Legal Guide On Handling Melbourne, Florida Dependency Cases

Upset little boyFew things can be as nerve wracking as learning that you are under investigation by Florida’s Department of Children and Families (DCF). Knowing that you are being accused of abusing or neglecting your child can feel as if you are being charged with a crime. While these matters are not criminal in nature, the truth of the matter is that being accused of abuse or neglect can carry serious consequences. These consequences can include your children being taken away on a temporary basis, if not permanently. It can even mean, under certain circumstances, the termination of one’s parental rights. Fortunately, you have rights which can be protected as the process moves forward. It is common for us to receive calls from parents who do not know how to proceed when a report has been made against them. We are, therefore, providing this legal guide to provide information which is meant to help one better understand their situation. It is also our goal to provide information which will assist with the selection of a Melbourne dependency lawyer. If you or a loved one are in need of assistance then contact our office today to speak with an attorney.

This guide is meant to provide an overview of Florida law as to the handling of abuse and neglect proceedings. This guide is not meant to serve as legal advice or as a substitute for seeking counsel. If you find yourself facing allegations then it is crucial that you seek representation immediately. Below is a table of contents regarding the topics discussed in this gude. Clicking “jump to section” will take you to a particular topic. The issues which we will address include:

  1. An overview of Florida law on the abuse & neglect of children (jump to section)
    • An overview of Florida’s statutory framework regarding abuse & neglect (jump to section)
    • What is, and what is not, typically considered, “abuse and/or neglect” (jump to section)
    • The role of the Department of Children & Families (DCF) (jump to section)
    • How dependency cases are reported and opened (jump to section)
  2. What happens when a parent or mandatory reporter contacts DCF (jump to section)
  3. The process after a formal dependency case has been filed (jump to section)
    • Dependency proceedings are considered “civil” in nature (jump to section)
    • Defending one’s self in abuse & neglect proceedings (jump to section)
    • Representing the rights of non-custodial parties during dependency proceedings (jump to section)
    • Why child custody proceedings will be “on hold” during this time (jump to section)
  4. The need for representation during this process (jump to section)

An overview of Florida law regarding the abuse or neglect of children

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Florida is like other states in the country in that it will take action when a parent is found to be abusing, neglecting, or has abandoned their child. It is important to understand that abuse & neglect proceedings (otherwise known as “dependency proceedings”) are separate from any criminal charges which a parent may face. While any criminal charges will be focused on punishing the parent, dependency proceedings will be focused solely on protecting the wellbeing of the minor. It is also important to understand that terms such as “abuse,” “neglect,” and “abandonment” have specific legal meanings within the context of a dependency case. While opinion’s may vary as to what constitutes “good parenting,” a case will not be brought against a parent unless it falls within these specific legal parameters. To understand what actually constitutes abuse or neglect, it is important to understand our state’s statutes and to look at specific examples. We will do each of these in turn.

Florida’s statutes regarding the abuse, neglect, or abandonment of children

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Florida’s laws regarding the protection of children are embodied in Chapter 39 of the Florida Statutes. Specifically, a parent will be found to have “abused” a child if they intentionally acted, or threatened an act, in a way which causes the child’s physical or mental health to be meaningfully damaged[1]. Such actions can include physical abuse, sexual abuse, or conduct that is mental in nature. A parent will be found to have “abandoned” or “neglected” a child if they have not significantly contributed to the care or maintenance of the child or if they have failed to maintain a meaningful relationship with the child[2]. A child may be taken into custody by law enforcement, or a DCF officer, if they believe the child is in imminent danger or has already been subjected to such treatment[3]. If law enforcement takes a child into custody then they must immediately release the child to either a parent or guardian or a representative of DCF. If there is not a family member whom the Department believes that the child can be immediately placed with, then the child will be placed in a shelter while the matter proceeds through the legal system.

It is important to understand that terms such as “abuse” or “harm” to a child are used in a more literal sense in terms of these statutes. What parents sometimes refer to as “abuse” by their counterpart is often simply a disagreement over parenting styles. Sending a child to be without dinner due to legitimate misbehavior, grounding a child, or other such parenting techniques will generally not be considered “abuse” by the legal system. Moreover, it is important to understand that corporal punishment, such as spanking a child, is not “abuse” in and of itself. Unfortunately, parents often accuse their counterparts of abuse or neglect simply because they disagree with parenting choices. Such disagreement will not form the basis of a legal proceeding.

