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Child Abuse Reports and Dependency Cases: When are they Legally Required and How is the Information Used

Posted on January 28, 2016

The worst nightmare of many parents starts with a knock at the door that opens to reveal police officers responding to a report of child abuse. This is typically the first step in any dependency investigation and sets off a rollercoaster of emotion for both the parents and child. These encounters can be especially distressing when the source of the child abuse report is a complete mystery. As recently reported in Florida Today, a mother living in the west central coastal town of Titusville experienced her own nightmare when her three-year-old daughter was removed by the Department of Child and Families (DCF) following an investigation into the sexual assault of the girl by a teenage boy. Despite a lack of collaborating evidence, the Brevard County Sheriff’s Department eventually implicated the mother in a missing child’s case out of Tennessee and possible homicide. Four months later, with no explanation from DCF, the child was returned to the mother and the dependency petition was dropped. Any parent facing an inquiry into alleged child abuse needs to have as much information about the investigation process as possible.

Mandatory Reporting

Florida has a very expansive requirement for reporting child abuse. The law states that anyone with information about abuse, neglect or abandonment of a child by a parent, guardian or caregiver must call the DCF’s central abuse hotline. The same reporting requirement applies to information about child abuse by someone other than a parent, guardian or caregiver. Additionally, people who work in certain professions are legally required to provide their names to a hotline staff member if a report is made to the DCF central abuse hotline. These professions include:

  • physician, nurse, medical examiner or anyone else who is involved with patient care;
  • health or mental health professional;
  • spiritual healers;
  • teacher or other school personnel;
  • social worker, day care worker or other professional child care workers;
  • law enforcement; and
  • judges.

Anyone else calling in to make allegations of child abuse is permitted to withhold their name if they wish to remain anonymous. Normally, dependency investigations begin within 24 hours of the receipt of a report by the child abuse hotline. However, investigations can be commenced immediately, regardless of the time of day, if there is information that suggests the child is in immediate danger, the family may flee the area or the child will not be available during the investigation.

Confidentiality

Generally, all records related to child abuse investigations that are held by DCF are confidential. There are, however, certain classes of people that will be given access to the records, minus the reporter’s name, for the purpose of conducting an investigation or providing a service to the child or family. It should be noted that parents or legal guardians of a child who is the subject of a dependency investigation, and their attorneys, have a right to see the records within 30 days of the initial child abuse report. Some of the other groups included in this category are:

  • employees or contractors of the Department of Health who provide investigative and family intervention services;
  • state attorneys
  • criminal justice agencies;
  • courts; and
  • doctors or mental health professionals providing care to the child.

There is one large exception to the confidentiality of dependency investigation records – if the child is missing. In that case, DCF is authorized to release the following information to the public: the child’s name and date of birth, a physical description of the child and any identifying marks and a photograph of the child.

Hire an Attorney

Dependency cases should not be faced alone, and an attorney experienced in navigating these proceedings can provide the advice and support parents need to get through this ordeal. The Law Offices of Alan J. Braverman, P.A., in Fort Lauderdale and Boynton Beach, offer legal counsel in dependency investigations and are available to work with you. Contact us for confidential consultation.

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