In Florida, thousands of children live with an extended family member rather than a biological parent. However, that’s causing some issues and a new proposal would give courts more power to reunify children with parents.
If a parent is going to be gone for a long time, whether it’s for military deployment, an extended illness, or incarceration, odds are they’re going to leave their child with a family member. In Florida, about 10,050 children are being cared for by a relative rather than a biological parent. But lawmakers are focusing on cases where addicted parents drop off their kids with a relative and disappear for years on end. Sen. Aaron Bean (R-Jacksonville) is sponsoring a measure to allow courts to enforce a reunification plan.
“What has come to my attention through some horrific stories is when it’s time to go back to mom and dad, there’s no transition plan." Bean says he’s heard stories where relatives have taken care of children for years, “And then when parents came back, they wanted to just take the kids and go but yet, there was no transition plan. These kids were involved in activities, in school, and whatnot, so what this bill does is set about a transition plan.”
Right now, if an addicted mother dumps her kid at grandma’s house and disappears, Family Law attorney Ron Newlin says the Department of Children and Families (DCF) may not count that as abandonment.
“This child is safe with the grandmother and the mother made a safety decision to place the child with the grandmother before disappearing," Newlin says.
If the grandma doesn’t have the DCF backing her, Newlin says she’ll have a hard time going through dependency court. But there is a second avenue she can take: The grandma can petition family court for temporary custody.
If she gets it, the mother can come back whenever she wants, ask the court for custody, and possibly get it within 48 hours.
“It becomes the question of did she truly abandon the child if she’s returned. If she’s back and stating that she wants to be involved in the child’s life, then is the court required to do that with consideration rights to parent?” Says Christin Gonzalez a partner at Novey and Gonzalez law firm.
Novey and Gonzalez is an underwriter with WFSU. Gonzalez says she’s seen cases where children are taken from their beds at night.
“The child can be taken from that home almost at-will into a home with someone who they may not remember. Who they may not know. Who they may not have a relationship with. And that transition can be traumatic for kids," Newlin says.
However, the bill could interfere with a parent's right to privacy.
“The parent has a fundamental right described as older than the common law itself to enjoy the custody, fellowship, and companion of his or her off-spring," Mooring says. He is a member of the family law section of the Florida Bar. He says although the bills are well intentioned, he has concerns regarding privacy rights.
“Once that parent proves he or she is fit, and that returning the child to his care will not cause detriment to the child, then the child must be returned to the parent.”
The debate: How courts should balance the rights of parents and extended family members.