Examples of what will, and what will not, be considered child abuse or neglect in Melbourne or other Florida areas

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Child holding father's armAbuse, neglect, or abandonment can take many forms in Florida. The number of examples of each could fill a lengthy book. For the purposes of illustration, however, we will provide a few brief instances of conduct which may or may not be considered to violate the rights of a child.

Suppose, for example, that a Melbourne child of eight years lives with his mother during the week and his father on the weekends. The child acted out while playing at a friend’s house during the father’s weekend time. The child’s behavior includes hitting his or her friend with dangerous objects and other conduct which could have seriously injured the friend. The father punishes the child with a spanking (which leaves no marks), requires the child to sit in their room for the remainder of the night (not for the whole weekend), and that also requires that they go to bed without dinner for one night. The mother of the child disagrees with this punishment and would have had the child spend a brief time in “time out” and had them talk about what made them so upset. The mother claims that the father is engaging in child abuse. While their parenting styles are clearly different, the fact of the matter is that the father’s conduct would likely not trigger Florida’s statutes regarding the mistreatment of children. This is not to say that such differences in styles would be irrelevant in child custody proceedings – they may well be. They would not, however, be likely to trigger a DCF case.

Now suppose that the father’s spankings had left visible bruises on the child. Also, suppose that the child was not permitted to leave their room, and was not fed, for the entire weekend. Such conduct would likely be considered both abuse and neglect. The more likely it appears that such punishment is recurring, and not an isolated event, then the more likely DCF would be to take action in such a matter. It is important to understand, however, that how the Court will rule in any given situation is always going to depend on the specific facts of the case. This is why it is important that you speak with a family law lawyer before contacting DCF.

The role of DCF in Melbourne, Florida child dependency cases

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The Department of Children and Families (DCF) is charged with investigating claims of abuse or neglect by parents in Melbourne and other Florida areas. If a report is made to DCF, either through the reporting hotline or through some other mechanism, then the Department may conduct an immediate investigation if it believes the child is in imminent and immediate danger[4]. If the child is not in imminent danger, but there is still reason for concern, then the Department will conduct an investigation but will not do so on an absolute immediate basis. An investigation will typically take one of three tracks. First, allegations may be found to be “unsubstantiated,” meaning that the Department has no reason to move forward and will close the case. Second, the Department may find that there is reason for concern but may work with the parent to correct any issues without opening formal dependency proceedings. Finally, the Department may find that the situation justifies moving forward with the formal process.

It is important to understand that DCF is not an emergency response unit. The Department’s caseworkers do not carry guns and do not place people under arrest. If you believe that your child is in danger to an extent that the threat is immediate and imminent, then the correct course of action is to contact law enforcement. Also, if you are a Melbourne parent and believe that your counterpart’s behavior may justify contacting DCF, it is important that you first speak with a lawyer. If you make a claim that is later found to be unsubstantiated, then it may harm your custodial rights in subsequent child custody proceedings. It is generally recommended that you contact an attorney before contacting the DCF.

How child dependency cases are opened in Melbourne, Florida

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In Melbourne, and other Florida jurisdictions, most child dependency cases begin with a call to the child abuse hotline. Reports can also be made directly to DCF. Reports are often made by the parent of a child, claiming that their counterpart is abusing or neglecting the child. It is important to remember, however, that other “mandatory reporters” may also make a report. These individuals can include school teachers, therapists, and other health professionals who are required by law to make a report if they believe abuse or neglect is occurring. Once this report is made then the investigation will proceed and, depending on the circumstances, the matter will either be unsubstantiated, the matter will be resolved without having to file a dependency case, or the matter will move on to legal proceedings. How each case will proceed will depend on the specifics of the situation. We cannot stress enough the fact that you should contact a lawyer immediately if you learn you are under investigation by DCF.

