The Third DCA issued a reminder yesterday that dependency court judges can’t do just anything in the best interest of a child. The case involved DCF’s obligation to provide financial support to people who take custody of children they’re related to. This helps support kids in their families, instead of placing them out with strangers. This is where it gets technical. There is a statute instructing DCF to come up with rules on how it will pay out the funds. DCF created the rules, which limited the funds to certain classes of relatives. The dependency judge did not believe DCF’s rules were consistent with the statute–specifically they were too narrow in who they considered eligible–and the judge held that the the rules were invalid.
The Third DCA says that trial judges can do this, but only if the agency’s rule is clearly based on no statute at all. This DCF rule was based on a statute. Therefore the proper course of action, says the Third, would be for the relative to file an administrative complaint through the Administrative Procedures Act, not file a motion for review in the dependency court. With an APA complaint, you get a hearing in front of a hearing officer who is an employee of DCF, and the resolution can take several months. With the judge, you obviously get a much faster order.
There’s an interesting side story to the disagreement about the scope of the caregiver program. Last legislative session this judge and this issue (may have even been this case) were part of the inspiration for the Legislature to expand the Relative Caregiver Program to a wider class of relatives and even nonrelatives who are caring for a dependent child. Therefore no families were harmed in the issuance of this reversal.