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Ariel Winters, Dependency Cases, and a Child’s Best Interests

There have been reports in the news lately about the placement of 14 year old Modern Family actress Ariel Winters with her sister, because of emotional abuse by the child’s mother. The process for Dependency cases in Florida, is very similar to the events described in the news reports regarding Ariel Winters.

Florida Dependency cases often begin with a call to law enforcement or to the Department of Children and Families Abuse Hotline – 1-800-962-2873 (but can also start with an action filed in Dependency Court). The case is then investigated by a child protective investigator – in Broward County, child abuse investigations are handled by specially trained investigators in the Broward Sheriff’s Office (BSO). In Broward County (and I believe there is a similar process in some other counties), if there is a domestic violence injunction and there are children in the home, a BSO investigator will make contact with the parents to look into how things are in the home. Under Florida law, a child’s exposure to domestic violence constitutes child abuse. If the investigating agency finds that there is abuse, neglect or abandonment or “imminent danger of illness or injury as a result of abuse, neglect, or abandonment”, a child can be removed from the parent’s or guardian’s home and placed with another parent or relative, or in a temporary “shelter” placement in a foster home; and the case then proceeds forward in court and through the Department of Children and Family Services. The Florida Statutes regarding child abuse investigations and cases are in Florida Statutes, Chapter 39. One issue that has been litigated in multiple jurisdictions, is that if a spouse or other partner is the victim of domestic violence, the appropriate course of action is to provide services and assistance, versus jumping to removal of the child from the victim rather than providing assistance.

A parent in Dependency Court has legal rights, and an attorney will be appointed to represent parents if they are unable to hire their own attorney, because a parent’s right to parent their child is considered a fundamental right under the U.S. and Florida Constitutions. A parent has a right to a hearing in Court to dispute the facts of the case if they believe the allegations against them are untrue, and removing a child from a home only stands if other options are not available, including putting services in place that would allow the child to safely remain in their parents’ home. If the Court decides that it is not safe to return a child to the parents’ home, a plan will be developed with services for the parent to complete, with the goal of returning the child to the home, if that is a possible option.

Each case is different, and parents should consult with their attorney to discuss the most appropriate approach for them, but sometimes, without sacrificing their legal rights, including the right to argue that there are alternatives to long-term removal from the parent’s home, it is often appropriate for parents to fully cooperate and participate in services that the Department offers to them. If a parent places a child at risk because of their substance abuse problem, or there is physical or sexual abuse in the home, there is a problem that needs to be solved. For some cases, for example involving neglect related to a parent’s alcohol or substance abuse, one key factor that can lead a court and the Department to believe it will be safe for a child to return home, is a parent acknowledging the problem and fully participating in services. Sometimes a child can be temporarily placed with a family member, and the child can be placed with the other parent if the allegations are against only one parent. Some cases like this can be resolved by seeking an order in Family Court regarding custody and placement, and the Department can close its case on that basis if it believes the custody order in Family Court will protect the child. There are often many options, and fighting or having a combative relationship with the Department’s case workers or the Court, most often will not be the best option, and parents participating in services often will be in a child’s best interests.


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