What happens when a Melbourne, Florida parent or other party contacts DCF to report abuse, neglect, or abandonment

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As mentioned above, there are different possible outcomes which can occur when a report has been made to Florida’s Department of Children and Families. In this section of our guide we will provide more detail as to how each of those possible outcomes may come to be. Before doing so, we will also provide a more in depth discussion of the initial process which a parent will face after DCF has been contacted. We will also discuss the importance of immediately contacting an attorney if you have been notified that there is an active investigation against you. If you need assistance then contact us today to speak with a Melbourne lawyer.

Melbourne parents should know what to expect from the initial stages of a DCF investigation & should immediately contact a lawyer

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officer interviewing witnessA DCF investigation will be opened in the state of Florida upon receipt of a credible allegation of abuse, abandonment, or neglect. These allegations are brought to DCF in one of three ways. First, calls to the child abuse hotline are referred to DCF. Second, a reporting party may make a report directly to the Department. Third, if law enforcement responds to an emergency situation and finds evidence of abuse or neglect then they may remove the child from the home, under which case they will immediately turn the child over to DCF. The severity of the situation will determine whether the child will be removed from the home immediately (which is more common in cases involving criminal activity, physical abuse, etc.) or whether the child should remain with the accused parent while the investigation proceeds.

If a report is made to DCF that is not an imminent emergency then the parent will be notified that an investigation is being initiated against them and of their rights in the matter[5]. A caseworker will conduct their investigation and, if they deem it necessary, remove the child from the home. A shelter hearing will be held shortly thereafter. At this hearing, the Court will determine whether the child may continue to reside with the parent while the matter proceeds, whether the child should be placed with another party or relative (typically the other parent or a grandparent), or whether the child should be placed in a protective shelter. If a report is placed to DCF, and the matter is an immediate emergency, then there is a greater chance that the child will be removed from the home immediately. The matter would then proceed to the shelter hearing just described.

It is important that parents cooperate with the DCF worker during their investigation. As we discussed in this article on what happens during DCF proceedings, failing to cooperate with the caseworker can make it look as if one has something to hide. This may very well result in the investigation lasting longer than necessary. Moreover, not being transparent can result in the caseworker “digging deeper” than they would otherwise. It goes almost without saying that a lengthier investigation, in which the investigator is motivated to turn over more stones, is more likely to result in additional allegations against the parent. Retaining counsel can help to ensure that your rights are protected while you are dealing with the caseworker.

We cannot stress enough the fact that Melbourne parents should contact a family law attorney immediately if they learn they are under investigation by DCF. Experienced counsel will help you to understand what you should expect as the case moves forward. Also, and importantly, your lawyer will help you to present information to the caseworker in a way that tells your side of the story. This will help to ensure that the caseworker does not take information out of context and unnecessarily interpret the facts in a negative light. In a non-emergency situation, in which the child is not immediately removed from the home, it is possible that you may be able to resolve the issue and close the investigation without formal proceedings. Having an attorney to assist you increases the chances of this type of outcome.

Melbourne parents face three potential outcomes during the initial stages of a DCF investigation

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There are three potential outcomes which a Melbourne parent faces after a report of abuse or neglect has been made to the Department of Children and Families. The first, and most desireable of these outcomes, is that the matter will be closed and that the accusations be considered “unsubstantiated.” The second possibility is that the DCF caseworker will find an issue of concern while not believing the matter serious enough to open formal dependency proceedings. In this type of instance the caseworker may work with the parent to resolve the issues. The third and final possibility is that formal dependency proceedings be opened. We will discuss each of these possibilities in turn.

There are a number of reasons why individuals make false or unfounded claims to the Department of Children and Families. As we discussed in our article on dealing with false DCF allegations, these reasons can include another parent trying to gain an advantage in child custody proceedings, someone simply attempting to “get even” with an ex, etc. Also, there may be instances in which someone feels a DCF complaint is warranted simply because their co-parent handles a situation differently than they would. The fact of the matter is that a DCF caseworker will not automatically believe that one is a bad parent simply because someone has made a report against them. If the caseworker conducts their investigation, and believes that there are no issues that rise to the level of true abuse, neglect, or abandonment, then the caseworker will close the case and designate the allegations as “unsubstantiated.” This will effectively end the matter.

