How long do Florida appeals take?

The First DCA published statistics on its caseloads and decisions. But notably (as appellate judges like to say), the length of time they take to resolve cases was not reported. It motivated me to update the How Long do Appeals Take tableau.

Statewide – 10% sample of all cases Feb. to Nov. 2018

The answer? Probably 120 to 170 days for a Dependency case, 260 to 576 days for a Criminal case, and 345 to 603 days for a Civil case.

You can explore each district and case type at the tableau here.

Florida child welfare case law bonus post!

The Florida Supreme Court issued a child welfare opinion, so it seemed like a good time to do a case law review. Here we go…

What guardians ad litem don’t do

The Florida Supreme Court addressed the issue of whether the appointment of a guardian ad litem on a dependency case tolled the statute of limitation on a civil suit based on injury to the child.  The answer: no, because guardians ad litem have no authority to file civil suits.

Twin children were (allegedly) injured at the hands of the biological mother while she was under the care of developmental disability support services. The children entered foster care and were eventually placed in a permanent guardianship with their grandparents. When the grandparents learned of the injuries, three years after being appointed permanent guardians, they filed suit against the agencies involved. The agencies moved to dismiss the suit as barred by the four-year statute of limitations.

The Florida Supreme Court held that, because a dependency guardian ad litem has no authority to file a separate lawsuit on behalf of a child, the four-year limitations period for filing a suit was tolled until the child’s grandparents were appointed as permanent guardians. D.H. v. Adept Cmty. Services, Inc., SC17-829, 2018 WL 5660595 (Fla. Nov. 1, 2018). 

For all you Latin lovers, the term “ad litem” translates to “for the suit.” Litem is the accusative singular of the word lis, which is a feminine third declension noun that means lawsuit, quarrel, or strife. It is the root of the English words litigate, litigation, litigious, you get the point.  It is the actual word in the legal phrase lis pendens, which means “suit pending.” If you’re appointed to multiple lawsuits for the same person/child and want to be grammatically snobbish, you could call yourself the guardian ad lites. I wouldn’t.

Singular Plural
Nom. lis lites
Gen. litis litum
Dat. liti litibus
Acc. litem lites
Voc. lis lites
Abl. lite litibus

Te gratissimum.

What guardians ad litem do do

Apparently they prevent DCF from falling on swords. The Fifth District affirmed the TPR of parents despite DCF’s concession of error. The GAL Program argued the TPR for material breach of the case plan was proper. The Fifth held that the trial court properly considered a father’s lack of efforts on a previous case plan when determining whether he was likely to comply with the latest one. W.D. v. Dep’t of Children & Families, 5D18-2241, 2018 WL 5603041  (Fla. 5th DCA Oct. 5, 2018). 

Count to six

The statute is really clear on this one: cases stay open for at least six months of supervision after reunification. The Fifth District reversed a TOS order that was entered two months after reunification. Dep’t of Children & Families v. J.F., 5D18-3091, 2018 WL 5729086 (Fla. 5th DCA Nov. 2, 2018).

A move towards substantive compliance

The district courts are not very consistent on the question of what constitutes substantial compliance. The Fourth District affirmed the TPR of a mother who argued that she had remedied the circumstances that brought the case in by finding appropriate housing. The operative holding is that “[m]ere completion of services is not equivalent to substantial compliance with a case plan.” A bit of explanatory dicta expands that:

Moreover, it is important to acknowledge that what is initially recognized as a cause for sheltering children is more often than not a symptom of a larger underlying problem which—by definition—must be addressed. Here, the mother’s poor decisions relating to the children prior to DCF intervention were a side effect of her own trauma-based issues. This much was evident by the time the case plan was established. Further, the evidence at trial established as much in that the psychologist transparently linked the mother’s mental health issues with her ability to parent.

C.B., the Mother, v. STATE OF FLORIDA, DEPARTMENT OF CHILDREN AND FAMILIES, 4D18-1732, 2018 WL 5733438 (Fla. 4th DCA Oct. 31, 2018).

