What Happens When the State Puts Your Children in a Shelter

No parent wants to the battle the state in a dependency case for custody and parental rights over their own children. These cases typically start with a knock on the door from an investigator from the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) inquiring about a report of abuse or neglect. If the investigator decides to remove the child from the home due to perceived dangers and place them in a state-run facility, parents need to know what happens next and how much information they are entitled to receive on the location and wellbeing of their child. A recent story in the New Times Broward-Palm Beach looks at allegations that the facilities children are placed in by DCF present new and serious dangers to the displaced children. News reports like this make it even more imperative for parents to have as much information about the early stages of dependency cases so they have the best opportunity to guard their children’s safety. An outline of DCF procedures and the legal proceedings surrounding the placement of a child in a shelter will be provided below.

Taking a Child into Custody

Most reports of abuse or neglect are obtained through the Florida Abuse Hotline, a department within DCF, which has the authority to decide if the report warrants an investigation by a DCF investigator. If an investigation is initiated, the investigator is dispatched to the home of the allegedly abused or neglected child. Before a child can be taken into the state’s custody and placed in a shelter, the investigator or a law enforcement officer must find the child has suffered abuse, neglect or abandonment or is at imminent risk of experiencing any of these dangers. Further, law enforcement or DCF must not know of any other parent, guardian or responsible legal relative to that can provide immediate care for the child.

If the child is taken into custody and placed in a DCF authorized facility, the investigator and/or law enforcement agent is not required to tell the parents where the child is being taken. However, a hearing in a front of a judge must take place within 24 hours of a child being placed in a shelter.

Shelter Hearing

Parents are given notice of when and where the shelter hearing will take place so they can appear. At the hearing, the court must inform the parents of their right to counsel for this proceeding and all future proceedings related to any dependency petitions. In addition, parents have the right to make statements and present evidence showing there is no present and/or continuing danger in the home that would prevent reunification with the child. The court will also appoint a guardian ad litem to represent the interests of the child and inquire about the possibility of relatives taking temporary custody of the child so the child does not have to remain in a shelter.

In order for DCF to hold the child in a shelter beyond the 24-hour period, it must show the danger to the child is ongoing, cannot be mitigated by DCF services, and it is in the best interest of the child to be removed until the dangers are no longer present. If the court determines at the shelter hearing the child will not be returned to the parents for the time being, it will establish a contact schedule between the parents and the child. Visitation rights will only be denied if it is clearly not in the child’s best interest to communicate with the parents. A child cannot be held in a shelter for more than 30 days, once a dependency case is pending, if a judge has not approved a plan setting forth what the parents need to do to be reunited with their child.

Seek Legal Counsel

Dependency cases are complex and involve a lot of emotion for all the parties involved. To ensure you are getting the full benefit of all your rights, it is best to retain the services of an attorney well-versed in this area of the law. If you live in the Fort Lauderdale or Boynton Beach areas, Stok Kon + Braverman, has decades of experience in dependency proceedings and offers confidential consultations to review your case. Contact us today.