Some of the most difficult and emotional actions we are faced with in the Family law arena involve circumstances in which the State of Florida has decided it needs to take action to ensure a child’s care, safety, and protection is provided for. The State’s goal is to foster healthy social, emotional, intellectual, and physical development; to ensure the secure and safe living conditions; and to promote the health and well-being of all children under the state’s care.
Know Your Rights
Most importantly, the state seeks to address and cure allegations of child abuse, neglect, and abandonment. These three (3) terms, child abuse, neglect, and abandonment, are supremely important when confronted with a Chapter 39 Dependency action and it is important to know exactly how the Court will define these terms.
• “Abuse” means any willful act or threatened act that results in any physical, mental, or sexual abuse, injury, or harm that causes or is likely to cause the child’s physical, mental, or emotional health to be significantly impaired. Abuse of a child includes acts or omissions. Corporal discipline of a child by a parent or legal custodian for disciplinary purposes does not in itself constitute abuse when it does not result in harm to the child.
• “Neglect” occurs when a child is deprived of, or is allowed to be deprived of, necessary food, clothing, shelter, or medical treatment or a child is permitted to live in an environment when such deprivation or environment causes the child’s physical, mental, or emotional health to be significantly impaired or to be in danger of being significantly impaired.
Your Attorney’s Obligation To You
Your attorney’s obligation is to be your staunchest representative and an officer of the Court. We will provide you with the most practical and straightforward advice available in assessing each client’s situations and goals.
Attorney Client Privilege
In Florida, the attorney-client privilege is codified in Section 90.502, Florida Statutes. This law states that, generally, communications between a client and their attorney are confidential. In other words, without a legal waiver or other specific exceptions, you and/or your attorney cannot be compelled to disclose communications made in performing our services.
Relationship Based On Trust
From the initial consult through the final hearing, it is of the utmost importance for attorneys and clients to be truthful with one another and for there to be trust between them. The pair are a team and trust is essential. We believe in being transparent with our clients and we cannot afford to be surprised at any time in a case because a client has failed to be transparent with us. If the idea should ever cross your mind and you question, Should I tell my attorney this? The answer should always be, Yes – we are available to then tell you if “this” may be an issue.
Your Attorney’s Role
An attorney may have several roles throughout a case, especially in family law. We may be your representative, your advocate, your advisor, an/or your counselor.
The foregoing circumstances shall not be considered neglect if caused primarily by financial inability unless actual services for relief have been offered to and rejected by such person. A parent or legal custodian legitimately practicing religious beliefs in accordance with a recognized church or religious organization who thereby does not provide specific medical treatment for a child may not, for that reason alone, be considered a negligent parent or legal custodian; however, such an exception does not preclude a court from ordering the following services to be provided, when the health of the child so requires:
(a) Medical services from a licensed physician, dentist, optometrist, podiatric physician, or other qualified health care provider; or
(b) Treatment by a duly accredited practitioner who relies solely on spiritual means for healing in accordance with the tenets and practices of a well-recognized church or religious organization.
Neglect of a child includes acts or omissions.
• “Abandoned” or “abandonment” means a situation in which the parent or legal custodian of a child or, in the absence of a parent or legal custodian, the caregiver, while being able, has made no significant contribution to the child’s care and maintenance or has failed to establish or maintain a substantial and positive relationship with the child, or both. For purposes of this subsection, “establish or maintain a substantial and positive relationship” includes, but is not limited to, frequent and regular contact with the child through frequent and regular visitation or frequent and regular communication to or with the child, and the exercise of parental rights and responsibilities. Marginal efforts and incidental or token visits or communications are not sufficient to establish or maintain a substantial and positive relationship with a child. A man’s acknowledgement of paternity of the child does not limit the period of time considered in determining whether the child was abandoned. The term does not include a surrendered newborn infant as described in s. 383.50, a “child in need of services” as defined in chapter 984, or a “family in need of services” as defined in chapter 984. The incarceration, repeated incarceration, or extended incarceration of a parent, legal custodian, or caregiver responsible for a child’s welfare may support a finding of abandonment.
Generally, dependency actions are confidential, the proceedings are private, and any records are not available to the Public. However, in order to participate in a dependency action you need not be a party to that action; Section 39.01(51), Florida Statutes, defines a “Participant” for purposes of a shelter proceedings, dependency proceeding, or termination or parental rights proceeding as any person who is not a party but who should receive notice of hearings, including the actual custodian of the child, the foster parents or the legal custodian of the child, identified prospective parent, and any other person whose participation may be in the best interest of the child. As a participant you may be granted leave by the Court to be heard without the necessity of filing a motion to intervene.
Dependency Actions should be taken very seriously. Often times a Court’s ruling will completely control a family dynamic and potential consequences of the hearing, such as a termination of parental rights, can be virtually irreversible.
If you have been contacted by the Florida Department of Children and Families (“DFC”) regarding an open investigation and/or you are currently being investigated, be sure you have attentive and competent legal representation. If you wish to participate in a proceeding not involving your own child, do not sit and wait to be contacted by the Court, be proactive – reach out and schedule a consultation with us to see if you have a right to get involved. Dependency actions can move fairly quickly at the outset so it is important to be as informed and involved as early on in the process as possible. Below you will find a flow chart showing just how intricate a dependency action may be as well as a Caregiver’s Guide to Dependency Court as created by the Office of Court Improvement. Allow us to help guide you through these important and critical proceedings.