TPRs have to be clear and convincing 

The Third District affirmed the denial of TPR and grant instead of a dependency ruling. The appeal arose out of an egregious conduct TPR petition against parents of a child with severe insulin-dependent diabetes.  The Third affirmed, noting the trial court’s finding that it had to “consider the possibility that this is a case of a lack of clear communication with the medical professionals perhaps due to a language barrier or a case of some other complex mental health issue that was left unexplored by the Department of Children and Families.”
As an interesting side-note, the trial court permitted an attorney for the hospital where the child was treated to be present during the trial. The hospital’s doctors testified in the trial. The Third held that this was error, but harmless in this case. Termination proceedings are closed to the public.

 

Due process roundup 

And finally a bunch of cases that could have easily been avoided.
The Third District reversed an adoption by foster parents in which DCF failed to give grandparents notice. The grandparents had been actively involved in the case and — it appears — were left off of the filings that would give them notice that an adoption petition would be considered by the court. Berenyi v. Florida Dep’t of Children & Families, 3D18-922, 2018 WL 5624250 (Fla. 3d DCA Oct. 31, 2018).
The Fourth District quashed a defective order for psych eval of a parent. G.M. v. Dep’t of Children & Families, 4D18-2398, 2018 WL 4909827 (Fla. 4th DCA Oct. 10, 2018).
The Third District reversed a shelter order that was entered at a hearing without the parent’s counsel present. M.K. v. Dep’t of Children & Families, 3D18-1802, 2018 WL 4761795 (Fla. 3d DCA Oct. 3, 2018). 

 

How long do dependency appeals take?

I’ve been keeping track of how long appeals take for a few months and the numbers are very stable. Half of dependency appeals I’ve reviewed took 124 days or less from filing to opinion. Most cases resolved in month 4 or 5. If your appeal goes into month 6, it’s getting long. By comparison, half of non-dependency cases took 292 days or less, with a much wider range. Only 9% of dependency appeals won, compared to 13% of appeals in general.

It’s sort of official: Florida foster care is in a contraction period

In July of this year, the Florida foster care system did something unseen since February 2014: it shrunk. For the first time in over 50 months, the year-over-year (YOY) change in out-of-home care numbers went down by 45 children. By August it was down 118, and the reports out this month for October show a contraction of 165.

While a reduction of 165 kids does not seem like much in a system with over 24,000 children in it, the slowing actually started in January 2016, when the system was growing at a staggering YOY rate of 2,540 kids.  Just the month before held a YOY increase of 2,683 — the fastest growth since data is available in 2003.

There’s no official definition of a contraction period, or any way to tell if one is real or a blip. I actually sat on this post for a few months to make sure the trend was stable — we’ve had hurricanes, elections, resignations, and other unusual events recently, so I wanted to let those pass.

In reality, though, changes from positive to negative OOHC growth (expansions to contractions) do not happen quickly and appear largely driven by intentional policies and not outside events. The expansion under Secretary Hadi in 2004-2006 lasted 19 months and ended abruptly with the Secretary’s resignation from office in December 2006. The subsequent contraction during the Butterworth and Sheldon administrations lasted 50 months and never wavered until three months into Secretary Wilkins’ term. That change of direction occurred in March 2011, right in the middle of the public hearings and media frenzy on the Barahona case, though the contraction had been slowing since 2009 and was well on the way to reversing course even without the public outrage to speed it along. (That is, media frenzy tends to reinforce — not set — existing child welfare policy positions.)

Oddly, Secretary Wilkins’ DCF changed its expansionary course by August 2012 and entered a contraction period that continued sharply until the month that he resigned in July 2013. (I’ve never heard a good explanation for that period.) The tide immediately turned back toward expansion, continuing through Interim Secretary Jacobo and halfway through Secretary Carroll’s tenure. Growth peaked in December 2015 and then precipitously fell, flattened, and then fell again. (Note that steady growth is still growth — the chart above shows change. The charts below show the actual counts.)

Even though the system as a whole tends to move in unison, not every geographic area shifts course at the same time. The current contraction has been driven largely by sharp decreases in OOHC in three circuits — 17 (Broward), 11 (Miami), and 18 (Brevard) — which shrunk a total of 670 children over the previous year in October.  The top three growth circuits — 1 (Pensacola), 7 (DeLand), 9 (Orange/Osceola) — only grew by 127 kids in all.

Decreases were clustered largely, but not exclusively, in the southern regions. Here are the changes by county.

