ARTICLE OVERVIEW: This article provides an overview of child welfare systems in Florida. It explains what happens when abuse or neglect are reported in conjunction with substance use, how those reports are processed, and what happens to the adults and children involved in the child welfare system.
TABLE OF CONTENTS:
- Why Did They Take My Child?
- Child Welfare Laws
- Who Reported Me?
- What Happens When I’m Reported
- What Happens After a Report is Accepted?
- The Courts that are In Charge
- What Happens to Parents
- What Happens to Children
- What Happens if I Drink or Use?
- Can I Get My Child Back?
Why Did They Take My Child?
If you’ve found you and your family inside the Florida State Child Welfare system, we’re here for you. We’ll outline what steps you need to take…and how the system works below.  But first, you need to know that if you are using drugs or alcohol around your kids, Florida State sees that as either:
Drugs change people. They alter the brain and personality. If you’re drinking too much or using drugs, you are not a bad person! But, you do need medical help. Call us on the phone number listed here. We can help explain your treatment options.
Just know that if you’ve entered the Child Welfare System, the Florida Department of Children and Families will take certain steps.  Reports of alleged child abuse or neglect are taken seriously. As a result, you could lose legal custody of your kids. They might be placed in foster care or even adopted by another family.
Using drugs does not mean you’re a bad person. You just need medical help.
Child Welfare Laws
Child Welfare laws exist to protect children. In the Sunshine State, there are many laws in place that aim to secure a child’s safety. Florida State Ann. Statute § 39.201 describes the law. 
Under Florida law, ANYONE who suspects that a child is in danger is required to report the issue to the Department of Children and Families.
A report is required when any person knows, or has reasonable cause to suspect that a child is abused, abandoned, or neglected by a parent, legal custodian, caregiver, or other person responsible for the child’s welfare, or that a child is in need of supervision and care and has no parent, legal custodian, or responsible adult relative immediately known and available to provide supervision and care.
Another relevant section of law that defines parental drug use as child abuse is found in The 2018 Florida Statutes, Title V, JUDICIAL BRANCH, Chapter 39, also known as “PROCEEDINGS RELATING TO CHILDREN.” Ann. Stat. § 39.01(30)(a)(2), (g) can be found online. 
‘Harm’ to a child’s health or welfare can occur when any person:
1. Purposely gives a child poison, alcohol, drugs, or other substances that substantially affect the child’s behavior, motor coordination, judgment, or that result in sickness or internal injury.
2. Exposes a child to a controlled substance or alcohol. Exposure to a controlled substance or alcohol is established by:
◦ A test administered at birth that indicated that the child’s blood, urine, or meconium contained any amount of alcohol or a controlled substance or metabolites of such substances, the presence of which was not the result of medical treatment administered to the mother or the newborn infant.
◦ Evidence of extensive, abusive, and chronic use of a controlled substance or alcohol by a parent when the child is demonstrably adversely affected by such usage.
The terms ‘drugs’ and ‘controlled substances’ mean prescription drugs not prescribed for the child or the parent or not administered as prescribed, and controlled substances as outlined in Schedule I or Schedule II of § 893.03. 
These are just a couple of the many laws that aim to protect children in Florida. Other laws exist that outline what happens within the child welfare system, as well as custody and visitation issues. To find all laws or statute information for Florida related to Child Welfare, please go to the U.S. government website: Child Welfare State Law Search 
Substance abuse is legally seen as child abuse. Call us to learn how you can get better with treatment.
Who Has Reported Me?
Any concerned person can report suspicions of child abuse or neglect. To report a parent who is drinking or using drugs, anyone can call Child Protective Services on a special hotline number.
Department of Children and Families HOTLINE: 1-800-955-8771
You can report abuse online day and night.  The Florida Abuse Hotline accepts reports 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. Most reports are made by “mandatory reporters”. These are usually professionals who are required by State law to report their suspicions. In the State of Florida, mandated reporters include:
- Daycare workers
- Foster care, residential, or institutional workers
- Law enforcement officers
- Professional child care workers
- Medical professionals
- Social workers
- Spiritual healers
- Teachers or other school officials or personnel
All reporters’ information is confidential. The name of any person reporting child abuse, neglect or abandonment, may not be released to any person other than those allowed to have access to this information according to Florida Statutes. View Statutes related to Confidentiality for Child Reports online.  View Statutes related to Confidentiality for Adult Reports here. 
