Department of Children and Families v. T.S., 154 So.3d 1223 (Fla. 4th DCA 2015)

The trial court dismissed a petition for dependency sua sponte at a fourth continued arraignment hearing over the objection of the Department of Children and Families (Department). The matter had been continued three times because the Department was unable to locate either parent, and the child absconded from shelter placement. A pick-up order was outstanding for the child. Both the Department and the child sought rehearing, which was denied. The Department and the child appealed asserting that dismissal without notice, a hearing, or the opportunity to be heard violated the due process rights of the Department and the child. The Department also asserted that the trial court erred in not considering the best interests of the child. The Fourth DCA agreed on both points and reversed and remanded the case to trial court to reinstate the petition

Pursuant to Florida Statute § 39.506(1)-(2), an arraignment provides a parent the opportunity “to admit, deny or consent to findings of dependency alleged in the petition.” Disposition and adjudication hearings are scheduled based on the parents’ responses.

The notice sent for the fourth arraignment hearing did not provide for an adjudication or disposition of the petition. None of the parties were on notice that the petition might be dismissed and neither the Department nor the child was given the opportunity to present any evidence or make any recommendations to the court. The Fourth DCA found this to be a clear violation of their right to due process.

Additionally, the Fourth DCA agreed that it was error to not consider the best interests of the child, holding “[a]t the heart of all dependency proceedings is the best interests of the child.” B.Y. v. Dep’t of Children and Families, 887 So. 2d 1253, 1256 (Fla. 2004).  

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