The contractions appear driven largely by reductions in removals.  (I’ve chosen to use seasonal trends below to make the changes over time more clear. The actual numbers for removals and discharges have large but regular oscillations month to month due to seasonal effects like summer and national adoption day. The raw numbers are much harder to read.)

You can see the same decreases in removals statewide. Here’s the statewide seasonal trend graph.

Here are the seasonal trend graphs for all circuits. If you notice anything interesting or know why any of these charts look the way they do, let me know.

 

George Sheldon has passed away

According to an email by Our Kids’ Director of Communications, George Sheldon passed away last night at Mount Sinai Hospital in Miami Beach.

Our Kids reported back on August 6 that George had surgery. Their website has not been updated to reflect the news.

———- Forwarded message ———
From: Alejandro Alamo <alamoa@ourkids.us>
Date: Thu, Aug 23, 2018 at 10:19 PM
Subject: URGENT MESSAGE FROM KEITH WARD AND MICHAEL WILLIAMS
To:

It is with great sadness that we inform you of the passing of George Sheldon earlier this evening at Mount Sinai Hospital.

This is a devastating loss for all of us; and a time for us to mourn together our good friend, George.

Below, please see a statement from George’s family and friends which will be released later this evening. Tomorrow morning, we will be prepared to meet with staff and share this sad news; which will require us all to be strong as they receive this news.

In times of grief like this, it is nearly impossible to include every individual who appropriately deserves to be on this message. For those who we forgot to include, please forgive our oversight. We encourage you to distribute this message.

George H. Sheldon

George H. Sheldon, an attorney, long-time Florida public servant and president and CEO of Our Kids of Miami-Dade/Monroe, a child placement agency, died Thursday, Aug. 23, at the age of 71, his family announced.

Mr. Sheldon’s public service included appointments as Florida Deputy Attorney General, Secretary of the Florida Department of Children and Families, and Assistant Secretary at the United States Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families. He also served as a member of the Florida House of Representatives.

He died peacefully at Mt. Sinai Hospital in Miami Beach surrounded by family and friends following post operative complications due to a neck injury he sustained while exercising.

A statement by the family said: “George was beloved as a brother and uncle and we are greatly saddened by his loss and we will miss him dearly.”

Arrangements are pending.

Florida’s foster care system is racially biased, too

The ACLU of Florida did a fantastic (and super data-heavy) study of racial and ethnic disparities in the Miami criminal justice system called Unequal Treatment. It’s amazing and you should check it out. The study reminded me that DCF publishes its own statistics on race, but they are buried in the Trend Report excel graveyard. This weekend I decided to dig them up for folks to see.

All of the diagrams in this post are in tableaus here:

The analysis is based on data from May 2017 to April 2018.

The gist: DCF’s out-of-home care population is racially disparate. You start with the hypothesis that child abuse is equally likely across all racial populations and the system will treat everyone the same, therefore the OOHC population will mostly look like the general population. It doesn’t. Black kids are over-represented by 33.1% in OOHC. So-call “Other” kids (which are mostly mixed race and Asian kids) are over-represented by 37.4%. White kids, on the other hand, are under-represented by 15.5%. If you divide those numbers to get the ratio, you get approximately 1.59. This means non-white kids are 1.59x represented over white kids.

Actual vs. Expected child counts in OOHC

The differences aren’t uniform across the state. So your next hypothesis might be that whatever is causing the differences would be systemic across the state. It’s not. Racial disparity in OOHC varies greatly among the counties, with some even having a bias towards White kids. The map below shows the disparity index (i.e., the ratio of non-white to white bias in the system). Orange counties have a Non-white bias. Blue counties have a White-bias. (Counties with no statistically significant difference are shaded a neutral taupe color.)

Racial disparity in DCF out-of-home care by county

What does a White-bias county look like? Dixie County has the out-of-home care numbers most biased toward White kids (it’s the dark blue county in the map above). The county has approximately 16,000 people, skews slightly Democrat, and has about 14.5% of its population below the poverty line. It is 77% rural and approximately 9.0% Black. It is the third-whitest county in Florida. Based on the race demographics, you would naively expect about four Black kids and 48 White kids in its OOHC population. What you get is 0 Black kids and 51 White. It’s not huge, but it is statistically significant. Compare the next example to see why.