There are also instances in which a caseworker may find legitimate issues of concern but the circumstances do not justify removing the child from the home. These may include instances of the child being left unsupervised, problems involving drug use by someone other than a parent, and other such situations. In such instances it can be possible for a caseworker to reach a resolution with the parent to resolve the matter. Once the parent satisfies the caseworker that the matter is taken care of then the caseworker will close the case. It is important to understand that such a situation can result in the parent having to deal with the caseworker for a prolonged period of time. Doing so, however, is far more preferable than is going through a formal dependency proceeding. The possibility of resolving the matter without a formal proceeding is best explained by way of example.

Suppose a mother has primary custody of her child. The mom begins dating a new boyfriend who, unfortunately, has a severe drug problem. The individual spends significant time at the mother’s house, in the presence of the child, and is regularly getting high on heroin while there. At school, the child makes comments to her teacher about the situation and, as a mandatory reporter, the teacher reports the matter to DCF. A DCF caseworker investigates the situation and finds that heroin use, by the boyfriend, is regularly occurring in the home. Furthermore, drug dealers are coming to the house to deliver the boyfriend his heroin. The mother is forthcoming about the situation. She ensures the caseworker that she is ending the relationship and that the individual will no longer be near the child or otherwise be a part of anyone’s life. The caseworker is satisfied that this will resolve the situation. After a few months of drop in visits, and of checking with neighbors, the caseworker is satisfied that the mother has in fact ended the relationship and that the issue is resolved. The caseworker would likely then close the case.

While the foregoing example shows an instance in which the matter was resolved and closed without formal proceedings, it is important to note that how the Court will rule in any given instance will always depend on the specifics of the situation.

The third possible outcome during the initial states of a DCF investigation is that the caseworker will open formal dependency proceedings against the parent. This can happen immediately if the caseworker receives a serious report and the situation justifies an immediate removal of the child. Under such situations the child will immediately be taken into protective custody and a shelter hearing will be held. The case will then proceed as discussed later in this guide. Alternatively, there may be instances in which a situation does not justify immediate removal but, as time goes on, it becomes clear that removal is warranted and that a case should be opened. If, under the hypothetical circumstance above, the mother had continued to have the drug-using boyfriend in the home, then the caseworker may well have removed the child from the home and opened a formal proceeding.

The situations in which a DCF worker may open formal dependency proceedings are broad and numerous. In short, a parent should be aware that a case will be opened if the child is in danger and the parent is not rectifying the situation. Melbourne area parents should contact counsel immediately in order to help ensure that they do not reach such a stage.

The process which Melbourne, Florida parents face after a dependency proceeding has been opened against them

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The process in formal Florida dependency proceedings can be lengthy. How a case proceeds will vary depending on the facts of the situation. With that said, there are steps to the process that will occur in most cases and Melbourne parents need to know what to expect from those steps as the matter moves forward. This section of our guide, therefore, will discuss what often happens from the beginning of a dependency case through its completion. We cannot stress enough the fact that the handling of such matters are highly complicated, involve complex legal standards, and should not be taken lightly. If you or a loved one are facing such a situation then contact our office today to speak with a dependency lawyer.

Florida dependency proceedings are considered “civil” in nature but can seem more like a criminal proceeding

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As mentioned previously in this guide, dependency proceedings are considered civil matters and are not considered “criminal” cases. The focus of the proceedings, again, is to protect the child and not to punish the parent. With that said, the process one faces resembles a criminal proceeding. The following is the typical order of events in matters where the child has been removed from the home:

  • A shelter hearing is held – this occurs within twenty-four hours of the time at which the child was removed from the home
  • An arraignment is held at which the parent admits or denies the allegations against them
  • “Judicial review” hearings will be held to determine whether the current sheltering arrangement is serving the best interests of the child, whether parents are complying with restrictions that have been put in place, etc.
  • A trial will be held, assuming that no resolution was reached

Depending on the outcome of the trial, there may be additional hearings and proceedings. If the court rules in favor of DCF, and removes the child from the home, a Case Plan Conference will be held at which a plan for the child’s future wellbeing is developed. Other hearings will be held to determine if the restrictions against the parent should be made permanent and, in extreme cases, a trial may be held to determine if the parent’s parental rights should be terminated.