So, you won’t be able to know the name of the person who’s reported you because this is confidential by law. The name of the reporter may not be released to any person other than employees of the Department of Children and Family Services responsible for child protective services, the central abuse hotline, law enforcement, the child protection team, or the appropriate State attorney, without the written consent of the person reporting.
Further, if you try to find reference to a report, Florida State Hotline counselors will not acknowledge the existence of any report, will not acknowledge that they have previously spoken to a particular caller, nor will they release any information provided by a caller or any information contained in a report. Any person with a statutory right to a report copy must contact the local investigative office.
If you believe confidentiality has been broken, contact the county protective investigations office where the investigation is being handled and ask to speak to a Protective Investigations Supervisor or contact the Client Relations Coordinator in your county.  
Can’t quit using on your own? Call us. We can help.
What Happens When I’m Reported?
Reports of drinking or drug use around children are generally received by Hotline Counselors. The Florida Abuse Hotline is committed to providing a clear understanding of the Department of Children and Families or other state and community agencies’ services.
Reports of child abuse are either accepted or not accepted.
Prior to concluding each call, the Hotline counselor is required to inform each caller if a report was accepted or not. When a report is not accepted, the Hotline Counselor may provide appropriate referral information to the caller so their concerns can be addressed by the appropriate entity.
Accepted Reports. A report is “accepted” when there is sufficient information to suggest that substance abuse is occurring around children. In these cases, an investigation is warranted. Screened in reports meet the State’s legal definition of abuse or neglect.
Not Accepted Reports. A report may be “screened out” if there is not enough information on which to follow up or if the situation reported does not meet the State’s legal definition of abuse or neglect. In these instances, the Hotline counselor may refer the person reporting the incident to other community services or law enforcement for additional help.
All phone calls to the Florida State Child Abuse Hotline are required to be documented in the Hotline’s system of record database. This database is maintained in compliance with Florida laws. Cases may be considered for referral to the county office as a prevention referral. If the information is not sent as a prevention referral, then it is maintained in the Hotline’s database.
Addiction is a medical condition that responds to treatment. Get better…today!
What Happens After a Report is Accepted?
Abuse of drugs or alcohol can have negative effects on children. If you are drinking or using around your kids, you endanger their:
So, what happens next?
STEP 1: If a report of abuse is accepted, the Hotline Counselor sends a typed report of the allegations to the local investigation County office where the victim is located, usually within one hour of the phone call. This can be a Sherriff’s office or a local Department of Children and Families office.
STEP 2: After the report of abuse is sent to the local office, it is assigned to a Child Protective Investigator (CPI). The investigator has up to 24 hours to initiate contact with the subjects of the report. In situations in which it is believed the victim is at imminent risk of harm, the investigator will respond as soon as possible.
STEP 3: All cases are simultaneously transmitted to local Child Protection Teams, or CPTs, for review. The CPT completed face-to-face medical evaluations, if needed. If there is need for medical review, this can include forensic interviews, family social assessments, medical exams, psychiatric and psychological evaluations. Reports are processed within four working days of receipt.
STEP 3: The CPI conducts an investigation. The investigation aims to examine the validity of the current alleged maltreatment and the likelihood of re-abuse. This begins with a review of intake information, background checks, and prior history. Florida statute mandates that all investigations include an onsite assessment of the child’s residence and face-to-face interviews with:
• The child
• The parents
• Other siblings/children
• Other adults in the household
These interviews are necessary to assess risk of harm to the child. A home visit is also an opportunity for the investigator to observe the home environment.
Voluntary addiction treatment is a step towards reunification with your child. Why wait? Get help today.
STEP 4: If necessary, the CPI refers the case to the CPT.
STEP 5: The CPI works with the CPT to determine the outcome of the investigation and service needs of the child. Services can include:
- Crisis counseling.
- Emergency medical attention.
- Emergency mental health care.
- Food, clothing, and shelter.
- Social services coordinated by a Community Based Care (CBC) agent.
- Removal from the home.
STEP 6: The state attorney and law enforcement must be notified if the immediate safety or well-being of a child is endangered. The law requires investigators to develop a Safety Plan to ensure the safety of a child when threats of serious harm are identified. Substance and alcohol abuse are considered threats of serious harm.
If interventions/services will not ensure the child’s safety in the home, then the removal of the child is part of the Safety Plan.