Dixie County, OOHC expected vs. actual counts

 

What does a Non-white bias county look like? Miami.  Miami is obviously huge and Latin — it has 2.7M people, and is 65% Hispanic (any race). It is 17.1% Black (non-Hispanic) and 15.4% White (non-Hispanic). About 51% of its population was foreign-born. It voted 63% Democratic in the 2016 elections.  It’s racial disparity is extreme: Non-white kids are over-represented by 140%, while White kids are under-represented by 45%. You would expected about 1,400 white kids in foster care in Miami — you get around 775. Meanwhile, you would expect 435 Black kids, and you find about 1,050. The racial disparity index is 4.25.

 

Miami-Dade County, OOHC expected vs. actual counts

 

Racial disparity generally increases the deeper into the system you get. Your next hypothesis may be that once kids are in the system they are treated by the same rules and same players, and should therefore have similar outcomes. No again.  DCF breaks its numbers down by the stage of a case: Investigation, Verification, Removal, OOHC, Spending more than 12 months in OOHC, and Discharge from care.  Racial disparity tends to rise the farther into a case you get.

The disparity index numbers go something like this. Remember that a positive number means that Non-white kids are represented that many times more than White kids. A negative number is biased towards White kids. A (*) indicates no statistically significant value.

Statewide Dixie Miami
Inv 1.93 2.11 3.78
Ver 1.73 * 2.97
Rmvl 1.6 * 3.79
OOHC 1.59 -19.03 4.25
12+ 1.65 4.44
Dschrg 1.57 * 3.62

If you look at the Statewide column, you can see that Investigations have a stronger bias than Verifications. Once a child is in care, Discharges tend to be less racially biased than Removals, which actually increases OOHC and 12+  bias over time. The pattern is on steroids for Miami where non-White kids are 4.44x more represented in the 12+ population than White kids.

What about placements? If the process itself has racial bias in it, then it may be safe to bet that placements have a similar bias. This time we assume that the breakdown of kids in a given placement type will be the same as the general OOHC numbers. It’s not. Statewide, Non-white kids are over-represented in the Runaway, Facility, and Other populations, while White kids are slightly over-represented in the Relative and Foster Care populations. The non-Relative caregiver placement did not show any statistically significant differences, possibly because it’s a smaller population and therefore requires more difference to be significant.

The expected vs. actual values for Facility placements look like this.

Breaking the data down by county makes it harder to find statistically significant values. For example, only eight counties show significant differences in their facility placement numbers.

Disparity in facility placements

 

Four counties had significant disparities in their foster home placements, and three of those were White-biased.

Disparity in foster homes

 

This isn’t to say that the other counties are perfectly balanced. When we parse the numbers down to the tiny levels of “the four kids on runaway in Dixie county” then differences have to be more pronounced to distinguish a real difference from just random noise and the techniques I’m using here aren’t very good at small numbers. This data says “we can’t see a difference with the tools we’re using,” not “there is no difference.” 

We can’t tell why from this data. This is also important: this type of observational data does not show causation or even hint at underlying causes. A lot of writing has been done on systemic racism in the child welfare system, and the expert consensus is that the disproportionalities we see here are a consequence of (1) interplay between poverty and race at the individual and community level, (2) heightened governmental surveillance and intervention in non-white communities (like the ACLU report highlights), and (3) personal bias in individual decision-makers (for example the family that only wants to adopt a child of their own race or the judge who is less likely to approve the removal of a child of their own race).

Even if these effects may be undetectable in an individual case (or, more likely, they’re one of a hundred other things going on in a case), when you multiply them across tens-of-thousands of kids and decades, you can start seeing the cumulative impact. You only have to remove one more kid than you discharge each month to grow a population over time. If racial factors increase removals and suppress discharges even marginally, that can explode into real differences that must be addressed.  For a full discussion see Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare by Dorothy Roberts.

Is my appeal taking a long time? Probably not.

Our office has been handling more appeals lately, and I am learning the rhythm of the process a little better each day. Appeals seem to go like this: (1) you lose or win at trial and feel really emotional about it, (2) you file your appeal or get noticed that someone filed one on you, and (3) you wait until you don’t feel anything at all anymore. Somewhere in there you file a brief. Then you wait some more and file other briefs. Sometimes a court reporter loses your transcripts and tells you your trial never happened. That can rouse some feelings, but they pass. Because mostly you just wait.