The first two of the aforementioned hearings will happen very quickly. The shelter hearing will be held immediately after a child is removed from the home. The purpose of this hearing is to determine whether the child should stay with the parent while the matter proceeds or if they should be placed in an alternative situation. The Court’s first preference will always be to place the child with the other parent. If the other parent is not a suitable option, then the Court will look to other relatives. If such relatives are also not good options then the Court will utilize foster care. The arraignment will be held shortly after the shelter review. At the arraignment, the accused parent will admit or deny the allegations against them. The parent may enter a request that “discovery” be provided. Discovery is evidence which DCF intends to use in the proceedings and which is required to be disclosed to the parent. A trial date will be set following the arraignment.

Judicial review hearings will then be held at statutorily mandated intervals, if not more frequently. The purpose of these reviews is to ensure that the child’s current housing situation is meeting their needs. Also, the purpose of these hearings will be to ensure that the rights of all sides are being maintained as the process is moving forward. The Court will also use these review hearings to consider any other matters which the sides may raise (such as requests for continuances, etc.).

The final step in determining whether the allegations have merit is the trial. This process will resemble trials as shown in popular media, except for the fact that there will be no jury. In dependency proceedings, the Judge also serves as the finder of fact in a bench trial. DCF will begin by presenting its evidence and witnesses. The parent will then present his or her evidence and witnesses. DCF will then have an opportunity to present “rebuttal” evidence. This is not an opportunity for DCF to raise new arguments; rebuttal may only be used to directly respond to claims made by the parent. Each side will then make a closing argument and the Judge will issue his or her decision. If the parent is found to have committed abuse, neglect, or to have abandoned the child, then the subsequent court processes mentioned above will be scheduled for a later date.

Defending one’s self in Florida abuse & neglect proceedings

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Empty courtroomA parent will be given every opportunity to defend themselves during abuse and neglect proceedings. A parent will also be guaranteed representation. While one is always free to hire any attorney they wish, they will also be appointed a lawyer if they cannot afford one. Also, as noted above, a parent is entitled to receive evidence through the discovery process. At trial, the parent will have the opportunity to present evidence and witnesses as part of their defense. They will also have the opportunity to cross-examine any witnesses and challenge evidence presented by DCF. It is important to understand that the handling of such matters is complicated and it is strongly recommended you retain an experienced attorney to assist you.

Two key components of defending one’s self is the building of a case to present and the actual presentation of evidence. We will discuss each of these in turn.

Once a not-guilty plea has been entered, the parent will be free to begin building a case on their behalf. The type of evidence a parent wishes to present will depend on the specifics of the matter. Building evidence, however, will begin by the receiving of discovery from DCF. The parent’s counsel will then begin accumulating records, interviewing witnesses, and preparing other information which will show that the parent can be trusted to care for their child. This building of evidence is vital to one’s defense as, contrary to what is seen in popular media, trials are not won with “surprise” evidence that is only uncovered at the last minute. Instead, cases are won through the methodical accumulation of evidence. Experienced counsel, who is familiar with investigating such matters, can assist you in building a case.

Attending a trial is also a complicated process. The Judge will be required to follow the rules of procedure and the rules of evidence. This means that if evidence is not properly presented then it will not be admitted and, as a result, will not be considered by the Judge. Likewise, if witnesses are not questioned in accordance with the rules then important testimony may be disallowed. By retaining an attorney who is experienced in conducting trials, a parent helps to ensure that their evidence is fully considered by the Judge.

The rights of non-custodial parents or other parties in Melbourne, Florida dependency proceedings

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Happy familyOne of the most important issues to deal with in any dependency case is the immediate care of the child. Under Florida law, DCF must immediately begin finding and identifying family members who are able to care for the child in the event that he or she is removed from the home[6]. The Court’s first preference is always to place the child with the non-custodial parent or another family member; Florida law requires that a child only be placed away from family members if it is shown that no family member can provide a suitable environment[7]. The non-custodial parent, or other relatives, should not assume that the child will automatically be placed with them however. A party wishing to care for the child must be prepared to present that they can provide an adequate situation for the youth. Also, they must be prepared to deal with the accused parent as the case moves forward. We will discuss each of these issues in turn.

