H.C. v. Department of Children and Family Services and Guardian ad Litem Program, 141 So.3d 243 (Fla. 3d DCA 2014)

Father appealed an order adjudicating his children dependent based on a finding of abuse pursuant to § 39.01(2), Florida Statutes.   The Department Children and Family Services (Department) alleged abuse of Father’s two-year-old child based on “two purple-green, non-patterned bruises” and a “purple loop mark” on the child’s thigh.  Testimony at the dependency adjudication hearing was that Father had an uneventful weekend visit with the children.   He did not notice any bruising or marks on the child during the weekend.  Upon the child’s return on Sunday, Mother noticed bruising while giving the child a bath.

 

There was no evidence presented at the dependency adjudication that father hit or physically disciplined the children over the weekend.  A nurse practitioner testified that she examined the child on Wednesday and saw the bruising and loop mark.  She reported that the injury “represents child abuse.”  Although the nurse practitioner admitted during questioning that the bruising could be caused by a fall, she testified that the loop marks could only be caused by being hit with an instrument.  The nurse practitioner was unable to determine a date of the injury.

 

The trial court found that something happened to the child over the weekend and that the injuries were consistent with “child physical abuse.”  The Third District Court of Appeal (Third DCA) agreed with the trial court that the child was harmed pursuant to the statutory definition of harm but found the Department failed to establish by a preponderance of the evidence that the Father inflicted or allowed someone else to inflict the injuries to the child.  Specifically, the Third DCA pointed to a lack of any evidence to support that Father caused the injuries and noted that the child was exposed to a number of individuals over the weekend, including Father’s wife, her children and a number of other relatives.

 

The Third DCA reversed the trial court’s order, holding evidence was insufficient to establish that children were dependent as to father.

 

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