When a CPI notes that addiction is present, state law defines substance abuse as a circumstances where your child cannot safely stay at home even if helpful services were provided to you. In these cases, your child can be taken to a shelter placement for his or her own safety, so the situation can be investigated more.
STEP 7: A final case summary report is completed. Each final case summary includes an assessment of risk. Substance and alcohol abuse present significant risk of serious child abuse injuries as well as child deaths. This summary outlines these and includes an overview of family functioning. The conclusion and recommendation section includes rationale for any findings as, overall assessment, and identifies the type(s) of intervention services which are appropriate. All case activities should be completed and cases closed within 60 days following the date of referral.
Kids needs their parents. You’ll be a better parent when you learn to live drug-free.
STEP 8: If you are drinking or using drugs, your case will be referred to the Juvenile Dependency Court. The protective investigator will tell you where your child is staying unless there is some reason to believe that it will be dangerous for you to know where your child is. As your case begins, the judge will decide if your child should be:
- Returned to you.
- Placed in the care of a relative, a trusted family friend who is not a relative.
- •Placed in a licensed foster care home.
- Placed somewhere else.
STEP 9: Florida law allows the child welfare system to place children in care if these four criteria for removal have been met:
- It is in the best interest of the child.
- There is an imminent risk of harm to the child.
- There is probable cause.
- Reasonable efforts to prevent removal have been made.
The Tiered Services Protocol is as follows referenced from 65C-30.009:
- Non-Judicial In-Home Services
- Judicial In-Home Services
- Court Ordered Relative/Non-Relative Placements
- Licensed Care
A NOTE ON CONFIDENTIALITY: All records and reports of the Child Protection Teams are confidential and exempt from the provisions of s. 119.07(1), F.S., the Florida Public Records Law, and s. 456.057, F.S., regarding ownership and control of patient records. Team records shall not be disclosed, except, upon request, to the state attorney, law enforcement, DOH, and other necessary professionals, in furtherance of the treatment or additional evaluative needs of the child, by order of the court, or to health plan payers, limited to that information used for insurance reimbursement purposes.
Ready for change? Call us to talk with a confidential hotline operator.
What is Juvenile or Dependency Court?
Dependency court is where the State of Florida hears cases referred to the justice system from the Department of Children and Families. It is a combination of civil, family, and criminal courts as Dependency Judges work from the “best interest of the child” standard.
During trial, Judges determine whether or not children should be deemed “dependent” and removed from the home. There are several kinds of court hearings and it is important for you to know what happens at each kind of hearing. Plus, it is critical that you respond to court orders within quick, absolute time limits. Judges are often unforgiving towards parents who are delinquent or delay these proceedings.
STEP 1: Shelter Hearing
If your child has been taken from your home, then a shelter hearing will be held within 24 hours of when your child was taken into protective care. At the shelter hearing, the judge will look at the initial evidence and decide if your child:
- Can be kept safe if returned to your home.
- Will benefit from services provided via your home.
- Will be safe in the care of a relative.
- Will be safe in the care of a non-relative.
- Should stay in licensed foster care.
If you know of a relative or a trusted non-relative who could provide your child with a safe, temporary home, you must let the protective investigator, the family services counselor, your lawyer, or the judge know about that person and his/her address.
STEP 2: Arraignment Hearing
After the shelter hearing, you will appear in court for an arraignment hearing. By the time of this hearing you will have had a chance to see the “petition,” which is a document that lists the reasons that the Department of Children and Families has documented about how why your child is at risk and should be taken into care. Discuss the petition with your lawyer before this hearing.
STEP 3: Trial, or Adjudicatory Hearing
Dependency court culminates with an adjudicatory hearing. In dependency cases, the term for the trial is “adjudicatory hearing.” If the parties cannot come to an agreement on their own or through mediation and you do not agree to the allegations in the petition then your case will go to trial. At the adjudicatory hearing, both sides will be able to present witnesses and be able to question the witnesses of the other side.
After hearing all the evidence, the judge will decide if the Department of Children and Families has accurately proven the allegations that have been documented in the petition, or not. If the judge finds that the allegations were not proved, the case can be dismissed and your child will be returned to you. If the judge finds that the Department of Children and Families correctly documented allegations in the petition, the case will be set for a disposition hearing.