A parent or other party wishing to care for the child must be prepared to show that they have adequate housing, that they can properly feed the child, and that they can transport the child when necessary. Furthermore, the party must be prepared to show that they are able and willing to participate in any developed care plans and that they will ensure that the child fulfills mandated visitations with the accused parent. Finally, the parent must be prepared to address any concerns regarding their background, that the Court may have, before the child is placed with them. Such concerns may involve past drug use, past criminal history, any lack of a prior meaningful relationship with the child, etc. It is not enough to simply tell the Judge that one’s care will be satisfactory – they must be prepared to present evidence demonstrating that it will be.

An experienced attorney can help non-custodial parents or other parties with making a case that the child should be placed in their care. This can include presenting evidence of the prior relationship between the party and the child. It can also include presenting proof of adequate housing. This can include a lease or land title, images of the residence, sworn statements from friends and/or community members, etc. If an individual has a past history of drug use, or other issue that may cause the Court concern, then their lawyer can present evidence which addresses such concerns. Such evidence can include proof of long-term employment, bank statements, and other evidence which shows stability and a clean lifestyle. The type of evidence which should be presented will depend on the facts of the case and counsel will be of assistance in determining what is relevant.

The party charged with caring for the child will also have to handle visitations with the accused parent. Except for matters involving extreme circumstances, the accused parent will typically have visitation with the child while the case proceeds. Quite often, this visitation will take place in a supervised setting or, at a minimum, in a public place. It will be the role of the party caring for the child to ensure that the child attends the visitation, that things go as smoothly as possible, and that the offending parent is not disparaged in the presence of the child. If the accused parent engages in inappropriate conduct during the visitation then it will be the responsibility of the caring party to report such conduct immediately.

Any Florida child custody proceedings will be paused while a dependency case is pending

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It is common for the non-custodial parent to file a Petition to change child custody once a dependency case is brought against their counterpart. The Family Court, however, will not consider the Petition until after the dependency case has been concluded. There are multiple reasons for this. The most straightforward explanation for this practice, however, is that the Family Court cannot make a determination as to what is in the best interests of the child until it has all of the information from the dependency case. Also, Florida, like other states, does not wish for multiple judges to make rulings at the same time in regards to the wellbeing of a child. To put it simply, it is important to understand that a Family Court Judge will not take action in a case while a dependency matter is pending.

Melbourne parents should immediately retain a lawyer if they are facing abuse or neglect allegations

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It is the unfortunate truth that some parents do not realize the serious nature of abuse and neglect allegations until they are in the middle of court proceedings. This is due to a variety of reasons, one of which is the belief that caring for one’s child is a “private matter.” The truth of the matter is that the longer you wait to retain counsel then the worse you potentially make the situation. It may be that a matter that would be quickly closed then turns into a lengthy investigation. It may also be that a matter that would not have proceeded to a dependency hearing results in charges being filed by DCF. Whatever the situation, if you are informed that you are under investigation, or if a case has already been filed, it is crucial that you take immediate steps to protect both your interests and those of your child.

Our Melbourne dependency attorneys assist Florida residents who have been accused of abuse, neglect, or the abandonment of their children. We understand the extreme nature of such allegations. Our office believes that everyone is entitled to aggressive representation and respect. Contact us today to speak with a lawyer. Our office also services clients in the Brevard County cities of Titusville, Cocoa, Palm Bay, Grant, Valkaria, and Rockledge, as well as in the Indian River County areas of Fellsmere, Sebastian, Vero Beach, Indian River Shores, and Orchid.

[1] Fla. Stat. 39.01(2)

[2] Fla. Stat. 39.01(1)

[3] Fla. Stat. 39.401

[4] Fla. Sta. 39.301(1)(a)

[5] Fla. Stat. 39.301(5)(a)

[6] Fla. Stat. 39.4015(3)

[7] Fla. Stat. 39.402(1)(C)