Articles Posted in Department of Children and Families

Scales-of-Justice-Gold-300x277Investigations by the Florida Department of Children and Families begin with allegations that a child or vulnerable adult has been abandoned, neglected, or abused. It is the role of the Florida Department of Children and Families to take each allegation seriously and to ensure that claim is investigated to ensure the safety of all individuals involved.   Being involved in an investigation is stressful and causes many to worry about losing legal rights to a child or a grandchild. This, in turn, leaves many to wonder if they should contact a Florida Family Law Attorney to protect their parental rights.

Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) cases start with allegations that are forwarded to law enforcement or directly to DCF.  An investigator is sent out to visit the child, parents, and any other adults who may have relevant information regarding the allegations.   Usually, at that time, an investigator will not only interview the alleged victim, but also will assess the conditions of the home or place that the incident is alleged to have occurred.   Upon review, the investigative team will determine whether there are facts that give rise to the case going to court and whether the child should remain in the home during the pendency of the DCF investigation and court case.

While these types of investigations can involve criminal matters like domestic violence, substance abuse, and child abuse, the DCF investigation and resulting case are not criminal charges.   Under Florida Statutes Chapter 39, the State of Florida has a duty to children and vulnerable adults to protect them from abuse, neglect, and abandonment through a civil court, which can result in the child being removed from the home and ultimately to the loss of parental rights.  These are serious cases and should not be taken lightly.

363466_more_travel_teddies_series_n Recently in the Florida 2016 Legislative Session some new bills were passed which greatly affect the way child welfare cases under the supervision of the Department of Children and Families is handled. One of the biggest changes now requires the court to consider the child’s best interests when considering making a transfer of a child from custody to a placement with a prospective adoptive parent. Prior to this change of the bill the court was only required to evaluate the appropriateness of the placement. The change seeks to eliminate the circumstances in which a placement may be appropriate, in that the prospective adoptive parents are deemed a satisfactory caretaker, but that alone does not mean changing a child’s placement would be in their best interests.
The statute now evaluates the following factors regarding the best interests of the children: the permanency of the placement, the bond between the child and the current caregiver, the stability of the adoptive home, the importance of maintaining sibling relationships, the preferences of the child (if the child is of sufficient maturity), whether a petition to terminate the parental rights of the child’s biological family has been filed, and if the parent has any remaining rights to determine the appropriate placement of the child. If the Court finds that the adoption would be in the child’s best interests the court will transfer the custody of the child over to the prospective adoptive parents. This change to the statute may cause a large amount of the older aged department placements to remain in their current placements rather than with the prospective adopting parents. The older children who are dependents of the State will have a greater voice in determining their possible adoption. Typically with older placements they do not wish to continue to be placed in different homes, they will now be able to express that desire and a full evaluation of the interests of that child will take place, rather than just an evaluation of the placement.
This different evaluation will be completed only after a Motion to Intervene is filed by an adoption agency. The dependency system is difficult to navigate. The mere arrival of DCF on your door step will cause a number of questions to arise. It is essential that families who have children that have been placed under the care of the state understand their rights.

The death of a four-year-old girl, Kristina Hepp has raised new questions about how cases handled by the Department of Children and Families (DCF) are handled. Kristina was born in July 2004 to her mother Elizabeth Hepp, 16-year-old, and immediately concerns were raised over the care of the child.

DCF contracted with Partnership for Strong Families (PSF), a private group, to manage Kristina’s case. Kristina was allowed to stay with her mom, but caseworkers visited routinely. Elizabeth was ordered to take parenting classes and have routine drug tests. In addition, she was ordered to disclose who the father of Kristina was. Paternity tests confirmed that Matthew Roland was the father.

Criminal background checks reveal that Roland, 22, had a criminal history that dated back to 2000, and included charges involving drugs, burglary, battery, and violation of probation. Records show that PSF was required to develop a case plan to help Roland parent Kristina. At that same time, Elizabeth’s attorney requested that her case be closed because she had successfully completed her case plan. Judge David Glant, who was assigned to the case, granted the request. However, DCF’s records indicate that Elizabeth’s case plan was not complete, and that Roland’s case plan was never adopted by the court.

Written By: Lenorae C. Atter, Attorney

Wood, Atter & Wolf, P.A.

1164983_happy_family_.jpgFlorida Department of Children and Families is the state entity responsible for protecting children from abuse, neglect, and other actions that are detrimental to the child’s well-being. When DCF gets involved with a family, they typically start an investigation to determine the truth of the allegations. If the State feels that there are issues, but they do not warrant the child being removed from the home, they may request the family to participate in programs or a case plan under DCF supervision. If a family refuses their services, then DCF may find that without the offered services, the child is in harm and needs to removed from the home. Once that determination is made, DCF may file a Petition for Shelter with the court.