And while you’re waiting, everyone is constantly asking you how much longer they’ll have to wait. I haven’t yet mastered delivering earnest but vague statements of reassurance, such as “waiting is good because it means you haven’t lost yet.” I’ve heard that’s what appellate lawyers do. The people waiting don’t think waiting is good, because it means they haven’t won yet either.

I wanted a real answer to the question how much longer? I looked all over the internet. There were reports (cited below) on dependency and TPR apppeals from 2010 and 2015, but no follow-ups or ongoing data on whether those reforms were successful. There were also lengthy reports on trial court clearance statistics. There was nothing (that I could find) on the district courts. So I decided to create something.

But first, an answer to How long do I have to wait on my appeal?

Probably at least 122 days for a dependency or TPR case.

Probably at least 293 days for anything else. 

Probably a little longer if your case is in the Second DCA.

There. Quit asking.

I put it all in a tableau so you can play with it.

The details are really interesting, if you’re into numbers. I put it all into a tableau, a quick version of which should appear here:

A full version with more stats is available here. (You can also use the link if the embedded tableau above didn’t show.) The full version breaks things down by DCA, case type, wins and losses, and originating divisions. I will commit to updating it for a few months to test for stability. I can’t promise after that.

The process – also, why didn’t this already exist?

My plan was basically to dive in, coming up for air every now and then to run the same “florida district court statistics” google search to see if I missed something. If anyone wants to recreate (or check) my work, here’s how it went.

Step 1 to finding an answer was to see what information I even had access to. All of the DCAs report their opinions on their websites. Three of them use a searchable system that creates spreadsheets by month. Two publish weekly text lists that you have to go through on your own.  All of the DCAs use an online docket system that has a very convenient URL interface for going right to the case you want, unless that case is a dependency case.

Step 2 was figuring out how many cases they’re even putting out. My curiosity knows no bounds, but my actual time to spend on this was limited to a week or so.  The answer was about 200 cases per month per DCA. That wasn’t bad.  I planned to do a 10% sample of three months anyway, so 60 cases per DCA felt reasonable.

Step 3 was dealing with the fact that dependency cases are restricted from the public, so they are not available on the online docket system. Instead, I had to look them up on Westlaw and pull out their appellate case numbers and the outcomes. Fortunately, all of the DCAs use a linear case numbering system (for example 15-001 was filed earlier than 15-055 in the year 2015). Once I had case numbers and filing dates of known cases, I could interpolate the dependency filing dates to within a few days. That was good enough for these purposes.

Step 4 was pulling all of the data on 459 cases and punching it into a spreadsheet. I then crunched some probabilities, ran some ANOVAs, generated a few survival reports, and made some tableaus based on what was statistically relevant. Some people have other hobbies, I guess.

What I could tell you about appellate cases would not fill a book

The sample size of three months was enough to get a big picture number, but not enough to do a lot of fine parsing of the data. As I add months in the future, maybe things will stand out. In the meantime, here is what I can say with a reasonable amount of confidence.

More people won than I expected, but still not that many. About 11% of the cases were “wins.” I defined win very broadly to include anything that wasn’t a straight affirmance or dismissal of a petition.

The DCAs were surprisingly similar.  I was concerned that a 10% sample would result in garbage. It didn’t. All of the samples were roughly normal. The 1st, 3rd, 4th, and 5th all had numbers that were statistically indistinguishable. (A bigger dataset may eventually tease them apart, but this one didn’t.) Only the 2nd DCA stood out as statistically higher than the rest. For example, the 2nd DCA processed half of its cases in 282 days (+/- 18), while the statewide average was 208 days (+/- 11).

Below is a survival graph. Imagine the top left corner as the starting line, and each district racing to the bottom. The cumulative survival of 1.0 equals 100% of cases still open (“surviving”), and 0.4 would equal 40% of cases still open. The first to the bottom (measured in days across the bottom) is the fastest. As you can see below, four of the DCAs reach the bottom at about the same time.  The 2nd DCA stands out as statistically different, in large part because it was slower off the line and struggled with its last 20% of cases compared to other districts.

