Possible Changes to Child Dependency Investigations

In response to a rise in the number of deaths of children involved in dependency investigations, the Florida legislature revised the law on the role of the Department of Children and Families (DCF) in 2014 by shifting the agency’s focus from keeping the family together to protecting children. This resulted in many more children being removed from their homes in response to abuse, abandonment or neglect allegations, and the adoption of a new approach to safety plans drafted by investigators to inform parents about safety measures they would need to take before a child can return to the home.

As reported in the Miami Herald, these new guidelines created more stress for investigators and led to a very high turnover rate. In an effort to limit the need for multiple transfers among out-of-home placement facilities, which increases the likelihood of behavior problems, the Senate Committee on Children, Families and Elder Affairs proposed a new bill that outlines extensive revisions to the law on child placements and case plans. An overview of the proposed changes to the law will appear below.

Case Plans

The goal of this proposed legislation is to place children in the “least restrictive most family-like setting” that is located close to the parents’ home, and to streamline the process for placing children in permanent homes. In an effort to fulfill this goal, the proposed bill outlines a standardized assessment protocol for all dependency cases and placement guidelines prioritizing permanent placement.

A case plan would be required for each child involved in a dependency case and would be crafted at an in-person conference with DCF, the parents, a court-appointed guardian ad litem and, if suitable, the child and the child’s temporary guardian. The case must be written in clear and simple terms in the language best understood by the parent. The time allotted to complete the plan should be as short as reasonably possible and cannot extend beyond 12 months from the time the child was removed from the home, the date the child was designated as dependent, or the date the court accepted the case plan, whichever occurs first. It should be noted that although the preference is for the parent to sign and agree to the case plan, a court has the ability to approve without parental approval the plan if it is otherwise acceptable.

The contents of the case plan must include a description of the circumstances that led to the child’s removal and the steps the parent must take to create a stable, safe environment to allow for the child’s return or plans for a permanent placement. Further, children must be given a meaningful opportunity to contribute to the creation of the case plan, and those in permanent placement and 12 years or older must also receive an opportunity to review and sign the case plan.

Out-of-Home Placements and Visitation

In order to ensure an out-of-home placement is appropriate and is in the least restrictive and most family-like environment, DCF will conduct a review of the family assessment, case plan and safety plan for the child. If the placement is more restrictive than what is indicated in the assessment or is far from the parents’ home, reasons for this placement must be provided along with plans to put the child in a family setting. Finally, there must be provisions in the case plan for communication and visitation between the child, siblings and the parents.

Consult with a Lawyer

Given the emotional nature of a dependency case, it is reasonable to expect a lot of questions about the workings of the dependency process and the timeline for reunification. Speaking with a lawyer as soon as possible on these matters is crucial to preserving your rights as a parent and being quickly reunited with your child. The attorneys at Stok Kon + Braverman, located in Fort Lauderdale and Boynton Beach, have experience representing clients in dependency cases and are available to assist you with your case. Contact us today to schedule a consultation.