Written By: Lenorae C. Atter, Attorney

Wood, Atter & Wolf, P.A.

1177694_lollypop.jpgFlorida requires parents going through a divorce or paternity case to keep their children in the front of the issues. North Florida courts require that parents complete a course sponsored by the Department of Children and Families that teaches parents about issues regarding a split home and the effects it may have on the children. The course in Jacksonville Florida is called, “Children First in Divorce.”

Florida paternity is established by marriage or the Court, not by signing a Birth Certificate. A Birth Certificate does nothing more than give the presumption that you are, in fact, the father of your child. If you are not married to the mother ( at least 10% of couples living together are not married), then the Court does not recognize you as the baby’s daddy.

To establish your rights to the child, it is important that you speak with an attorney so that your child does not grow-up without you. What you need to ask your attorney:

1. How do I file a Petition to Establish Paternity?


When an infant relative of Vanessa Alenier was seized by child welfare workers, Ms. Alenier took the child into her home. However, when she asked Florida for permission to adopt the boy, a question on the adoption forms gave her pause. It asked if she was gay. Not wanting to begin her parental journey with a lie, she reported to the state that she is indeed gay, even though she knew that Florida has a thirty three year old law banning gays from adopting.

Even as a Miami appeals court was seeking to determine the constitutionality of the ban, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Maria Sampedro-Iglesia approved the adoption – the third such adoption by a gay couple to be approved in Florida in the last year and a half.

Sampedro-Iglesia wrote in her order that, “there is no rational connection between sexual orientation and what is or is not in the best interest of a child. The child is happy and thriving with [Alenier]. The only way to give this child permanency . . . is to allow him to be adopted [by her].” She also declared in her ruling that she believed the law to be unconstitutional.

Adoption.jpgNovember is National Adoption Awareness Month, and to celebrate, Floridians all across the state will gather at special ceremonies and community events. And Florida residents have a lot to celebrate; Florida has been recognized nationally for its success in placing foster children in permanent homes.

The success of the program is attributed to a federal funding program that allowed Florida child welfare workers to focus services on at-risk children. Florida has used the funds to provide services such as parenting classes, counseling, mentoring and enhanced support for relative adoptions. The program has reduced the number of children living in foster care and group homes by a third and has cut the re-abuse of children in half. The resulting reduction in caseloads has allowed child welfare workers to focus on getting foster kids adopted, which they have done in record numbers as well.

The program does face some problems going forward. Across the board state budget cuts could mean that Florida will fail to meet minimum state funding requirements to qualify for the federal program. And whether or not Florida makes the funding cut, the program will expire in two years. Find out more about Florida’s foster kids at Celebrate adoption.

Plane.jpgSamad Nesser has tried every legal avenue to prevent his eleven year old son from being taken to France to stay with his mother and her new husband. According to Nesser, his ex-wife has allowed his son to be abused by the new husband, and suffers from sleeplessness and chest pains whenever he returns home from staying with them. Nesser is an American citizen, but his wife is not. The husband, a French citizen, used to live in Palm Beach, Florida, where he was the subject of a restraining order after allegedly breaking into his girlfriend’s home and hitting and pushing her and her elderly mother to the floor. Nesser claims that this same man locked his son in an attic and threatened to kill him.

Judge Daniel Merrit Jr. has refused to grant requests for a guardian ad litem for Nesser’s son. A guardian ad litem would spend time with the child to determine what that child wants and what is in his best interest. Merrit has also refused to let the child testify in court, and the records of the child’s counseling sessions have not been admitted due to what Nesser claims are stalling tactics on the part of his ex-wife’s attorney. At present, there is no way for Nesser to stop his ex-wife from taking their child back to France with her.

According to Florida law, when two parents have a child in Florida, they maintain their rights no matter where they might move later on. Those rights are recognized regardless of citizenship. If you are involved in a child custody battle, please contact our firm for legal assistance.

In Florida, the courts in Miami overturned the ban on gay adoptions in August 2009. Judge Cindy S. Lederman wrote in her opinion that excluding gay couples defeats Florida’s mission to provide all children permanent families. The state has claimed that gays are more likely to suffer from psychological imbalances and substance abuse than heterosexual couples, although several well-respected organizations have said that gay parents do not negatively affect a child’s upbringing.

A statewide resolution must be determined by an appellate court before the ban is officially lifted. Florida is the only state to ban homosexuals from adopting children. A few other states prevent unmarried persons from adopting children, which effectively bans gays, who are not legally allowed to marry in those states. Mississippi allows single people to adopt, no matter what their sexual orientation, but prohibits same-sex partners from adopting jointly.

The state attorney general’s office has appealed the decision so the gay and lesbian community in Florida await the decision to see if they will have the “right” to adopt in Florida.

Contact Information