There wasn’t much variation among the types of cases, except for dependency. The average of 208 days also applied to case types, but dependency stood out as significantly faster. It took the DCAs only 121 days (+/- 2) to process half of their dependency cases. Civil and criminal were indistinguishable in this dataset, though more info later may tease them out as well. There weren’t enough probate, worker’s comp, family, or administrative appeals to say much about them individually yet.

You can see below that dependency cases resolved much faster than anything else. Civil, criminal, and family are pretty consistent in the middle. (Civil starts out slower, but eventually catches up to criminal.) The jaggy curves are probate and worker’s comp cases, which only had a few examples of each.

There was no measurable difference between writs and appeals. Again, a larger dataset may tease out a difference, but the line for writs and appeals were indistinguishable in this one.

Dependency “wins” follow the curve, but exaggerate it a little.  Again again, there aren’t that many dependency wins either. But in this dataset at least, they tended to come out faster at first, then move closer to the win curve above after a case has already taken about 150 days. This is a slight exaggeration of the full win curve above, which also flips somewhere around 150 days.

You can’t predict a win based solely on amount of time open.  Again, I want to stress that there are very few wins in general (11%) and they are scattered across the timeline. Knowing that an appeal has been open for 600 days doesn’t tell you much about its eventual outcome because the last 10% of the “loss” line accounts for far more cases than the last 10% of the “win” line.

Even though wins are a little faster or slower as a group, you can only know that after you know the outcome of the case. I ran the numbers — if you only know how many days the appeal took, you can predict a win with 5% accuracy. Adding in the DCA, appeal type, and division only gets you to 11% accuracy. That’s worse than guessing.

The takeaway

The good news is that this data supports a claim that the Court’s previous efforts (below) to speed up dependency appeals actually worked. Only time will tell if that is a stable finding or if I just happened to look at a particularly fast few months.  Stay tuned.

More info on the appellate courts

Recommendations for Dependency and Termination of Parental Rights Appeals (Florida Supreme Court – Commission on District and Trial Court Performance & Accountability – April 2016)

Dependency and Termination of Parental Rights Appeals (Florida Supreme Court – Commission on District and Trial Court Performance & Accountability – June 2014)

A Review of the Florida District Courts of Appeal Boundaries and Workload (OPPAGA – February 2017)

Examining the Work of State Courts: An analysis of 2010 state court caseloads (Court Statistics Project – December 2012)

Clearance Rate Dashboards (flcourts.org – September 2009 to present)

Florida Supreme Court: Sorry we’ve mucked up paternity law for 75 years

The Florida Supreme Court released the long-awaited opinion in Simmonds v. Perkins, holding unanimously that the world of paternity has changed in the last 75 years and courts need to catch up.

The case involves a man, Connor Perkins, who was the unquestionably biological father of a child. He raised the child with the mother, and sometimes without her, and held himself out as the father. The mother was married at the time of the child’s birth and later objected to Mr. Perkins’ assertion of paternity based on that marriage. The husband was not involved with the child at all.

The trial court ruled that it was constrained by case law to dismiss Mr. Perkin’s petition for paternity because of the strong presumption of legitimacy of children born into intact marriages. Mr. Perkins appealed. The Fourth District Court of Appeal reversed, saying that case law grants bio-fathers standing when “common sense and reason are outraged” by applying the presumption of paternity.

The mother then appealed to the Florida Supreme Court on the basis that the district courts had developed conflicting rules on this situation. The Florida Supreme Court agreed that there was a conflict, but resolved it in favor of the Fourth District’s reasoning that there should be no absolute bar to a biological father asserting paternity over a child.

The opinion walks through the history of paternity rulings, pointing out the ways that life is very different today. In the old days only husbands could challenge paternity because you could only disprove (not prove) paternity by proving lack of access. Now we have DNA tests. The opinion essentially apologizes for years of tortured paternity rulings, including the “outraged” standard cited by the Fourth District, finding this language “unhelpful and unnecessary.” The opinion also retreats from cases that suggest that legitimacy is the touchstone in these cases.

Instead, the standard is this: a “biological father” who has “manifested a substantial and continuing concern” for the welfare of a child, can overcome the presumption of paternity when there is a “clear and compelling reason” based “primarily on the child’s best interests.” This must be done by clear and convincing evidence.

