Few things can be more distressing as a parent than to find yourself under investigation by the state for allegedly abusing your child. These types of investigations, referred to as dependency cases since the child becomes a dependent of the state, result in the creation and accumulation of documents that contain sensitive and potentially embarrassing information. Certainly, no one wants these documents or the information they contain to become freely available, especially if the investigation turns up no wrongdoing by the parents. A recent article in The Florida Times-Union describes a case where the release of information could be an issue. A Jacksonville couple faced a parent’s worst nightmare when a trip to the hospital with their 7-month-old daughter ended with them under arrest and all three of their children removed from their home by the Department of Children and Families (DCF) for child abuse. The baby had multiple fractures the parents could not explain, and hospital staff believed the child was in danger. The parents were eventually exonerated in court after an expert testified about a metabolic condition that can cause these types of injuries in infants. Florida law recognizes the need to protect the information collected in dependency cases from public release.When Records are Kept
Case files that are created during the course of a dependency case must be kept by the court for seven years after the last entry in the case or until the child reaches the age of 18, whichever occurs first. These records are kept separately from other official court records and may be destroyed once the time period previously noted passes. Note that any files for cases that result in the termination of parental rights are retained permanently. While the records do exist, they are not available for view by the public. Only those with a legitimate interest in the contents will be granted access and are generally limited to the following parties:
- the child;
- the child’s parents
- attorneys for the child or parents;
- guardians ad litem;
- law enforcement; and
- members of the judiciary.
Guardians ad litem collect a wide assortment of personal information in order to advocate for the child in a dependency case, but not all of it will necessarily end up as part of the official court record. However, given the nature of the information assembled, privacy concerns dictate the information they gather be kept confidential and exempt from access by the public. The information covered by this exemption includes the following types of records: medical, mental health, substance abuse, child care, education, law enforcement, court, social services and financial. Disclosure of this information is limited to court personnel, law enforcement, DCF employees and the parties named in the dependency case.How Records may be Used
Generally, any records related to a dependency case are cannot be used as evidence in other court cases, with the following exceptions:
- a case involving a charge of perjury;
- as proof of disqualification from potential employment during a background check; and
- later court proceedings involving the placement, parenting time, adoption or parental rights of the child or the child’s sibling.
No parent should face the power and influence of the State in dependency cases alone. You need someone on your side that can provide an objective point of view in order to present the strongest arguments for reunification on your behalf. The attorneys at Stok Kon + Braverman in Fort Lauderdale and Boynton Beach understand the stakes involved in these cases and can assist you with your situation. Contact us to schedule your confidential consultation.