accepted by the court within 30 days of the shelter hearing. During the time that the case is set for sounding, the parties try to work out a stipulated agreement as to what everyone is to do as the disposition of the case. If the parties cannot come to an agreement, then the case is set for an adjudicatory hearing (trial).
Adjudicatory hearings are conducted by the judge without a jury. The department must prove the allegations in the petition by a preponderance of the evidence. If the court finds that the testimony and evidence support the allegations, then the case is set for a disposition hearing and a predisposition report is prepared by the department.
At the disposition hearing the court considers the predisposition report and normally orders that the tasks listed in the case plan become the formal disposition of the case.
Motions on dependency cases can be filed at any time prior to or after the adjudication of dependency. It is not uncommon for a dependency case to be set for more than one event at any given time. A notice of hearing will accompany the motion. The notice of hearing will let us know when the motion will be heard. The party requesting the motion will notice all parties to the case for the hearing.
Judicial reviews are held for children in foster care and emergency shelter status. In Collier County, we have a Citizen's Foster Care Review Panel, which hear these reviews. In these types of cases, a review must take place every six months until the child (ren) are returned to the parents, adopted or have reached 18 years of age.
Termination of Parental Rights (TPR)
There are many dependency cases where it is in the best interest of the child(ren) for parental rights to be terminated. Unless the department files a termination petition alleging egregious abuse, they must have a previous adjudication of dependency and have entered into a case plan with the parent before they can proceed with termination of parental rights. Egregious abuse is defined as conduct of a parent that is deplorable, flagrant, or outrageous by a normal standard of conduct. A petition for TPR can be filed under the following circumstances: written surrender by parent, unknown parent, continued lack of compliance with the case plan and egregious abuse. Termination proceedings follow through all the channels that a dependency proceeding do in that it goes through arraignment to an adjudicatory hearing. In a hearing on a petition for TPR, the court shall consider the elements required for termination as set forth in FS 39.4611. Each of these elements must be established by clear and convincing evidence.