The opinion is careful to (foot)note that, despite adopting a clear and convincing standard akin to a termination of parental rights, it is not saying that the biological father has to prove abuse, abandonment, or neglect by the mother’s husband in order to prevail. Likewise, the opinion notes that even evidence that the husband has maltreated the child “might not be dispositive.”

Requiring a ruling based “primarily on the child’s best interests” does not mean exclusively, however. The opinion ends by noting that the balance between competing interests — including the married couple’s right to privacy and the due process rights of everyone involved — is best weighed by “a careful and conscientious fact finder familiar with the particularities of a given case” and not by blanket rules from case law. Proving “best interests” seems more reachable than proving something “outrages common sense.” But given the notoriously ill-defined legal contours of the “best interests” of a child, the Court may have gone from confused standards to none at all.

A word to anyone considering caging a child in Florida

I am very worried that the Trump administration’s asinine efforts to defend the indefensible are going to result in normalizing caging. I can imagine some misguided person, standing in partisan solidarity, caging their own child to prove it’s no big deal. I can imagine some group home worker seeing caging on the news and thinking it is a far more streamlined method of behavioral control than having to actually build positive relationships with kids.

Therefore, I would like to point out that it is aggravated child abuse under Florida law to willfully and unlawfully cage a child. § 827.03, Fla. Stat. Ann.

It is not “summer camp.” It is traumatic, dehumanizing, and illegal.

This couple was arrested for caging their daughter in a playhouse.

This woman caged her autistic daughter in a crate on a bed.

This woman caged her disabled son by locking him in a bare room with a urine bucket and the windows nailed shut.

It is very serious. Subjecting any child, including a child who is not yours, to aggravated child abuse (such as caging) is grounds to terminate your rights to your own children.  § 39.806(1)(g), Fla. Stat. Ann. And you do not get a case plan under that ground — “[r]easonable efforts to preserve and reunify families are not required if a court of competent jurisdiction has determined that any of the events described in paragraphs (1)(b)-(d) or paragraphs (1)(f)-(m) have occurred.” Id. If you cage someone else’s child, you can lose your own. That seems fair.

Caging a child is categorically different from sending them to their room (for parents) or securely detaining them (for the state). If you were thinking of caging your child in Florida, just don’t. If your boss tells you to cage a child in Florida, I suggest you ask them to show you the law that specifically allows it before you comply. I do not know of any.

If you know any child who has been caged, please call the Florida child abuse hotline at 1-800-96ABUSE.

We oppose family separation at the border (and everywhere else)

Our clinic has joined with 540 organizations across the country to oppose the forced separation of children and parents at the border. There is no legal, policy-based, or moral justification for harming children in an attempt to deter their parents from seeking asylum or entry into the United States. The Administration has options to keep children and families together and has declined to use them. The forcible, extended separation of children from their parents for any reason unrelated to the child’s immediate safety is inhumane.

Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights Commends Child Welfare Experts’ Overwhelming Opposition to Parent-Child Separation.

Read the letter here.

A belated Foster Care Month, Tampa is still on fire, and some actually interesting appellate cases.

Here’s your periodic child welfare update. If you have any tips or suggestions, please let us know at rlatham@law.miami.edu.

What’s going on in child welfare world

Moving and shaking. Judge Ariana Fajardo Orshan has been nominated for US Attorney in Miami. News reports have called her a “divorce court judge” and a “family court judge.” Until recently, however, she was a dependency court judge in Unified Family Court.

International relations. International adoptions are down, largely due to changes in policy by Russia, China, and the DRC. A report by Axios shows that domestic adoptions are back  to the levels they were before the financial crisis. Probably because the cost of living is one factor that determines foster care volunteer rates.

Hallmark doesn’t have cards for “I’m not legally allowed to know where my family is.” In honor of foster care month (which I guess was last month), here’s an essay that complicates the standard marketing messages a whole lot: Black Children and Foster Care: On surviving trauma of a system that doesn’t care about keeping families together. And meanwhile another foster child has died in custody.

Timeout. Hillsborough County’s foster care agencies got “blasted” by peer and OIG reports, and DCF is cracking down by making them write their own Corrective Action Plan and submit it in a month or so. That’s some tough justice. And if you think one peer report is “getting blasted,” Miami has two or three and can’t go out to play until it says it’s sorry.

