The Role of Children’s Legal Services in Dependency Cases

Public policy considerations around the safety and care of children involved in dependency investigations result in the involvement of many different agencies, each representing different interests and aspects of the dependency process. This can make for an overwhelming stream of different people a parent could encounter at each step of the investigation and court hearings. A recent news story in the Bradenton Herald discusses a child investigation case in Manatee County that serves to highlight the dizzying amount of people involved in child investigations and the division of responsibilities among various agencies. The story recounts the tragic death of an 11 year-old girl and how a lack of understanding among child investigators about who had the authority to make certain decisions related to removal left the child living in a dangerous situation. The article focuses on the role of two agencies in the dependency process – Sheriff’s Offices and Children’s Legal Services (CLS). Florida designated that certain Sheriff’s Offices in the state would conduct child protective investigations, instead of individuals directly associated with the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF). CLS serves as the state’s legal representative in child dependency investigations. Given the important role these two groups play in dependency investigations, their particular roles and responsibilities will be described below.

The Role of Sheriff’s Offices

It would be reasonable for most people to assume that child abuse investigations would be conducted by representatives from DCF since that is the agency in charge of setting guidelines and organizing child welfare issues. However, a Florida law transferred child protective investigation responsibility to the local Sheriff’s Offices in Pinellas, Manatee, Broward, Seminole, Hillsborough and Pasco Counties. They receive the same training and must follow the same rules that govern child welfare investigations performed by DCF. Sheriff’s Offices performing this function account for 25.79 percent of all child abuse reports in the state for the fiscal year 2013-2014, so it is not an insignificant number, and this group represents several of the most populous counties in the state.

Duties of Children’s Legal Services Attorneys

CLS enters the picture when a child is removed from the parent’s home following allegations of abuse, abandonment or neglect. CLS attorneys appear in court on behalf of the state and advocate for the child to be declared a dependent of the state until such time as the unsafe conditions in the home are remedied or another permanent placement is found. Once a case plan is established, which lays out the steps a parent must take for reunification with the child, CLS coordinates with case management organizations to make sure parents receive the services they need to successfully create a safe home. Some of the service programs that may be involved include parenting classes, housing assistance, mental health counseling, substance abuse programs and domestic violence intervention. CLS attorneys are also responsible for monitoring the parents’ progress in completing the case plan and updating the court on the status of the parents’ progress at each hearing. If parents fail to come into compliance with the case plan, CLS attorneys litigate petitions for the termination of parental rights.

Consult a Lawyer

A parent currently under investigation for allegations of child abuse, or even those who fear an investigation might be initiated, should discuss the situation with an attorney as soon as reasonably possible. You need an advocate dedicated to your interests when going up against the state to help balance out the difference in wide difference in available resources. Stok Kon + Braverman, located in Fort Lauderdale and Boynton Beach, offers legal representation to parents in dependency investigations and are available to assist you. Contact an office today to schedule a confidential consultation.