STEP 4: Disposition Hearing
At the disposition hearing, the judge will review the specific recommendations for your case including a proposed plan of action – called a case plan – which will include tasks you will need to follow. The Dependency Court may take one or more of the following actions:
- Release your child to you, with a caseworker providing services to ensure your child will remain safe while in your home.
- Order the child to be placed in the home of the other parent, with a relative, with a non-relative, or in a licensed foster home.
- Make decisions regarding visiting your child, or where you and your child may live, or order you to participate in counseling, parenting programs, or other similar programs.
Call us to learn about treatment options. You can start your life over anytime you’re ready.
In Florida, the Dependency or Juvenile Courts offer an alternative to traditional court proceedings, referred to as “mediation”. Mediation is an alternative to court. The process can allows you to settle the issues and avoid court. It gives everyone a chance to come to an agreement on how to handle the case. If you can cooperate and discuss your views, you have a more likely chance of remaining with your child or being reunified with your child earlier.
The process is led by a “mediator”. A mediator is a neutral person who will help everyone share what they think about the situation in a productive way.
Mediations are confidential; they do not take place in a courtroom and they are not recorded. If everyone comes to an agreement during the mediation, the final agreement will be sent to the judge. No other information besides a final agreement will be sent to the judge.
What Happens to Parents
There are a number of options that guide what happens during a child welfare case in Florida. Parents are generally offered support and treatment services or are required by a court to participate in services that will help keep their children safe. In low risk cases, in-home services and supports may be provided, including:
- Addiction treatment
- Child Care
- Parent education
- Safety planning
But if you are an active drug user, or are drinking around your children, your kids may be taken from you. You may also be reported to the police. Here is a review of the main child welfare interventions in cases of drug use, drinking, or addiction in the State of Florida:
Voluntary Services can help families resolve problems before they get out of control. Intensive services may be provided to a family instead of court involvement.
Court Ordered Services with Family Intact allows the child or children to remain in the home with the parent or parents under the supervision of the Department of Children and Families and jurisdiction of the court. Parents will be required to complete tasks in their case plan that are monitored by both state systems.
Placement Services are provided when the child cannot safely remain at home. The goal is to return your child home as soon as s/he is no longer in danger. If your child is becomes a Florida State “dependent” child, the court will hold regular hearings to review your progress toward completing your case plan. You will be notified of the dates and times of these hearings and you need to attend them.
What Happens to Children
Depending on the severity of the case, children may remain at home or be removed into foster care. When your child is taken into shelter, s/he is somewhere safe. This decision is determined by a Dependency Court Judge based on the identified risks to the children’s well-being. The mission is to ensure that the children are in a safe environment.
When placement is needed for a child at risk of harm, every effort is made to arrange for appropriate and safe placement. These decisions are made on a case by case basis. In some cases, the children can be placed with approved relatives or other individuals the child may know personally. In other cases, the child(ren) may be placed in foster care.
Be the parent you’ve always wanted to be. You can do it!
What Happens if I Continue to Drink or Use?
If you relapse or continue to use, you risk losing your kids.
In some cases, children are put up for adoption. Or, your child can be placed with a relative, a non-relative, or a licensed foster care home…either temporarily or for good.
NOTE THIS: The Florida authorities want you to be with your kids! You can be reunified with your children if you are able to complete treatment and make a life change for the better. Sometimes, this can take months to years. This is why parents receive services such as parenting classes, drug treatment, mental health services, and household management.
Can I Get My Child Back?
Yes, you can get your child back! But you need to show the Dependency Court that you are able to provide a safe home for your kids.
The best place for a child is with his or her own family…as long as the child is safe and cared for. Child welfare laws and services are made to help keep families. Children remain out of their parents’ care only when, in the opinion of the court, the children are not safe in their own homes.
Therefore, all services offered to you as a parent are designed to ensure that your child can be safely returned to you. If your child is temporarily removed from your care, the court expects certain thing from you. To get your child back, you need to fulfill all of your responsibilities.
This can include:
- Going to addiction treatment or rehab.
- Getting counseling to overcome a drug or alcohol abuse problem.
- Establishing a home.
- Providing housing, food, and other necessities for your children.
- Visiting your children regularly and staying involved in their lives.
There may be other steps that you, your caseworker, and the court will work out for you to take in order to be reunited with your children. To make sure you are fulfilling your responsibilities, it is essential that the caseworker be able to contact you at all times. You must notify your caseworker every time you change your address, phone number, or place of employment.