Not it. Manatee County is trying not to be next, even though it is running a $3.8 million shortfall.

RSVP. A Hillsborough judge laid into case managers who do not appear in court to report on their cases. Be careful, judges — if case managers are sitting in your courtroom waiting on a hearing, they’re not out in the community getting kids to appointments and meeting with parents about their issues. Unless court calendars are very predictable or you set up a way for case managers to work in the courthouse itself, having them sit all day in a waiting room is likely not an efficient use of their time.

Everything is terrible. ProPublica reports that foster kids in Illinois are being held in psychiatric facilities longer than they legally should. So basically everything is terrible everywhere.

Mixed feelings martial arts. Justin Willis, an MMA fighter, explains how he learned to fight in foster care when staff encouraged pit fights among the kids.  He now aims to raise awareness about violence and conditions in foster care.  Says Willis, “If you take these kids out of their homes, you have to offer them something better. And what I received was not better. I wouldn’t say it was worse, but it created what I am today and that’s a monster when it comes to getting in that cage.”

Ok, not everything is terrible.  A trans kid got adopted in a costume party themed ceremony and it is awesome.

And now for some court opinions…

Sometimes you just lose. The Fifth DCA ruled that the failure of a trial court to make specific findings when denying a TPR under Chapter 63 is not necessarily reversible error. You don’t get to make the judge work late just so you can quibble over findings.  D.M. v. M.D., 5D18-473, 2018 WL 2448618 (Fla. 5th DCA May 30, 2018).

Daddy’s maybe? The Fourth DCA held that a biological father could not challenge an adoption more than one year after it was finalized. That’s normal, and where the opinion could have stopped. It also held, however, that he was not the legal father because the children were born during the mother’s intact marriage with another man, even though the trial court gave custody of the children to the biological father for a period of time as a non-relative. To assert his rights, the DCA ruled the father had to file a paternity action, a requirement I’m confident he probably did not anticipate given he had custody of his own kids. J.G. v. State, 4D18-0090, 2018 WL 2434817 (Fla. 4th DCA May 30, 2018).

So apparently there is a best interest of defaults. The Fourth DCA declined to set aside the default of a mother who was not personally served with a dependency petition, which was only filed the day before her arraignment. The court held that her appearance at the shelter hearing, where she was advised of her arraignment hearing date, obviated the need for personal service thereafter.  C.J.L-M. v. Dep’t of Children & Families, 4D18-836, 2018 WL 2716717 (Fla. 4th DCA June 6, 2018). I note that DCF conceded error but the GAL Program did not. I understand that, in general, needless delays can be bad. But I’m curious how the Program could determine that it was in this child’s best interest for their parent to be defaulted on a one-day old petition before any discovery had likely even been done. I mean, what if the allegations in the petition were actually wrong and the child is now in care for no reason?

Because sometimes DCF gets it wrong. The Third DCA took the rare step of reversing a dependency that was based solely on (1) the mother leaving her child with a relative who had previously been through the system and had her own children successfully reunified, and (2) the discharge of a firearm in the presence of the child. The DCA held that neither situation constituted risk of harm to the child without additional facts.  C.H. v. Dep’t of Children & Families, 3D18-291, 2018 WL 2422891 (Fla. 3d DCA May 30, 2018). Good thing she didn’t default.

A complete waste of everyone’s time. The Second DCA was put in the common position of reversing a change of goal and TOS to permanent guardianship for lack of proper notice. I get that you (DCF, GAL, child’s attorney, whoever), hint and grouse about changing the goal in hearings and hallways all the time. But threats are not notice. File the paperwork and set it out a week like you’re supposed to. In Interest of T.C., 239 So. 3d 1266, 1267 (Fla. 2d DCA 2018).

Speaking of wasting time. The Third DCA punted on the question of whether the Miami Herald can get access to an audio recording of a court hearing that its reporters were not present at. The opinion dismissed the appellate challenges from the family and child as premature because the trial court had not yet reviewed the record and determined what, if anything, the Herald would have access to. C.H.-C. v. Miami Herald Publ’g Co., 3D18-504, 2018 WL 2708374 (Fla. 3d DCA June 6, 2018). UPDATE: The Herald is reporting that the trial judge has reviewed the audio and ordered it released today. No word yet on whether the family will appeal.